There used to be a day sometime around now in October labeled “Beta Reader Appreciation Day” – I’m not sure if it still exists in any form, but in any case this seemed like a good time to call out “Thanks!”
What is a beta reader, you may ask? I became familiar with the term in the world of fanfiction, and it may in fact have originated there (via the “beta testers” of the software realm), but most writers have beta readers even if they don’t call them that. “Beta” implies “second,” and some writers have alpha readers too, the highly trusted who might be reading crappy first drafts or lists of plot points, but the majority of us do polish a bit before letting someone else see what we’ve created. And then the beta readers take a look, and tell us what they think.
What are beta readers not? They aren’t cheerleaders, though they do encourage and push us onward. But this isn’t the fabled sending your novel to your mother or your best friend, and letting them tell you you’re wonderful. We’re looking for honesty and critique from beta readers, and we try to react to it graciously, self-critically, and actively. Sometimes they say things that we think are wrong – and sometimes they are! Sometimes (often) we are. But at the least it gets issues out in the open. I can’t tell you how many times over the course of four books I’ve decided a piece of criticism was inaccurate, and then had it bother me until I managed to stand back from my writing a bit and see that the beta reader had a point. Maybe I still didn’t think they’d got it quite right, but it made me think – made me realize that I could take a different approach to a scene or a character or a plot twist.
Beta readers are not part of traditional writing critique groups, though of course you may find them there. Many of my betas (shorthand there) are writers themselves, and I have beta-read for them in return. But we tend to find each other through mutual admiration of writing skill, or through mutual interests (the fandom world is great for this), and not in places where the only thing we have in common is that we’re writing novels. We are never trying to one-up each other or cut each other down, as can happen in some critique groups (not all, of course), and my betas have truly wanted me to succeed. They also make a commitment – some more than others, of course, because all our lives are busy and sometimes we have to pull away for various reasons, including personal disagreements. But they do try to not only offer honest and detailed critique, but to follow through on it – to realize that suggesting changes to a work is significant and that it’s important to stick around and see what those suggestions produce. They are usually friends, too – most of the time we talk about other things than writing! We tend to enjoy similar books and movies, except when we don’t; we often have very different jobs and hobbies and backgrounds, which can be world-expanding.
Beta readers are not professional editors, nor are they copy-editors, though they perform some of the same functions, particularly for those of us who are self-published and haven’t hired editors out of our nonexistent budgets. I’ve had betas who were fantastic at spotting typos, grammatical errors, and stylistic points (“I can’t understand that sentence – how about trying it this way?”). I’ve had others who take a much broader view and like to discuss themes and character development, and wonder what I’m trying to convey or what a character has learned over the course of a whole book. And everything in between.
Beta readers, to my mind, are absolutely necessary to build a good book – and it is very good practice to grit your teeth and send your words out to someone who will gently tell you that you’re not saying what you think you are, and give you a chance to fix that, before you let those words loose in the world. My books would not be what they are without the help of all those people I thank at the end of each volume. So, thank you all, again.
This all comes to mind because I recently got to have one of the best experiences one can with a beta reader. Most of this critiquing has been done over email, through a discussion listserv, or in various chat rooms – all online. But once in a long while I get to sit down with one of these folks in person and just talk, as I did a few weeks ago with my most faithful beta reader, Lisa. It was so wonderful to hash out some of the problems I’ve been having with Not Time’s Fool with someone who knows the characters and plot issues, understands the moral compass of the book and the complexities of time theory, is willing to treat it all as if it’s real and present and fixable, and really wants me to get it right. We had a great talk, and I have been rewriting a bunch of scenes, and I think it’s working! So a special shout-out and sincere thanks to Lisa. ❤
Beta readers have a hard job, for which the only reward is the chance to get in on the ground floor of a written work and help to slide in some beams and girders. They need to be able to comprehend an early draft of a novel that’s fed to them a chapter at a time over a long period, and maybe go back and read revised parts again later on. They get complained to and yelled at – and hopefully apologized to later. They have to deal with a writer’s massive insecurity on a regular basis. I love being a beta reader, and I love having them around. And I couldn’t do this without them.