Betas, we love them and fear them. . .

by Amanda S. Green

Kate’s post yesterday touched on a topic that has been percolating at the back of my mind for the last month or so. It’s one we’ve touched on before but now that NaNoWriMo is over – and now that more authors are taking the self-publish route – I think it’s one that needs to be discussed. Basically, it’s about the difference between beta readers and copy editors/proofreaders.

Every writer goes through that phase where he doesn’t think what he writes is good enough for anyone to see. For a period of time (sometimes for the writer’s entire life), his work is tossed under the bed or in the closet once it’s finished and no one gets to read it. But for most of us, there comes a time when we finally let go of our baby and let someone read it. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been cajoled and threatened and bribed – Yes, Sarah, I’m talking about you – into letting someone read it. Sometimes, it’s because we can no longer stand just tossing our babies into a dark corner, never to see the light of day. But, for whatever the reason, we finally let someone pry our work from our fingers and we go hide under the sink, waiting for their comments.

Once we’ve finally decided that maybe, just maybe, we’re ready for the world-at-large to see our work, we need to find first readers, or beta readers. I know the first time I was asked to beta read something, I thought it was like what we did in the critique group at the time: correct spelling and punctuation, formatting, wording things the way I would word them. Boy, was I clueless. Spelling and punctuation, as well as formatting, are what the proofreader looks at. Wording things the way I would word them – well, let’s just say I still wonder at the restraint the author showed in not smacking me.

Fortunately for me, the author was a patient soul and taught me what a beta reader is. A beta reader is that person who reads your manuscript and lets you know if there are major consistency issues with it. Did you promise the reader four weddings – one for each sister – and halfway through the book, forget about one of the sisters? Is there a major ick factor to the book? If so, what is it and why? Does the story make sense or have you just laid a turkey egg?

In other words, a beta reader doesn’t edit and doesn’t proof. They read. Giving the author a list of grammar and punctuation problems isn’t going to help – unless the author has asked for it. Look at it this way, beta readers are reading for content, not to see if it follows all the rules. For one thing, if the manuscript is going to a publisher, that publisher might have a house style sheet you, the beta reader, aren’t familiar with and you could be giving the author bad advice. For another, proofing comes later – after the story is finalized.

There’s something else to keep in mind when you beta read for someone: don’t keep hammering at them about what you think. Tell them once and let it go. Most authors have more than one beta reader. They listen to what each one says. But, if only one person comes back saying they had a problem with something and no one else did, the author will probably go with the majority. More than that, if you keep harping about an issue to the author, well, you start falling into that toxic relationship Kate was talking about yesterday. Remember, authors are, on the whole, not overly confident in their work to begin with. If you keep pushing at them about what is a perceived fault in their work, you very well may get them into a spiral where all they are doing is obsessing about a nit that really didn’t need to be picked.

Don’t assume you know the author’s process. In other words, you can’t assume you KNOW why they’re doing something  and you shouldn’t even be thinking that way. As a beta reader, you should be thinking as though you didn’t know the author —   so no “Oh, she wrote this because of THIS incident”.

Another example of what you shouldn’t do as a beta reader:  if the author notes that a character’s birthday was on the 12th   and later in the manuscript, there’s a reference to the birthday being on the 15th, note it but don’t obsess about it UNLESS it becomes a major consistency issue. In 99.9% of the times, it won’t be. It’s a typo. Nothing more.

Now that isn’t to say don’t tell them if you have a problem with the story. They need to know that. But only if it deals with the story, not with the grammar, etc., unless it is so bad you can’t read it. Period. End of story.

Beta readers are an invaluable part of the writing process. You are often the author’s touchstone with reality when it comes to what they’ve just written. But very often, betas also get the work before the author has done any major editing. Another reason why you shouldn’t worry about the nits when it comes to grammar, punctuation, etc. Besides, any author who is serious about making a go of writing will either have his own copy editor/proofreader he works with for his self-published work or his publisher does.  So, focus on the story.

Remember, beta reading is not the same as being a critique partner. Nor is it being an editor/copy editor/proofreader. It is being a reader and then answering honestly any questions the author has for you. Did the book work? Did it hold your attention? Were there MAJOR plot inconsistencies that need to be dealt with? Did it surprise you when X died or Y married Z or when the elves and dwarves married and lived happily ever after? It is not pointing out every split infinitive and dangling modifier, correcting spelling or second guessing how and why the author wrote what he did. It sure isn’t trying to make the novel yours with “helpful” suggestions. After all, do you want your betas having you rewrite your novel so it sounds like something they wrote? (Well, I’ll admit I’d love it if Dave or Sarah did that to my work. J )

Authors, you, too, have a responsibility when it comes to beta readers. Let them know what you want. If you have specific things you want them focusing on, tell them. Don’t expect them to read your mind. Now, I know a lot of authors have a set list of questions they give their beta readers beforehand. I’m not going to say that’s wrong. However, I will suggest that it can be a double-edged sword. By giving them the questions ahead of time, you predispose them to be looking for certain things. This could lead them to overlook other issues/problems/strengths. Conversely, it does give you the answers you’re looking for. My suggestion is to change the timing of the process. Ask the questions AFTER they read the novel. You’ll still get the answers but they won’t be slanted by that possible predisposition.

The relationship between an author and his betas can be wonderful, as long as each party remembers their roles. The author needs to chill for a few days and let the beta readers read. The beta readers need to read and then give constructive feedback to the author. Constructive being the key. If you are asked to beta read and aren’t sure what the author wants, ask. Then there can be no misunderstandings. Your job is to help the author tighten the story, not make it look pretty – unless that is what you’re asked for.


  1. There’s a reason I haven’t been sucking up and offering to beta-read for anyone.

    I’ve done it before, it’s work, and it’s really hard not to read in analyst mode, and I can see that analyst mode isn’t helpful if the most important question is was the read compelling to the end.

    Not that I’m unwilling to do it again, but it’s more on the order of “someday I might want a returned favor.” (I’ve written about eight pages in the last three months, and that was yesterday, so that’s not real likely either.)

    1. Synova, you’re right. It is work, especially if your inner editor is loud. That’s why it is so very important to know what the author wants and it is why so many people don’t make good beta readers. They simply can’t or won’t turn off the editor and just read.I find this especially true when the beta reader is another writer. Shrug.

  2. Not sure i agree about beta readers not being needed for proofing/spell checking. Assuming the author is unpublished, someone at _some point_ is going to have to tell them what they keep doing that might prevent it’s sale. A simple squee/rawr isn’t going to get one over the hump. For that matter anything as yet unsold probably needs at least one or two of grammatically fanatical reader types to go over. It is part of the flow of a story. If I’m reading say Michael Z Williamson and out of no where is a passage that suddenly sounds like Guy Gavriel Kay write it at the end of a three week bender, well there’s two items of concern there.

    1. Mike, you’re confusing beta readers with those others an author relies on for proofing/copy editing etc. Beta readers usually see a piece before it is even edited to any real extent by the author. This is the first check by the author to see if the book works. At this point, all that is important is if the story is there, if it holds the reader’s attention, if it leaves the reader wanting more from the author, and if the reader connects with the plot/characters. The other stuff comes later.

      Honestly, you’ve just proven my point that most people don’t understand what beta readers do. That’s not to say an author — published or not — doesn’t need someone to go over the manuscript JUST BEFORE SUBMISSION to check for grammar, punctuation and spelling. They do. But not when you are asking for beta readers. They are READERS. Not editors or proofreaders.

      I’m not saying an author shouldn’t have someone — or several someones — go over their manuscript with an eye to grammar, punctuation and spelling before submitting it. But that really is later in the process. Think about it this way. Beta readers are brought in while the author is still in the creative process of the book. Yes, it’s finished, but “The End” is penciled in and not finalized. After the beta readers get back to the author and the author has mad any content changes necessary, then he can worry about the editorial end of it. And, btw, a good beta reader isn’t always a good editor/proofreader and vice versa.

  3. Well, Sarah keeps sending me stuff, so I can’t be too bad of a beta reader. But really, some typos are too funny to not comment on, and then you’ve gone and started a list, and since it’s handy . . .

    But it is necessary to let a reader know what you need from them.

    And yes, O’Mike, I know I need a grammar and spelling Nazi standing over me, whip in hand. But that’s not the sort of thing Amanda is talking about. This time.

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