The Alpha in Betas

Beta readers are the first people to take a look at our masterpieces and give us an independent view. Even if you’ve let your writing sit for months or years before you come back to it, you can never get a completely independent reading of it yourself – you know what you meant to happen and how you intended it to feel. A beta reader doesn’t. And that’s their magic.

Finding good beta readers isn’t easy. You’re asking someone to dedicate several hours of their time to your prototype novel. And you’re asking them to be honest. And you’re probably not offering them much of anything in return.

Most people find their beta readers amongst friends, family or members of a writing group. All three have their disadvantages – the first two are likely to be a little bit star-struck (Wow, someone I know wrote a BOOK!) and a lot biased / afraid of upsetting the author. They also aren’t practised in giving feedback on writing. On the other hand, they will read the work like readers, which is exactly what we want them to do.

By contrast, another writer is probably much better able to express the things they don’t like in a helpful way, and is hopefully used to giving critique of the work without attacking the writer. But there’s a big drawback in the way writers read. They often do so quite unnaturally – “studying” instead of reading. Writers have theories stuck in their heads, like don’t use adverbs or show don’t tell, and they can pick these things out in places where, in reality, they don’t cause a problem. There’s a second big drawback in having a writer as a beta reader – they will be tempted to rewrite. No two writers’ styles are the same, and what you NEVER want a beta reader to do is to try to rewrite the story in their own style and voice.

Personally, I love being asked to beta read and I try to find a happy balance between my reader and my writer sides, but I suspect the best solution for a writer looking for beta readers is to seek out a mixture of different types of reader, brief them well, and be aware of the value and the limitations in their feedback. And to bribe them with beer, acknowledgements once we’re famous, or an appearance in the next masterwork!

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6 Comments

Filed under Writing

6 responses to “The Alpha in Betas

  1. happycreators

    I definitely think finding good beta readers can be tough. I am lucky though that my mother-in-law is both family and a writer. She gave me good, honest feedback, good editing and didn’t try to re-write my whole novel! I love being a beta reader, although I have never been asked for a full novel, but hopefully I will get the chance to be help someone in the future as some of my awesome beta readers have helped me.

    I completely agree though that a good beta reader shouldn’t try to re-write a person’s book and should try to keep a balanced, distanced stance when evaluating!

  2. I find being a beta reader for my friends a bit stressful, since I don’t always know how much criticism they can take. I usually get my friends or family to read my work, although I know who will give me honest criticism and who will praise anything I write.

  3. So very true. While I have a writing group where we exchange crits, my very best and most insightful beta reader is a friend who doesn’t write at all, but has very good taste in what she reads. She will pick up on stuff that no one else sees, although my writer friends are excellent at catching the big problems.

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