Guest Post: What is Beta Reading? by JM McDowell

Welcome, JM McDowell, to Writes and Bites! JM is an archaeologist and planner by day and aspiring novelist by evening. Currently focused on Mid-Atlantic archaeology, she did graduate work in Honduras and Mexico. She is currently revising and polishing a science fiction novel based on the premise “What happens when an archaeologist discovers the final resident in her eighteenth-century cemetery is a skeleton with twenty-first-century dental work and artifacts?”

Hello, everyone. I’d like to start by thanking Kat for her gracious invitation to speak with you about beta reading today. You see this term tossed out on a lot of blog posts, but it’s not always clear what is meant.

If your goals include publication, whether through a traditional press, an e-press, or your independent outlet, you need beta reading.

So What Is Beta Reading?

Beta reading is the critical read of a manuscript prior to submission for publication. Some writers use the term interchangeably with “critiquing.” But critiquing also includes the exchange of a few manuscript pages between members of a writers’ group. True beta reading means review of a complete manuscript.

Most discussions of beta reading are directed to fiction writers, especially those working on novels. But those of you writing short stories, memoirs, and other types of nonfiction should also give thought to such a reader for your works.

Why Should I Have A Beta Reader?

Have you ever read something and found obvious mistakes? Typographical errors peppered throughout? Statements that you know are incorrect? Something so poorly written it made you laugh before you tossed the book aside, unfinished? Do you want your work to get the same reaction?

Beta reading is a powerful tool for making your work the best it can be. Even the most successful authors with multiple bestsellers have go-to readers for the drafts of the next book. Maybe they’re old-school and don’t call them “betas.” But that’s what those go-to readers do.

Even if you’re a professional editor by day, it’s impossible to review your own writing with an unbiased eye. We writers spend too much time with our works, and we have so much backstory or other information in our heads. We don’t always recognize that we’ve missed an important step or link.

When Do I Bring In A Beta Reader?

First drafts aren’t ready for review by anyone except the author. Put that first draft in a drawer for a few weeks or months. Then go back and see it for what it is—a starting point. (If you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, you’re familiar with “sh*tty first drafts.”)

Whether you’re writing fiction, a memoir, or the definitive textbook on your specialty, go after those awkward sentences, bad grammar, superfluous scenes, plot holes, less-than-complete revelations, poorly supported conclusions, missing data—everything. Finished? Now you’ve got a decent second draft.

This is when you first call in a beta reader—if you feel ready. Is your second draft still weak? Go ahead and wait until you finish draft three. But personally, I wouldn’t go longer than this. We need objective, critical input to make sure we’re on the right track with our story, idea, or textbook. It’s better to hear what isn’t working before sinking years into a project.

What Do I Look For In A Beta Reader?

You want someone who will read your work thoroughly, carefully, and with an eye toward helping you improve it. Some people are blunt in their comments, sometimes to the point of cruelty. I don’t hold with that type of review. Writers tend to be self-conscious, self-doubting, and sensitive. Critiques should be constructive, not soul-crushing. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is not a philosophy I follow.

Beta readers should point out what is working in your manuscript as well as what isn’t. Ideally, their response begins with good points, then gets into what really needs work, and finishes with more positive feedback.

Beta readers don’t need to be fellow writers. Especially with fiction, someone with a good feel for what works in a story—and doesn’t—can provide valuable feedback. Fellow professionals in your field or skilled experts for your “how-to” book are also potential good beta readers.

Where Do I Find Beta Readers?

It’s first important to realize that beta reading is a time and labor intensive act. So you should be prepared to reciprocate with someone who agrees to help. Agree to read something s/he has written and provide good feedback. If you don’t think your skills are up to par, offer something else in return, be it monetary reimbursement or sharing your expertise. Can you help design a web site? Offer research assistance? There are many ways to reciprocate—be creative!

I have found wonderful beta readers in the blogging community. Ask your blog buddies for help. Some may decline because they don’t want to jeopardize that friendly, supportive relationship with you. That’s okay. But look carefully at people who follow your blog. Read their “about me” pages. Some of them are professional writers/editors or have degrees in English. There is a potential gold mine here for excellent sources of feedback.

Do you belong to a writers’ group? Is there someone who makes really helpful comments for you or other members? Maybe that’s a good person to approach about a reciprocal arrangement.

Check out online resources such as Absolutewrite.com. They have a beta forum at: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ where individuals can look for and offer help.

Another potential source is critters.org. With sites like this, you may have to wait your turn or provide help first. Check out the most recent requirements on the web site and see if the community looks like a good fit for you.

Finally, you can also hire manuscript coaches, who often advertise in writing magazines. This is an option if you’re uncomfortable asking people you know to provide critical reviews or offering the same in return. Usually these coaches are looking at more polished manuscripts, so check to see if and how they read earlier drafts.

Would You Like More Details?

In early 2012, I posted a four-part series about beta reading on my blog. If you’d like more information or insights from other writers who commented about their experiences, please feel free to drop by the “Beta Reading Guidelines” page on my blog at http://jmmcdowell.com/beta-reading-guidelines/. And, of course, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have here in the comments.

My thanks again to Kat for the invitation to spend some time with you!

21 thoughts on “Guest Post: What is Beta Reading? by JM McDowell

  1. Great post, jm! I’m lucky to be tapped into a great community of writers and potential beta readers, but I didn’t know the term until I started blogging two years ago. Your explanation and tips for finding beta readers are really helpful.

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    1. Thanks, Laura! You have me beat by one year. I learned the term soon after I started blogging last Halloween. 😉 Before that, I didn’t have a term for the “critical readers” of my manuscript. I’ve found several betas in the blogging community, and that’s simply one reason I wish I would have started blogging earlier. The help and talent to be found in this writers’ community should never be underestimated.

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      1. We’re on such similar tracks, jm! I’m just a year ahead because I started blogging exactly a year before you (in November). I do belong to a novel critique group, which I suppose by this definition would be a beta group. We read each other’s full manuscripts and then have a several-hour critique session. Plus we write each other line comments and overall editorial letters. I love hearing what other people have to say, and I’ve learned so much from those get-togethers.

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  2. Great guest post, JM! I agree with everything you said (of course, we are cosmic twins after all). My initial experiences with critiquing were in a group format with a writing professor leading the charge. Beta reading was not something I encountered until later in my writing journey. For a long time I couldn’t decide which was more effective–the group format or the one-on-one method.

    It really does depend on individual styles and backgrounds and the type of ms being critiqued. But, ultimately, I do prefer the personal treatment of beta-reading, which I sometimes find lacking in a group situation. Either way, quality of a critique is heavily dependent on the professionalism, knowledge, and effort of the people involved.

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    1. The possibilities today are amazing, aren’t they? Traditionally, our only source of potential “critters/betas” were people we knew from classes or writers’ groups. Now with the internet, writers who have never met “in person” can help each other out.

      As you say, the quality depends on the individuals involved. New writers who haven’t had classes or previous experience with critique groups may want to try those arenas first before jumping into “beta reading” with someone. Then, as they become more familiar with the elements of good writing and how to look for them they can move into the more personalized realm of beta reading.

      The key is to do one’s homework and understand what s/he is looking for from a critter/beta and to prepare for the results. Even the most carefully worded critiques will sting. But we can’t improve as writers if we can’t learn what isn’t working!

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  3. Yeah, I always called them first readers. But no matter what you call them, they are vital and can make or break you. Family can tend to be ‘too nice’ and end up being useless. When you find that magic someone that is truthful and not only catches grammar and spelling, but more importantly, tells you when a character does something ‘out of character’ or when the plot slows and also gives you different ideas to spark your mind in new directions…then writing becomes exciting. I love my first readers.

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    1. And for me, those first readers see multiple drafts of the story. 😉 Most of us need more than two drafts to have a truly polished and well-written book. Those first readers/betas really help us get to that final publishable story. I have some readers who see every draft and then others who come in “fresh” for later versions. For me, that provides a number of perspectives on what is working and what isn’t.

      It can be confusing and frustrating, there’s no doubt about that. And when we’re confronted with one reader saying “Part A is great” and another saying “Lose Part A,” we still have to wrestle with what to do. But the goal is to make our stories the best they can be. And no one ever said good writing was easy! Your attitude is a great one—sparking our minds in new directions can take our stories to the next level. 🙂

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      1. Yep…I have one reader that goes through with me every step of the way. She is invested in the story because she loves the characters and is my best help at keeping them true to themselves. Then I have multiple others for various stages along the way that look at it fresh. It’s a long process…but so worth it.

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  4. Beta readers are vital! I’ve had great feedback on my work. They pointed out areas that needed more detail or clarification, typos, and took time to praise sentences or passages they enjoyed. My WIP is better for my beta readers. Even if I don’t use all the feedback. Sometimes it is conflicting!

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    1. When it comes to conflicting comments, we have to figure out the right course. When multiple readers note the same areas needing work, we’d better listen, even if it means “killing a darling” or cutting a favorite scene. I’d much rather have a few readers pointing out my weak areas than the larger public tearing my book to shreds.

      And yes, good betas also point out what IS working well! One, it helps ease the pain of the more critical comments. But just as importantly, we then know not to change something that’s working well!

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  5. Outside, objective opinions on one’s manuscript are vital. As you point out, it’s far too easy to miss plots holes and other weaknesses in our own work, probably because we’re too close to it. Nice post!

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    1. Thanks, Carrie. 🙂 My experience tells me we can’t give our own writing the critical edits it needs. Part of my job has always entailed editing of archaeological reports. And I can do that well for other archaeologists. But I can’t be the sole editor of my contributions. I would miss too many errors—typos, grammar, insufficient detail to support an argument, etc.

      Criticism always hurts at some level, even when we’re used to it and it’s delivered in truly constructive ways. But it’s far better to hear what isn’t working from a few test readers than from a reading public leaving bad reviews across the internet!

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      1. “But it’s far better to hear what isn’t working from a few test readers than from a reading public leaving bad reviews across the internet!”—Agreed and then some!

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  6. I actually didn’t know what beta reader was until a few months ago when a blogger posted about them. Then I realised I use them all the time (only under other names).

    I agree – totally invaluable! Great post JM 😀

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    1. Thanks, Dianne! I think the term’s fairly new, being adapted from “beta testers” in the IT world. But whatever we call them, we shouldn’t try to publish without them! 🙂

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  7. As one of your beta readers, I can tell you that, for me, it was as big an honor to do so as anything I can almost imagine. I enjoyed the experience, and could see your dedication to your novel. I know it will be a great endeavor and am looking forward to seeing it in print, knowing I had just a bit to do with that.
    Scott

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    1. Aw, thanks, Scott. And you have been a great help with it. Even though I won’t make every change suggested by every reader or agree with every comment, every comment makes me think about what I’ve written and how could I improve it. That help is invaluable. And vital. Every successful honest writer will acknowledge the importance of that input on the final work. 🙂

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  8. Great post JM! I enjoyed your series on your blog about this too. I’ve had different beta readers for each book. The most important one has become my crit partner and my writing best friend. She’s invested in my success and I am in hers. It’s a wonderful relationship that I absolutely treasure!

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    1. Thanks, Kourtney! It’s the best of all worlds when we find someone who we can connect with on the writing journey. Being able to share experiences and provide honest critiques for each other is invaluable. Mine are getting a shout out in tomorrow’s post. 🙂

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