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)
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.|
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.