Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What is a beta reader and why do you need one?

A couple of months ago, a new writer friend asked if I would “beta read” a couple of short stories for her. I said yes then immediately looked up the term.

Turns out, I have been a beta reader for years, but just didn’t know it. Much like a pre-reader or a critiquer, a beta reader is an unpaid, non-professional reader who reads a finished manuscript, usually fiction, in an effort to improve elements such as grammar and spelling, and to offer suggestions to improve the story.

According to Wikipedia, the beta reader is not exactly a proofreader or editor, but can serve in that capacity. They typically search writing elements like plot holes, problems with continuity, characterization, believability, and even fact-checking. They give feedback to the author that can help her improve her story before seeking publication.

The term was adapted from the software industry, where programmers release a “beta” version of a new program to people who will test it. To a writer, the first draft would be the alpha version and the final draft would be the beta version. A beta reader will test out your manuscript (by reading it) and give you feedback about the “bugs” so you can make improvements.

Using beta readers is a wise step if you are planning to self-publish but also helps you polish up your manuscript before seeking an agent or publisher … but is it a step you need to take as an author?
Don’t imagine for a moment that seeking a beta reader is an acknowledgement that you don’t know what you’re doing as a writer. Quite the opposite. It’s the professional way to go. ~ Belinda Pollard
Searching online I discovered Tips from Belinda Pollard, an Australian author and owner of Small Blue Dog Publishing. According to her profile, she is a former journalist, has been a specialist book editor for 17 years, and a publishing consultant for 10. She works among trade publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishers, navigating the brave new world of ebooks, print-on-demand, and global distribution for all. She calls herself a “book mid-wife,” helping authors “get the books that are in them out into the world.”

Belinda has written a series of blogs about beta readers. Each contains excellent advice and offers insights and suggestions for your success. I recommend reading all three.

The following is a sample of her advice from “What is a beta reader and why do I need one?”

Why do I need a beta reader?
The fact is, we spend so much time on our own manuscripts, that we can’t see them objectively — no matter how diligently we self-edit. These can be some of the outcomes:
  • We create anticipation or an expectation early in the book, but forget to deliver on it.
  • We describe events in a way that is clear to us but not clear to a reader who can’t see the pictures in our head.
  • We leave out vital steps in an explanation and don’t realise it, because we know what we mean.
The characters in our books (whether fictional, or real as in a memoir or non-fiction anecdote) are not convincing, because we know them so well we don’t realise we haven’t developed them thoroughly on paper.
Is it the same as a critique group?
No. Some people are in critique groups of writers who give each other feedback in a group setting. Some people love critique groups and others hate them, which probably depends a lot on which one you ended up in! If you’re in a good one and finding it useful, that’s fantastic. People like Tolkien and CS Lewis were in what were effectively ‘critique groups’ (see this article about the Inklings), so there’s good precedent for it.
But it’s not quite the same thing as a beta reader, largely because of the group versus individual dynamic.
You may have experience of a group setting where a kind of groupthink happens, and everyone thinks it’s fabulous or alternatively everyone is tearing it down, and individual voices are getting lost. The big swirl of group discussion can also make it harder to identify which are the really useful comments, and which are less discerning about the purpose of your particular book.
The beta reader’s report cuts through this “noise”. A beta reader will read your entire manuscript, on their own, and develop a personal response to it, uninfluenced by the opinions of others. The thing I particularly like about this is that reading is generally a solitary pursuit, and books ‘happen’ in the mind of the reader. So it’s an authentic way to encounter your book.
The best beta readers will give you a written report on their responses (which could be several pages long), and they often also will make notes in the text, to show their reaction to specific sections of the book.
And no, the best beta reads are not always the ones you pay for. In fact, most people get beta reads by an exchange of favours with other writers.
Ideally you’ll get at least two or three beta reads, so you can then weigh them up carefully. The responses will be very different, so don’t be alarmed by that! (I’ll write more soon about how to respond to a beta read.)


Jennifer Rova said...

I have never heard of a beta reader even though I have acted as one. Interesting and informative post. Thanks!

Jennifer Rova said...

I have never heard of a beta reader even though I have acted as one. Interesting and informative post. Thanks!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I love how you said yes to your friend and THEN looked up what "beta reader" meant. LOL!

Beta readers are a great help when I can no longer see the forest for the trees when it comes to my stories.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

I never thanked you for being a beta reader for me. My oversight is due to the fact that I had never heard the term before. Beta readers are very necessary, and if they are right they may send you straight back to the drawing board.