Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Even Alpha Writers Need Beta Readers

By Tiffany Reisz, @tiffanyreisz

Let’s talk betas! Not the fishies, the people! First of all, what is a beta? You often hear the term in reference to software programs or video games. Beta testers are customers or users a company chooses to try out their new product before it’s ready for the market. The everyday user might find bugs and quirks that the software engineer who designed the game or product missed. A product in “beta” is an almost finished product not ready for market yet.

For writers, betas are our first readers of our new books. Many published writers, even bestselling and award-winning authors, have either a critique partner or a set of beta readers who read their books prior to publication. Not every writer uses betas, however. And usually you can tell who those writers are when you read their books.

Why should you use beta readers?

’Twas a bestselling book by a bestselling author from a major publisher. I picked it up because I heard that it was full of naughtiness. Alas, it was also flush with errors. The lead female character’s name was even misspelled at one point in the book. One extra set of eyes before that manuscript went to the publisher could have caught that glaring error. This Alpha Author needed a Beta Reader (or two or three) big time.

My own beta readers have caught the following errors in my books.
  • continuity errors (he’s driving a Jaguar in one scene and in a Ferrari the next scene)
  • incorrect words (I used “riff” when I meant “rift,” an error spellcheck missed)
  • factual errors (soil in New Hampshire is marshy, not dry)
  • character issues (she says she won’t do something in the first chapter, by the third chapter she’s doing it without any explanation why)
  • bad writing (seriously, Tiffany, if you leave that paragraph in, I’ll come to your house and punch you in the nose but knowing you, you’ll like it)
Do you want a book full of continuity errors, incorrect words that are spelled correctly but are in fact, incorrect, factual errors, characters whose behavior doesn’t make sense, and bad writing? Then don’t use beta readers.

If you’d rather have a book free of those sorts of errors, then get eyes on your pages before sending your manuscript off to your likely overworked editor. Your editor is one set of eyes. Your copyeditor is another. Your proofreader is another. That’s not enough to catch every error in your novel.

How do you find beta readers?

They’re all around you. I’ve found beta readers at my public library writing group, at writers conferences, through social media (including a fan forum for my favorite actor Jason Isaacs). If you present your work to a group of other writers, pay attention to their feedback. The writers who tell you what you did wrong will make better beta readers than someone who gives you nothing but compliments.

I have one strict rule for beta readers--they have to be writers. Why writers and not fans? Fans beg to read my books pre-publication after all. I tell them no every time. Fans read for pleasure, and they deserve a finished, polished draft, not a confused muddle of a work-in-progress. Also fans read with love and have trouble telling one of their favorite authors they’ve made a mistake. I did a test once where I let five random people beta read a short story. The five volunteers included two fans of mine, two professional writers, and one professional editor for an indie press. The two fans returned the short story with nothing but punctuation errors marked. The two professional writers gave me great constructive criticism. The professional editor gave me pages of notes. Fans make bad critics. That’s why I love them as fans (seriously, I love my damn fans *sniffs*) and never use them as betas.

Who are my betas?

I have five and each of them has their own speciality.

My literary fiction writing friend Robin is my first beta reader when the book is finished. Why is she first? Her speciality is macro edits. She tells me if whole chapters or scenes have to die, if certain plot points need moved in the book. In other words, Robin helps me build the house while my other betas help me paint and decorate it.

My boyfriend, author Andrew Shaffer, is like a heatseeking missile that targets anything superfluous. If a scene goes on too long, if a paragraph doesn’t move the story forward, he’ll demand that I either justify its existence or cut it. Almost always I cut it.

My erotic romance writer friend Karen Stivali acts as a psychologist to my characters. If any of my characters does anything out of character, she susses it out and I fix it.

Kinky writer Miranda Baker keeps my writing honest. If anything feels forced or awkward, she points it out, tells me I’m doing it wrong, and makes me make it better.

Friend and freelance editor Alyssa Linn Palmer (also a published author) has a copyeditor’s eye for detail. She usually gets the book last after the other beta readers have gone through it. Wrong words, grammar errors, odd punctuation are her areas of expertise.

The feedback from those five readers burns the chaff out of my books leaving only the wheat behind.

I don’t have a quid pro quo relationship with my beta readers. If they need or want me to beta their books, I do so happily, but I neither pay or barter with them. I say this because many writers are worried about having to pay their beta readers. I’ve never paid a penny to any of them although they do get thanked in book acknowledgements and with signed copies of the finished products.

How do you best work with a beta reader?

When working with a beta reader, make sure you let him or her know what your concerns are. That way the beta will be more likely to catch those sorts of errors. Do you have a bad habit of being too wordy? Ask your beta to keep an eye out for scenes or paragraphs that can be cut. Was your last book criticized for being too slow-paced? Tell your readers you want to cut the crap in your book and get the plot running like Orb on Kentucky Derby Day.

Give your beta readers permission to criticize you. No one likes criticism, but you can’t let your feelings interfere with getting the best book possible out to your readers. I had one beta reader tell me that if I didn’t cut out a scene he deemed stupid and cheesy, he would fictionalize himself, enter my book, and murder my characters. I took the cheesy scene out. He’d been absolutely correct. I adored him for being so passionate and honest about my book. I’d let him beta read for me again in a heartbeat.

Your book will eventually stand on the world’s stage--Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, etc. Everyone everywhere will be able to read it, review it, and criticize it. Giving your books to beta readers gives you the writer a chance to save yourself a lot of heartache by fixing your book’s issues before publication rather than kicking yourself when every other blogger/reviewer points out glaring errors in your book after it’s published.

One final word on beta readers--sometimes they will disagree with each other and you will disagree with them. One beta reader might love a certain scene. Another beta reader doesn’t see the point of if. You know your characters and your story better than anyone. Trust your gut. It’s okay to stand your ground. It’s your book, not theirs. I have a sex scene in THE ANGEL book two in my Original Sinners series that involves a couple engaging in erotic cutting or blood-play. One beta reader told me that not only would my publisher not allow the scene in the book, my readers would freak out. I know my characters, however. I knew this scene was true to who they are so I kept the scene in. Yes, a few readers freaked out but I’ve lost count of how many readers told me it’s not only their favorite love scene in my series, but their favorite love scene in any book ever.

Whether or not you take it, always listen to criticism, carefully consider it, and sleep on it. That scene you’re married to on Monday might be your worst enemy on Friday. My books easily go through twelve drafts. Cutting, changing, editing, revising, and rewriting rewriting rewriting a book isn’t a sign you did something wrong with your book. It’s proof you’re doing something right.

Who shouldn’t be a beta reader?

Betta fish may be cute but they make bad beta readers.

Tiffany Reisz lives in Lexington, Kentucky. She is the award-winning and international bestselling author of The Original Sinners series from Mira Books. When not writing or tweeting @tiffanyreisz, you can find her trying to teach a betta fish how to be a beta reader. So far, it’s not really working out.


  1. Awesome post, very thorough. I have a friend who reads everything I write and she's the equivalent of a fan. No matter what i write, she loves it. She's very good with grammar, punctuations and that kind of stuff so I will keep her as my last beta reader, the one who does the last check after all the content has been scrutinized and edited.

  2. I just realized I found out your rule about not having non-writers as beta readers - the hard way.

    When people were 'interested' in the story, I'd ask them to read. Two things happened: no usable comments; and readers who dropped out after a couple of chapters.

    None of them are still beta readers for me.

    I realize now it was my fault for asking them (luckily, we're still friends).

    I thought that because they liked reading mainstream fiction (what I wrote), they might be good at evaluating it against the database of all the books they've read and liked/hated.

    I will try some of your suggestions - I'm especially looking for guys, because I want to know if a male writer would agree with my portrayal of the male character.

    I have no use for compliments (okay, I'm as much a sucker for them as anyone, but they're not USEFUL). Critique that makes sense, catching awkwardness or just plain wrongness, would be a gift.

    And I hadn't thought of the library - I'll check to see if they have a writers' group.


  3. A great post. I depend on my beta readers. They often see what I'm too close to see. Sometimes their truth hurts. But I get a better manuscript out of it.

  4. This was an informative, helpful post. Thank you.

    In comments to your last post on this blog – “An Author’s Timeline,” April 17 – I asked about the financial, reciprocal relationships you had with betas. You said simply they were friends of yours. This post was quite an elaboration.

    In your April post, you described your dependency on “First Eyes” Baker to get you back on track when your rails warped. I assumed you had four second-level betas after “First Eyes” to avoid the eggs-in-a-basket syndrome. While there might be some validity to that assessment, it was a particular education to learn of the diversity among the four and your unique expectations for each. It is clear now why you routinely make changes when two readers make similar suggestions.

    In this post, you recommend writers draw betas’ attention to specific concerns. Do you think this is a good idea for new writers just establishing working relationships with beta readers? Are there criteria you might apply to gauge how much a writer’s request for specific guidance has shaped the overall counsel?

    Please accept a couple of compliments:
    • As a result of your April post, I lined up a couple of friends to help me with my current work in progress. They meet many of the criteria you lay out in this post. I think I stumbled into lining up some of the diversity you describe.
    • As a result of this post, I’m trying to figure out how best to exploit (not my best word) that diversity and what I should say in the transmittal when I send text for review.

  5. Helpful post as I consider who should be my beta readers and what to ask from them. Thanks.

  6. Hi All!

    Thanks for the great comments. And yes, ABE, I would never use fans as betas. My betas ARE fans as in they love my work but they aren't just fans--they're professionals who know what makes a book work and what doesn't.

    Hi Eevaluator!

    To answer your question, a new writer is rarely able to judge his or her own weaknesses and strengths. In the beginning, line up as many smart and honest beta readers as you can and give them permission to shred your work. Tell them to tell you what isn't working and what is working so you know how to revise. As you get more experienced you'll learn to be more judicious in what advice you take and reject. Good luck to you!

    Happy writing, All!

  7. Great post!

    Love that you went into details, Tiffany. Also -- great idea of having beta readers that specialize in certain aspects and cover everything that way, instead of endlessly trying to find the ONE beta who does it all (and saves the world every weekend).

  8. Hi, Tiffany:

    That was a great post. I've been a beta reader for over a year and I think I've gotten better and better with each book I've worked on.

    I remembered the first book I worked on - I was so green then.. (she says, wistfully). The author, who was also becoming a friend at the time, basically read me the riot act and told me to stop being so damn nice! She needed constructive criticism and then gave me some parameters to work with. I found that having those parameters transformed me from a not-much-better-than-a betta fish reader, into a solid beta reader.

    I need those guidelines to stay focused because I am also a stickler for grammar and punctuation and can get lost in that quagmire if I'm not reigned in from the beginning. Unless, of course, the author wants me to look at that, as well, and then watch out! My 6th grade English teacher would be so happy to know that all of his hours of teaching me how to diagram sentences, use punctuation correctly and recognize verb tenses was not all for naught! Thank you, Mr. Terban, wherever you are!

    I absolutely love beta-reading and volunteer whenever the call goes out on my Facebook authors' groups. The only downside of this? I often use it as an excuse not to do my own writing!

    Thanks again for the post,

  9. Another thing for writers to keep in mind is making sure their betas "get" their writing. There's a published author I've used as a beta a couple times (and I've beta read for her as well). I realized based on her feedback of the last book I gave her that she (on a basic level) didn't "get" the story (or the series--it was book 2). So I won't have her beta that series any more because it's a waste of both our time. I'm sure she was frustrated with me and the book while reading and I was frustrated with her and the feedback while revising. Now, for my straight contemporary stuff...she's good.

    Point is you need to know your betas and they need to know you and the story you're trying to tell.

    Also, I use a couple readers as betas for two reasons:
    1) She's been beta-reading for a NYT bestseller for years and catches continuity errors like no one I know. (I swear she has a photographic memory when it comes to details in books.)
    2) The other has been with me since almost the beginning and she's makes sure I know when my jokes are actually funny (because I think I'm fucking hilarious, but I'm never sure others will agree). I also know that if she points out a plot issue, it's a MAJOR issue. Oddly, she's caught things that my professional author betas have missed.

    Lastly...sometimes even with betas and editors things slip through. I have one book with a character named Erik. At one point in the story, it's was spelled Eric (or vice versa). None of my betas caught it. My editor didn't catch it. I didn't catch it on any of my read-throughs. Sadly, it happens even if you do everything you can to avoid it.

  10. These suggestions are very helpful and give you logical reason why , or why not, to do something. I'm sure many authors will find these tips most valuable.

  11. I really enjoyed your post. You made several good points about the sort of feedback from betas that is actually useful. If only it were easier to find them...

  12. Erotic blood-play? I have a friend who likes to tell horror stories along those lines when he drinks too much at parties. :P You've got GUTS. Go you for making a strong choice like that!

    I think one should make one's expectations very clear for beta readers. The worst thing someone ever did when I was reading for them was send me the MS, saying to just read it through and tell them what I thought. Two days later, I got an email telling me to hurry up because they needed it in a week for self-publication. That was when I threw in the towel. I also made another mistake in beta readers when I gave my MS to someone with absolutely zero sense of humor and no reading experience in the genre. That was a while ago, but I'm more careful about who I go to now.

    It's really cool that you have different people with different "specialties." I feel kind of bad dumping my whole book on someone and saying, "OK -- GO!" without any other guidance. The specialty-reading is a good solution to that.

  13. THANK YOU for your last note about handling disagreements with your betas. I'm currently working with someone new, and my writing style is clearly different from hers. I like writing sappy love stories, and she loves to point out all the "romance novel bullshit" in my current story, even though it is, essentially, a romance novel.

    It sounds like a mad match, but it (mostly) works. Her hyper-criticism of my descriptions keeps me on my toes, and I think she's really helped to make me a better writer. That said, there are moments where she wants me to cut/change parts of my story that, to me, work really well to express my thoughts and ideas. I've been struggling for a while to decide if I should continue to work with her or not, because I wasn't sure if it was "against the rules" to overlook some of your beta's notes if you understand their argument but disagree with them about it. This post assuaged those fears. Thank you :)

  14. Thank you for this post. I am working on writing my first "real" novel. I have finished my first draft and I'm working on my second draft.

    It's very tempting to send out my first draft to people. I don't think this is a good idea. It's unfair to the reader and the writer.

    I recently had a friend send me their first draft of a vampire story. This person had been a friend but once they sent me their MS it was if I was no longer their friend, but a paid editor.

    Personally, I don't want to edit a first draft. I lose the thread of the story. I'm constantly correcting errors in my mind and comments. What kept going through my mind is the writer should be doing this not me. After six hours of where I had to reformat their MS to a readable point. Contantly, correct spelling, errors and keep re-reading over and over who was talking in untagged quotes, plus annoyingly distracted by run on sentences that took in about six sentences at a time, I sent the MS back and said I would be happy to read Beta but I didn't want to read a first draft.

    Sigh, I feel a little guilty. I just think the writer needs to put in the work before sending it out to be read.