What is Beta Reading?

If you are asking yourself: beta what? don’t worry. Four years ago I asked the same thing, when I first saw the term ‘beta reader’ being bantered around the blogosphere.

The term ‘beta’ comes from the software industry and refers to software released to the public for in situ testing. We’ve all helped to weed out glitches and bugs in our favourite apps and programs (I was among the excited Windows users who downloaded Scrivener beta in 2009!) Now apply the same understanding to the process of writing, editing and re-drafting.

Simply put, beta reading is the process of testing a work of fiction for its strengths and weakness, combining a framework of critical reading and thought, with mindful communication.

The process of beta reading can be viewed in a number of ways, which include:

  • an invitation
  • a testing ground
  • a dialogue
  • a single opinion
  • one of the most important steps a writer takes with their work

There is a reason I haven’t used the word “critique” or “constructive feedback”. I’ve found over the years, the mention of these two words incite immediate creative seizure. For most writers, the idea of sending a story out for ‘testing’ is far less confronting than the prospect of being ‘critiqued’.

WHAT IS A BETA READER?

A beta reader is someone invited to read a work of fiction with the aim to improve it in readiness for publication.

A beta reader is, in essence, a fiction test driver. They provide feedback to the author about what is and isn’t working with the story and offer suggestions to address the flaws/weaknesses. Beta reading is not a line edit. In fact, a good beta reader will not touch the actual document the work is in, unless it is to attach their comments to a specific section of the writing.

WHY BETA READ?

Why waste valuable writing time improving someone else’s fiction? That’s what you’re thinking, right? Doubly so, if you both happen to be working toward submitting work for the same competition or publication. Seems counter-intuitive.

The Best Professional Development You’ll Never Pay Money For

Beta reading is one of the best ways you can improve your writing. When you spend time deconstructing another writers’ work, you quickly get a keen sense of what makes a story ‘tick’ and the difference between powerful and indifferent writing. You get a feeling for where stories naturally start and end, pacing, characterization, dialogue and language in general.

In short, beta reading improves your writing and story telling skills.

Paying It Forward

Beta reading pays it forward. In addition to strengthening your writing network, beta reading ensures you’ll always have people willing to help you out with your work, if you spend a little time with theirs. The average beta read, takes between one and two hours.

Few writers can afford to engage a structural editor to help improve their work (a professional editor charges between $40 and $80 an hour—far out of the league of most writers!) Beta reading is the perfect stop-gap solution.

MOST COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT BETA READING

Whenever I ask people what they want to know about beta reading, it inevitably falls into one of two categories: when will they know that their work is ready to pass onto a beta reader and how do they find someone to beta read for them.

The big misconception about beta reading is that the process starts with someone else. In fact, the process starts with you. Think ahead. Offering your time and insights up is your best bet at having your own work beta read in return.

Newbies And Beta Reading

Should newbies beta read for each other? Absolutely!

Most writers are avid readers also, and you don’t need to be an experienced writer to be able to pick a story apart to know what is working and what isn’t. Remember, beta reading isn’t editing, it is testing the integrity of a story to “see if it holds together if I jump up and down on it here… and here.”

I started writing around the same time as most of my small tight-knit group of beta readers, and we’ve grown and developed over the years alongside each other. It’s helpful if someone has a little more experience they can pass on, but it’s not essential in the early days.

Look for people calling for a beta reader on Twitter of Facebook, or let others know you are available to help.

But I don’t know what to do?

With this in mind, the companion articles to this one will explore the ‘how to’s of beta reading in the coming months. They will provide information and insights to empower readers to know what to offer feedback on, and how to do it with confidence and grace. Also tips on getting the most out of your beta reading experience, as the author and the beta reader.

Until then, dip into a few of these online resources…

Australian author Donna Maree Hanson did a terrific series of interviews with published authors on beta reading. You can read the interviews here.

Make Your Comment Count is an article that applies some of the basic ideas of beta reading to online commenting.

This article was first published at the Friday Flash blog, November 29 2012

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