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Writing Tip: Why A Beta?



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:

Good luck on your Beta Hunt!


Recommended Comments

  • Site Administrator

A great article on beta reading, Dark, and right on the nose with the why's and how's that most of us work toward as authors and betas. I have betas and I beta for quite a few people off and on. I did for Dark at one time, or I tried. I'm one of the failures he had, though it was through no fault of his writing or my skills, it was a timing issue. I flaked on getting his stuff done in a timely manner since I was so occupied with various projects, which can be the downfall of trying to help too many people.


That's an important thing for a beta to remember. You can't help everyone, even if you want to, so make sure you can commit to doing what you say you will. Sometimes styles don't mesh up or you just can't work with someone, but you never know until you try. Working with other authors on their stories has helped me improve my own writing, and I like to think I've helped others as well. While not every attempt to find a beta is successful, authors should continue to try to find someone who works for them and their stories because the feedback is most definitely invaluable.

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Great tip for the day. I liked it a lot. Also as a side note: for the question listed above, please don't feel that you're not special enough to share. Everyone has a voice; though it's your option to speak.

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A great tip on beta reading Dark.


As Cia says, making sure you have the time to commit to deadlines is very important. One of the reasons I've avoided volunteering for anything with tight deadlines; I know I'm just too busy.

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I come from the Marketing/Media world and you test/focus group everything. It is always amazing to hear what other people thought your message was.

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I read your definition of a beta reader vs. an editor with a good deal of interest:


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.


The first link you provided above,Ten Tips to be a Better Beta Reader by Corrine Jackson), has a slightly different take on the function of a beta reader:


A beta reader (or betareader, or beta) is a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.


My own experience helping several authors with their work is that they define the responsibilities of editors and beta readers differently. The assistance I provide includes all the functions these definitions cover. I make suggestions about the story line, the characters, and improvements in wording. I would never overlook a spelling or grammar error. So, which am I? I don't think it matters. As long as an author has several people reviewing his work, there's a good chance all bases will be covered.


Most important, I think, is that everyone realize that producing a story requires teamwork and the author is the team leader. The final decisions are always his. I don't get upset if the author declines to use my suggestions.

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Personally, I think the whole idea of there being a beta or an editor is plain ridiculous. There's editors, and that's that. As Mike L says, the author has the last word. The author should use whoever he or she feels is most appropriate within a cohort of editors to the piece being worked upon. That way you can tailor the authorial needs to the available skills.


But if anybody seriously believes that there is somebody out there who is going to do spelling only, then they're bonkers. As for grammar, well, there's where it all goes wrong. Grammar can get very close to trajectory at times. And what sensible author is going to send back the comments on why Josh is shagging in chapter seven when he had his bits chopped off in chapter two, and died of secondary infections in chapter four?, on the basis that the reader was asked to 'look at spelling and grammar, but leave the trajectory and coherence to me and the editors, thank you!' Pullleeeze.


I think the idea of betas is because of some inherent either fear or snobbery: fear on the part of people who don't believe in the good work they do, sufficiently, to wear the title; snobbery on the part of people who have an overinflated sense of their own importance. In amateur fiction no editor has a say over what gets published and what doesn't. That's for the professional world, and even then they're called commissioning editors. There's nobody on a site such as this who fulfils that role below the level of Myr and probably Cia and a couple of others, i.e. those who decide upon the house style policy and the nomination of Proms and Hosteds. So editor is a very important, but also fairly lowly place in the 'hierarchy'. They just don't get decision making rights.


I edit for a couple of people and refer to myself as an editor, partly because, despite many explanations, I don't 'get' the definitions of beta, and; partly because I feel no boundaries when it comes to commenting on things. Send me a script asking for just a spell check and I'll go out of my way to find a hacker to insert a nasty worm into the file when I send it back :D Any attempt to demarcate between the two, is not an actual demarcation between two, but a division of one, with all the raggedy and bloody consequences, and doomed to fail, or be ignored.


But Dark is right. It is very much about a mutual viewpoint and mutual respect. And the editor has to respect the primacy of the writer. If you suggest, and they don't use, get over it, unless it looks earth shatteringly bad. Just remember to be vigilant, and to praise where possible.

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  • Site Administrator

There is a very simple reason some people will only call themselves a beta reader and not an editor, NotNoNever. Some people are good at looking for creative issues but have problems with their own spelling, much less correcting other's. Or they don't have the confidence in their grammar, punctuation, or spelling to consider themselves an editor but they're great at getting into the creative process and can help with plot ideas, or keeping characters 'in character', looking for head hopping, ect... They can also give the author input on how they viewed the story as a reader. They're not changing or correcting anything, they're just providing feedback on the story. Those people are typically going to consider themselves a beta reader.


I've had several authors who asked me to just focus on those aspects and ignore spelling and grammar, since they would have those done by someone who had more experience editing or were only working on their first creative draft. I've had some authors mark me as an editor on here, but it has only been recently that I felt confident enough in my knowledge to deal with those aspects of writing.


I did have a professional editor recently go over a novella I wrote and yes, she did write up comments on everything, but not everyone is qualified to do that. Beta readers are a valuable sub-set of the 'editing world', and one that shouldn't be disregarded lightly.

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  • Site Administrator

Naughty me to disagree


Nah, you just gave me a good reason to expound on my own views about beta reading. Disagree all you like; debate on views about writing AND editing processes is always welcome!

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  • Site Administrator

While it can be argued that a beta-reader is an editor by a different name, that's arguing semantics. From my perspective, there's a continuum ranging from spelling, through grammar, to sentence construction, and on up to story flow and plot.


I tend to give those people at the technical end of the spectrum the title "editor" and those that give advice on the creative end the title "beta-reader", though I could call them "editor", too, because they're editing - just editing at a different level to someone looking at the technical detail. If you can find someone who is skilled at the full spectrum, do whatever you can to keep them happy - they're worth a pile of gold to an author!


I do beta-reading from time to time, but I don't edit because my grammar, spelling and punctuation skills are not to what I consider to be an acceptable standard. I offer advice and comments on characterisations, story flow, and sometimes verbosity (did we really need a half page describing the sunset?). These are largely stylistic areas where it's legitimate to disagree with each other and my input is that of suggestions and review, rather than "editing". That's the way I view what I do.

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LOL speaking of Beta readers ill soon have the firsts Chapter of my first non Sci fi story and i would actully really like a beta reader soooooooooo anyone intrested or willing for that matter? ive only ever done Sci Fi/Fantasy stuff so im really kinda on the edge with this one.

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Wow, so many comments! :D


This just goes to show just how many definitions there are for what makes a "beta-reader" and/or "editor." I figure that arguing definitions is pointless. As long as my beta/editor and I agree on what services are being provided, I'm happy to give you whichever title you want. ;)

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