We have a great tip below, written by our own Dark on "Why a Beta?". But before we launch into this tip, Podiumdavis recently approached Renee and I on another of his wonderful compilations. For this one, instead of privately gathering interviews and/or questions and pulling them together, the thought is to put out the inquiry and invite anyone interested to submit their responses privately to Podiumdavis. Then in a short bit, we'll post the best ones (and as usual, if there is enough and the answers are varied, we might have this as a two-parter.
So the inquiry is:
Given the modern climate in our society, constantly hearing of another gay teen committing suicide across our television screens, how would you, given the chance, save someone’s life? Yes the Trevor Project is amazing, as is the ‘It Gets Better movement.’ So in as few words as possible, how does it get better and why does it get better?
Remember, your words could potentially save someone’s life.
Definitely a more substantial question than we've typically done, but very timely and relevant as well. We invite any GA member to participate, and look forward to your thoughts.
And now, on to our Thursday Tip!
Why a Beta?
Newbies everywhere have asked the question “What is a beta?” An explanation is usually followed up with either a disbelieving “I don’t need no stinking beta!” or a mad rush to find someone who will tell them they’re the next Stephen King! and their writing is too darn awesome for a beta!! Don’t forget the exclamation points.
The truth is that all writers no matter our level of experience need someone to review our work before we submit it to a larger audience. Why? Because words are pictures to authors, but those pictures sometimes come out fuzzy.
Professional authors use many betas for a variety of purposes. Just like we go to certain of our friends when we want expertise on certain things, so, too, do authors use betas. I would never go to my sister for style advice, but she’s good at spotting emotion in things. I have a friend I send stuff to when I’m not sure if a character is staying in character. You can also use betas to help in areas you have no experience with. You’d want a doctor to review that essential medical scene, maybe a lawyer to help you with a court case, a contractor to help with that remodel … get the idea?
A smart writer will employ both a beta and an editor. Many betas are also editors, but not every editor is a beta. Typically, an editor looks only at the technical aspect of the craft: punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Betas, however, can serve a number of different purposes and this is why every writer (and every beta) has a different definition for what a beta is.
Beta-readers (or betas for short) have been around for a very long time, but the term itself is fairly new. “To beta” something is generally attributed to the dawn of the computer age when programmers give their work to coworkers/friends/family and have them “break” it. That is, beta-testers use the program and see if it does what it is supposed to do. Generally, this is the stage right before the final version is shipped to distributors for sale. For writers, a beta serves a similar purpose.
In my experience, betas typically fall into one of two categories: the line by line commentator and the summarizer. Each can be helpful; which type you use depends on what you respond to best or what you want for a particular story. You might use both for a single story. It’s up to you.
I am a summarizer, as are many of the betas I have worked with in the past. Summarizers give comments to the writer in paragraph form, generally either separate from the text like in an email, or at the very beginning or ending of a chapter or story. For example, this is an excerpt from comments I wrote to a friend of mine: The sex in the tree seems really uncomfortable! LOL. Not just the positions, but do any of these guys believe in lube? This sex scene, like the one at the beginning, is superfluous and does nothing for the plot. It should be cut out.
Line by line commentators typically find a way to make a comment on particular lines of a story and these are very specific. Remember your English teacher and all the red marks and notes written in the margins? Yeah, like that. Since most of us on GA send our work to others electronically rather than as a hard-copy, notes and questions to the writer are easy to insert using a word-processing program as comments or by using the track changes tool.
Sometimes, a writer has a specific list of requirements for their beta but a lot of times writers don’t know what we want. Even when we specifically ask for something, a writer does not always know best.
Betas serve many functions for a writer. Betas develop their own style and a way of doing things just like writers do. (At the bottom of this article are a few links to help the developing beta.) Writers and betas do not have to like each other, but without mutual respect the partnership is doomed. Betas need confidence and a balance in their critiques. I do not make a good beta because I focus too much on the negatives. Other betas focus too much on the positives. Some betas give light feedback and some betas provide so many comments it’s like reading a novel.
The hardest part of using a beta is finding one! I have worked with several through GA and other sites and for every successful collaboration, there’s ten failures. The key is to not give up. I have a few go-to people when I’m looking at specific aspects of a story, but finding what I call my Perfect Beta took me three years. Three years to finally find someone who can follow my rambling thoughts, be tough with me, and yet pinpoint the exact spots in a story to turn it from okay into great. Three years! I thought it would never happen.
What I can advise when beta-hunting is to not wait for someone to find you. There are websites and forums where you can go to advertise (on GA, look in the editor’s corner). You can also look at the stories you read to see if the author lists his beta(s). Here on GA there’s a special search tool for betas and editors. Simply click on the GA Stories link and on the left-hand side you can select Editors or Beta Readers under in the browse list. Sometimes, authors you read are willing to beta, like Cia, for example, one of our hosted authors here on GA.
An author’s writing style appeals to different kinds of people. Some of the best insights you can glean on your writing is from the comments you receive. I’ve received several comments that were so amazing that I just had to continue the dialogue and indeed led me to my perfect beta.
When I first came to GA, I had no beta. After getting to know some of the folks here, advertising, and doing some snooping around, I started working with some folks as betas. My editor helped me make some connections and being in chat helped me get to know even more people.
As an author, you will work with many different beta readers. You will out-grow some or drift apart, just like we do with our friends. The important thing to remember with a beta reader is that you should get something out of it. Sometimes the best way to do that is to think like a beta.
Here are some links that I have found helpful:
- Ten Tips to be a Better Beta Reader by Corrine Jackson
- The Beta Reader's Bible by online author Tania
What is a Beta Reader & Where Do I Find One? from literary rambles dot com
Good luck on your Beta Hunt!