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.

6 Blogs to Recharge the Writing Life

Writing is solitary. In fact, the singleness of writing can become the elephant in your writing space. So much so, some writers lose the initial spark experienced when beginning that next book, essay, or blog post.

Perhaps you’ve been working on building your platform , and no one seems to be clamoring at your blog or on your Facebook fan page. And all you have for your hard work is a throbbing headache.

What to do to get back in the writing groove and use some of that creativity to work on your memoir, novel or yes, even the dreaded platform?

Look to the writing and blogging community-at-large. After all, this is a business where encouragement and support are readily available. However, despite the abundance of resources and tips, sometimes it’s hard to decide where to look.

Following are six blogs I consistently read. I always find something to reignite the lost spark of creativity or jar loose the stillness in my inspiration:

The Write Practice

The Write Practice is here to kick-start your practice.
You have to write millions of words no one is ever going to see
before you can write the ones that will change someone’s life.

Joe Bunting, founder of The Write Practice, supports and encourages writers of all ages and skill levels. Here you will find tutorials, writing prompts, writing tips and other resources.

Connect with Joe @write_practice on Twitter or on Facebook.

The Creative Penn

… where you will find resources to help you write, publish and market your book.

Joanna Penn, best-selling author, shares her own writing journey using both mistakes and lessons learned in the areas of writing, marketing and publishing. Joanna features guest posts from other writers willing to share their experiences and knowledge.

Connect with Joanna @thecreativepenn on Twitter or on Facebook.

Catherine, Caffeinated

Here’s a full list of all the “self-printing” category posts which chronicle my entire self-publishing adventure. I’ve tried to organize them in some sort of coherent way, but if you want to read them all—and you have, like, a week or so of your life to spare—you can click here to access all posts tagged with “self-printing” instead.

In addition to writing blog posts on “self-printing,” Catherine Ryan Howard is a writer and coffee enthusiast from Cork, Ireland. Her goal at Catherine, Caffeinated is to share with other writers her knowledge gained as self-publisher. A plethora of information is available on her blog, so I suggest a cup of coffee and a comfy place to sit when you’re ready to dig in.

Connect with Catherine @cathryanhoward on Twitter or on Facebook.

Goins, Writer

Here is where we wage war on the blank page, where we band together
to find purpose in our art and lives.

Jeff Goins generously shares his views on writing in the 21st century while also sharing resources and tips. His blog covers many topics on writing, passion and creativity.

Connect with Jeff @JeffGoins on Twitter or on Facebook.

Nina Amir

…she writes, speaks and teaches from a place of knowing that
what has worked for her will at least provide others with
a starting place from which to find what works best for them.

In her blog, How to Blog a Book, Nina Amir shows her readers how to blog a nonfiction book. However, fiction writers may also find many useful tips and ideas here. Nina offers posts based on her experiences as a freelance nonfiction book editor, writing coach, and consultant.

Connect with@NinaAmir on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook.

We Grow Media

I help writers share their stories and connect with readers.

Founder of We Grow Media, Dan Blank, works with writers through online courses, conferences and events, one-on-one consulting, workshops and speaking, and writing this blog, a weekly newsletter, and ebooks. Additionally, he also works with publishers and publishing agencies.

Connect with @DanBlank on Twitter.

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This listing is by no means complete and perhaps in the near future I’ll post others I keep an eye on.

And what about you? Is there a blog or blogs that can recharge you and your writing? If so, won’t you share in the comment section below? I’d love finding new resources!

Beta Readers’ List of Don’ts | Writers’ Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

Last week I posted on what beta readers do. This week we’ll take a look at what they don’t do and what writers expect of a beta reader.

* * *

In the last post we determined what beta readers are not:

Beta readers are not fish, or fishy! By Kingloovr (modified) via Wikimedia Commons
Beta readers are not fish, or fishy! By Kingloovr (modified) via Wikimedia Commons
  • A beta reader is not related to the fish of the same name, i.e. beta or betta.
  • Nor is a beta reader a part of any alphabet, Greek or otherwise, and he or she has no need for membership in The National Beta Club.
  • And we eliminated any relationship to any star in any constellation or in chemistry compounds.

The write-beta reader partnership is a unique relationship. It is an agreement to carry out a set of instructions provided by the writer.

The point of the work effort is for the beta reader to see with a different set of eyes what the writer’s work looks like to an outside reader.

That being said, each party to this relationship has certain responsibilities. From the earlier post, we know what beta readers do. Now let’s look at what beta readers don’t do:

  • Don’tmake insensitive comments. Attacking the writer is not requested or required of you.
  • Don’tgive your own opinion of how you would write the book. How the book finishes is the writer’s prerogative and decision. Not yours.
  • Don’tlimit your reaction to a list of “here’s what you need to do.” Also give comments on what you enjoyed, what moved you, what you thought was well done. We all respond to positives, and the writer needs to hear these.
  • Don’ttake it personally if your suggestions and/or comments are not incorporated. Here again the writer is in charge of the finished product and therefore, h/she has the right to choose which beta reader suggestions make it into the book.
  • Don’tassume the writer has passed along every bit of information you need. Ask questions if you need to clarify a point on your list of responsibilities to the writer. It never hurts to ask.

And let’s not forget that the writer requesting help from a beta reader also has responsibilities. In order to have expectations met, a writer needs to offer clear and concise instructions. 

Attribution: Hakan Dahlstrom via Fotomedia
Attribution: Hakan Dahlstrom via Fotomedia

A writer will expect to receive the following from a good beta reader:

  • Expect to look beyond family and friends to enjoy a completely unbiased and fair assessment of your project. If you are comfortable with using family or friends, that is a personal choice, but not highly recommended.
  • Expect both positive comments and some suggested “areas of improvement.” If you believe your work is perfect, do not engage a beta reader. Remember, every work could use improvement.
  • Expect to feel some emotional reaction, perhaps any negativity, on reading your beta reader’s comments. This is perfectly normal. Have some dark chocolate, a cup of coffee. Go for a stroll in the park. Release that initial tension.
  • Expect an urge to respond to the reader right away. STOP! No knee jerk reactions should send you to the keyboard to type out an email or to write a blog post about a bad beta reader. Set aside the comments for a day or two or more. When you feel ready, pick them up again and read them. And remember you wanted an honest opinion. Perhaps a calmer you will see that your reader has some good points, and perhaps you’ll begin to think of ways you want to respond.
  • Expect your beta reader to help you make your story better. The beta reader is not in place to “fix” your story. After all, he or she is not a ghost writer. You handed off your baby to see what other eyes could see. Now that you have responses in hand set about thanking your readers and revising that manuscript.
  • Expect and be ready to give your beta reader certain information about your project.
    • How far along you are, i.e. fourth or fifth draft or more.
    • What kind of review you want, i.e. broad or detailed with specific requests.
    • Your genre, i.e. memoir, fiction, etc. Although your reader may not write in your genre, knowing the genre helps to know what to be aware of while reading.
    • Specific time frame for turnaround, i.e. 4-6 weeks. Pssst! Beta readers have lives too. Be respectful here.
    • Software you are using and decide how you will receive your comments, i.e. track changes or in a document format.
    • Reciprocity, i.e. will you read for this reader when the time comes or will you perhaps exchange another skill. Whatever you decide, remember to follow through!

If you have read both posts, you should have a good overview of what beta readers do and don’t do and what writers’ expectations are.

As a writer, do you have expectations not mentioned here. Or as a beta reader, is there something you’d like to comment on with respect to-dos and don’ts? 

Today, Porter Anderson has the last word on this topic:

“You see a lot of ‘I love my beta readers!’ traffic online, which is heartening. But as in the case of good editing, strong pre-publication reading needs to offer insightful reaction and guidance. Encouragement is great. Actual evaluation is better. The best work at this stage of a project is less about supportive community and more about critique.” ~ Porter Anderson on Publishing Perspectives

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NEXT UP: Knowing When It’s Time to Take a Breather coming up on Thursday, August 29th.

Beta Readers | How They Function (Part 1 of 2)

Today I am posting the first of two parts on beta readers covering specifically what beta readers do. In the second part, I’ll look at what they don’t do and what writers’ expectations of beta readers are. 

* * *

When you hear the word “beta,” what comes to mind? I usually think of the Greek alphabet as beta is its second letter, β. A jog down memory lane occurs at the sound of “beta” as I was a member of The National Beta Club in high school.

Then there is the word “Beta” with a capital “B” meaning the second brightest star in a constellation. And we can move on to chemistry where it means the second in any series or one of the possible compounds in an atom.

White betta splendens By Kingloovr via Wikimedia
White betta splendens By Kingloovr via Wikimedia

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.

None of these definitions, however, explains the benefit of a beta reader to a writer.

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?

Following are several steps requested by writers for whom I have performed beta reading and what I would expect, as a writer, for a beta to do for me:

WHAT A BETA READER DOES:

  • Reads 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 mentioned on a page 121 as having done a particular thing suddenly appears, when the reader doesn’t recall having met that character in the earlier 120 pages.
  • Performs a second reading and focuses on specifics requested by the writer, making notes along the way. Recently, a writer requested what I call a “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.
  • Tells the writer when a particular character resonates with her 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.
  • Makes 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.
  • Points 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.
  • Presents 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.
  • Sits 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.

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 with 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 article)

Part 2 of this two-part post will appear here on Tuesday, August 27th. Hope to see you back for what beta readers don’t do and what writers expect from beta readers.