The subject of beta readers is a surprisingly contentious one. At one end of the spectrum you have those who think you shouldn’t move without consulting one, and at the other people who wouldn’t touch a beta with a 10 foot barge-pole. For this post, I’ll be taking the view laid down by the Anglican church with respect to confession – all may, some should, none must.
The term has been around for comfortably more than a decade, and has been borrowed from the software industry. A quick look round and I can’t find an exact etymology for the term, but it looks like a label that was first applied in the earlier years of this century, but a practice that was in use before. This is something widespread – think about all the books you’ve read where the author acknowledges those that took the time to read the book before it was published, and provide feedback. Sometimes this is limited to an editor, sometimes there is a longer list, varying from a couple of people to a full blown cabal.
Every now and again the #WritingCommunity on Twitter starts discussing this, and I’m sure the same is true of other social media writing communities, not to mention the various real-life groupings and courses that are out there. Recently I saw a particularly vociferous response against the use of betas. Stripping out the emotive rhetoric, the argument can be summed up as ‘you should have the courage to write the story you want without interference, it’s your story, not someone else’s’. It’s not a terrible point, and does show that you need to be careful about how you use beta readers and why. The major problem that I had with the article (aside from the damning of everyone else’s opinion out of hand) was that it was shored up by the example of the pulp writers of the early 20th Century, people who were batting out copy at a ferocious rate. They, the writer argues, didn’t worry about beta readers, and neither should you. The problem with that, I think, is that there is some very bad writing in that oeuvre, and it would have benefited from a read-through. It was written, however, at a different time for a different market.
So why use a beta reader? Is it just from lack of confidence? Is it just a desire to have your ego stroked? There are a lot of people out there talking about what they are writing and the problems that they are facing. There are people who go through round after round of edits and don’t seem to get anywhere, and don’t want to show anyone what they’ve written until it is perfect. There are things that make perfect sense in our heads, and we think we’ve made it clear when we put it down in black and white, but it is all too easy to make a ‘magic step’ that we know is there, but the reader, without the support of what’s in our heads, falls down.
But it is worth being careful about who your beta readers are, and you do need to be careful about how you use them. Dumping your MS on a friend is unlikely to be useful. You don’t want someone who is just going to be kind, you want someone who will tell you the hard truths. You don’t someone who is just going to read through your MS, you want someone who is going to engage with it.
You’ve spent time and effort getting this book together, it makes sense to make sure that it is as smooth as possible. You might get different feedback from different people – that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing that you have to deal with. It’s your story. You’ve written every word, but you’ve jumped back and forth adding and changing bits as a result of changes in direction that you’ve taken or issues that have cropped up that you didn’t plan for. Does your story still make sense? Have any of the characters done anything uncharacteristic? Are there any plot holes that you’ve overlooked? Your betas, if you use them, are not just another reader: they are there to help you, but make their life a bit easier and tell them what you would like them to focus on – and you might have a different set of instructions for a different beta. Everyone has their strengths (and weaknesses) and it pays to know these and work to them, where possible. I’d strongly recommend reading Debs’ take on this, too.
I mentioned earlier that the term was one borrowed from the software industry. It’s also one that is evolving and is in a bit of a fight with other terms too. It’s important to be clear what you’re looking for in a beta. Sometimes beta is being used when really we should be talking about an alpha reader. Not everyone uses an alpha reader, but some people are lucky enough to have someone they can trust to try very early drafts on – particularly helpful when things are not gelling properly. Critique partners can fulfil a similar role in a different way. In the gig economy, people are putting themselves out there as beta readers for hire. These people are not editors and often their only link to writing is that they like to read a lot. Good on them for finding a way to make their hobby pay, but be careful – what can such a person offer you?
All may – it can be helpful, it’s worth considering, but it’s your story, and you need to remember that when looking at feedback.
Some should – we’ve all read stuff and we wonder what the editor was thinking allowing certain things through. But perhaps they didn’t have a strong enough relationship with the writer to say ‘I think you need to change this bit’.
But, none must. It’s your story, and if you think it’s perfect, send it off to an agent. They might disagree, whether or not your book has been read by a beta. But don’t just do what your betas say – at the risk of repeating myself, it’s your story.
© David Jesson, 2020