7 Reasons Good Writers Need Beta Readers

When you hear the word “beta,” what comes to mind?

A variety of uses are made of the word “beta,” and it’s not always what you think:

In today’s world, built primarily on technology, a beta may be an individual or company testing a proposed software, a new type of computer, a high-tech phone system, or any number of other devices.

Taking second place is often where beta finds itself, especially in the Greek alphabet where beta is the second letter, β. Then there is the capitalized form of Beta representing the second brightest star in a constellation or in chemistry where it means the second in any series of compounds in an atom.

Kampffisch aka betta splendens
Kampffisch aka betta splendens

And, of course, there is the beta fish, sometimes spelled betta, an often savage and warrior-like fish sold in pet stores. Our son raised some of these in his teens, and their beauty does not make up for their rude personalities.

But what if we add the word “reader” to the word “beta” to invoke the name of one of the most important members of your writing team?

You may be asking the definition of that name or label, a job description of this new team member, and other questions. Hopefully, the tips below will answer your questions.

But first, the definition of a beta reader:

A beta reader reviews a writer’s manuscript elements such as plot development, character descriptions and motivations, general readability, grammar, and logical inconsistencies. The writer may ask the beta reader to do all these things or limit the read to certain specific elements.

Note that beta reading is the step coming before the pre-publication edit done by someone with excellent professional editing skills.

With that definition in mind, what should a writer expect a beta reader to do?

Below are the 7 tips mentioned in the post title and promised earlier. These are taken from beta reading requests I have responded to, and they are what I would expect a beta reader to do for me:

Present in a considerate, tactful and diplomatic manner recommendations and feedback. This is an area where the reader should not be too direct or action-oriented in choosing words in preparing his opinions. A good beta reader makes suggestions, not directions, instructions or complaints. Recommendations or comments sent back to a writer should not produce negative reactions on the part of the writer.

Make personal observations as “asides,” if appropriate. These comments are helpful only if the writer understands they are not a part of your recommendations/feedback and are your personal reactions and feelings. Let’s say a particular character behaves in such a way you feel sorry for him. Tell the writer about the empathetic response you feel toward this character and why. Perhaps the writer did not intend the character to come across in this way. The reader’s personal reaction highlights this issue and in making this comment, the reader has alerted the writer so changes may be made. Or perhaps a certain scene wasn’t working for you. Passing this along with a good explanation will be helpful to the writer in reviewing that scene.

Perform a second reading and focus on specifics requested by the writer, making notes along the way. Recently, a writer requested “thorough” read, i.e. reviewing the elements above (see definition), and additionally based on my comments back to her, she queried me about some changes she was considering. Another writer pointed out she wasn’t looking for copy edits or proofing and provided a concise list of what she did want me to do. Each writer will have a particular process for moving the book toward publication. Each one will present a beta reader with different needs and requests.

Read the manuscript through for fun. That’s right — I said FUN! During this reading,  a beta reader should get lost in the story or in the purpose if reading a nonfiction book. After all, this allows the reader to report back accurately on how the book may or may not be received by the reading public. Here, the reader captures a general feel for the story line and characters while looking for any issues that disturb the reader’s ability to follow the story. Example: A character makes a sudden appearance on page 125 and is mentioned as having done a particular thing. Yet, the reader doesn’t recall having met that character in the earlier 124 pages.

Tell the writer when a particular character resonates with the reader or if a scene is especially moving. We all need to know when something is working well, and it costs us nothing to share the goodness along with the potential criticisms and errors that might be found and included in a reader’s response back to a writer. A good beta reader begins and ends his opinions with some of these good points and positives.

Point out issues not included in writer’s requests, when suitable.  If the reader notices an issue not included in the writer’s requested actions, it is permissible to it in the feedback. Example:Perhaps POV wasn’t included in the list. Suddenly, the writer is switching back and forth between first and third person. Or it takes too long at the beginning of the book to sense any action.

Here come’s the test of a goodbeta reader — the ability to be as tactful and diplomatic as anyone serving as the U.S. Ambassador to a foreign country. The reader is respectful in explaining what he discovered and why it is included it in the feedback provided. And this is the perfect segue into the next point.

And then, sit on recommendations, comments and/or feedback for at least two days before sending to the writer. This allows the reader time to step away and then re-read the work product. The reader can then assess her reactions if it were her work being read and commented on: Does anything raise negativity? Is anything too harsh? Are comments clear and to the point? How would I feel reading these comments about my work?

The beta reader and writer relationship is different from almost any other writing relationship and where it comes in the process of a writing project and how it performs depends on what the writer wants from the beta reader and what the reader is capable of offering. As in any working relationship, this is negotiable between the parties.

What I have offered today is based on my own opinions and beta reading process seeded in what I would expect from a beta reader if it were my book being read and what I want to give to writers who seek me out as a beta reader.

Inherent in the relationship between beta reader and the author are seen the reasons every good writer needs to engage one or more beta readers.

Let’s close this post with a couple of quotes on beta readers:

Basically, the more eyes the book goes through before publication, the fewer issues you will have later; and hopefully, the better the reviews are.” ~ Joanna Penn, Writer, Speaker and Blogger

“Beta readers provide us differing viewpoints and show us flaws in our own work that we were incapable of seeing ourselves.” Chuck Sambuchino, Writer and Editor

(Quotes from WOW! Women on Writing)

If you have had any experiences using beta readers, how has it worked for you and your beta reader? Did you offer a list? Did you receive what you expected, or perhaps not? Anything you can share will help those reading this post.

Virginia Woolf Got It Right! A Woman Needs Money and a Room to Write!

Yes, credit is given to Virginia Woolf for this quote. It is obvious to those of us who write these words apply to anyone engaged in the craft of writing. We all need a room to write, one quiet and free of interruption.

Several times lately I’ve mentioned in posts about taking time away from home to write. Lots of writers use coffee shops, libraries, anywhere there’s access to power and maybe even wi-fi to get the peace and quiet they want/need for writing.

Willamette Writers' 50 Year Logo
Willamette Writers’ 50 Year Logo

I’m fortunate to be a member of Willamette Writers, the largest writer organization in the Pacific Northwest. This year celebrates 50 years of the organization’s support for both aspiring and professional writers. Headquartered in Portland, OR, Willamette Writers’ administrative offices are located in West Linn, OR.

The organization owns a property in West Linn which affords space not only for administration purposes but also provides a library and space for group meetings. Additionally, there are five writing rooms fully equipped for the writer to work at his/her craft in quiet and solitude.

Willamette Writers House
Willamette Writers House

Officially named Cynthia Whitcomb House, the property is more often called The Writing House. This is where I slip away to no interruptions, quiet, and peace to work on my memoir or other projects with a deadline.

It is unbelievable what you can accomplish in 16 hours. Yes, you can rent a room for 16 hours for a mere $10, and write, write, write.

My favorite room to date is The Bloomsbury Room, fashioned after the lives and times of authors associated with The Bloomsbury Group. Images of English writers and other prominent personalities of the time, some of whom were core members of The Bloomsbury Group, adorn the walls: Virginia Woolf, Giles Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Leonard Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and others. Bloomsbury is a comfortable and inspirational room pleasantly decorated.

Bloomsbury Room
Bloomsbury Room

Many times when I go here to write I am the only one on the main floor and even if someone else is in the house, it is quiet and we rarely run into one another.

One of the best features is the Writing House is a mere 10 minutes from my home. Unfortunately, I have to drive by a Starbuck’s on the way so you can imagine I make certain I have plenty of fuel to see me through the morning write.

I won’t deny that I have a lovely writing space at home. However, it comes equipped with interruptions whether from family members or the telephone, the temptation to stop working and do something else, or a neighbor knocking on the door.

At The Writing House, no interruptions, no temptations, no ringing phone, no neighbors. Perfect writing time, and at a great price!

Your Turn ~ Do you have a writing place to call your own? Or a place to which you can escape for quiet and solitude? Share with us how you get away to write or what skills or tricks  you use to give your space to craft your writing.

6 Books Added to General Writing Resources List

Winter has been too kind to the populous of the Pacific NW, and the season overlooked us in favor of other parts of the country. But in place of unkind and unending blistering cold, freezing precipitation, snow depths unbelievable to most of us, the lack of same at our end of the country allowed germs to blossom, multiply, and infect.
My husband and I must have passed someone stricken with respiratory issues with the instinct that “paying it forward” meant anything and everything. If we could find the kind soul, we’d gladly pay back the germs shared. However, we’ve had some good reading time as we rested, drank lots of liquids, and healed.

According to Stephen King, we must read to write so I gladly read these past couple of weeks. Today I want to share some stellar books specifically written for writers. Excellent tools to have at hand or at least in your library. Here are thumbnail sketches of them:

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley is an easy to read guidebook on writing and publishing good content. Not only is it suited to writers and bloggers, anyone who writes and/or markets in today’s fast-paced Internet markets will find Ann Handley’s advice well-tested and palatable.

Helen Sedwick’s Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook provides a step-by-step guide to the ins and outs of self-publishing. The legal issues inherent in any business undertaking are presented in lay terms for ease of understanding and use. Helen Sedwick is not only an author but also an attorney with 30 years experience.

Writing Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon shares the story of the journey involved in writing Blue Highways. Heat-Moon wrote of a 14,000 mile, 38-state trip he made, and now he shares the four-years spent writing Blue Highways. He shares not only his success along the way, but also the rejections and other stumbling blocks writers face. Numerous drafts, unending revisions, balancing personal life and the writing life, and much more bring to light what every writer must understand–“the tricky balance of intuitive creation and self-discipline required for any artistic endeavor.”

Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers is part memoir and part intellectual journey. Powers is a brilliant writer drawing on not only the constant question faced by today’s digitized person, “Where’s the rest of my life?,” but also dropping back quietly to past technologies and the likes of Shakespeare and Thoreau. At times, I found myself laughing out loud and/or giggling at how ridiculous we’ve allowed the digital world to become. Remember when we were told computers would save us time? I still need to learn how that works. Enter Powers’ book.

Recently, I had the pleasure and opportunity to hear Gigi Rosenberg speak to a writers’ group here in Portland. My husband just happened to win a copy of Rosenberg’s latest book, The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing. Rosenberg has written a transformational guidebook to take starving artists of any art form to a driven researcher of grants, fellowships, residencies, and yes, grant writing. The money is out there, waiting to be spent on the creative arts, if we only ask. Finding it is key, and Rosenberg’s book holds the key to unlock the treasure.

As an adolescent, teen, and young adult, I was always late to the party, and so I am in reading Lee Gutkind’s book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Lee Gutkind, also editor of Creative Nonfiction, has been called the “godfather of creative nonfiction.” His book breaks the genre of creative nonfiction down into an understandable, easy to grasp slice of writing education. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this handy tool, but I’ve not been able to let it out of my sight since finishing. It’s worth every penny I paid for it!

I have added these six books to my list of resources found under the menu tab, “Resources | General Writing Resources.”

 

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=founbetwtheco-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=0988302152&asins=0988302152&linkId=NLUOKIM3ZUVQZB55&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=C02D00&bg_color=D7F706

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=founbetwtheco-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B00K58U5YI&asins=B00K58U5YI&linkId=CGEFS4GZ7I62EZHL&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=C02D00&bg_color=D7F706

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=founbetwtheco-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=0061687170&asins=0061687170&linkId=M5XYBBFTENW4KUVU&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=C02D00&bg_color=D7F706

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=founbetwtheco-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=0823000702&asins=0823000702&linkId=AJ6K2IEL3K4FTDZP&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=C02D00&bg_color=D7F706

//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=founbetwtheco-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=0738215546&asins=0738215546&linkId=3KOMVQGTLQTZEDSW&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=C02D00&bg_color=D7F706

Memoir Writers Resources Series | Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion by William Kenower

This post continues a series begun over a year ago, which has an infinite number of parts. Therefore, there is no “Part 1 of a #;” it will simply continue until the well dries up. The lag time since the last post resulted from personal issues which were unavoidable. A list of all posts in the series to date are found here.


Have you ever wished for a book about writing that isn’t a how-to guide? One that is something like a good friend or companion? This is exactly what William Kenower has written in his collection of essays on writing, Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

Despite inclusion in my memoir writers resources series, this collection is directed at and designed for any writer, any genre.

Sometime during the last year I heard Bill Kenower speak to the membership of Willamette Writers in Portland. Kenower had driven from Seattle to Portland for our 7pm meeting, and he made us all comfortable from the start by sharing his parking experience in downtown Portland as masses left work. Immediately he had won us over. 

As editor-in-chief of Author magazine, Kenower knows a lot about writing. He writes a daily blog focused on the intersection of writing and life. He also interacts with writers in preparation for frequent interviews and/or panel discussions on his pod casts and videos. Writing is something he is passionate about and his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious.

That passion and enthusiasm is clear in the essays included in Write Within Yourself. Some of my favorite, must remember passages are:

A great book is a work of love–not craft, not intelligence, not discipline, but love. And that love expresses itself in this question asked and answered over and over again: What do I most want to say?

* * *

The more I wrote, the more I understood that anything–a rainy day, a shower, a bad night’s sleep–led to what had always interested me most, the intersection of creativity and everyday life.

* * *

When you spend a workday out of the flow of your story, you must choose kindness and compassion–that is the only way back into the flow of the story. You have written before; you will write again. … You will feel relief when it goes well and despair when it doesn’t. Love and compassion are your only tools when the day’s work brings you nothing. Writers, in this way, must learn above all others to love their enemy, because a writer’s only enemy is himself.

I hope you will at least visit Bill Kenower’s site and Author magazine (link available at his site). I find his writing a great comfort whether or not all is going well with my writing. I firmly believe you would too.

About William Kenower:

William Kenower is the author of Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine, an online magazine for writers and dedicated readers. He writes a popular daily blog for the magazine about the intersection of writing and our daily lives, and has interviewed hundreds of writers of every genre. He also hosts the online radio program Author2Author where every week he and a different guest discuss the books we write and the lives we lead.