Beta Readers - Do You Need One?
What Should You Expect as Author & Beta?

by Laura Michelle Hale
August 7, 1999

I'm writing guest columns for Truth in Feedback and I thought this might be relveant and needed especially after my one beta went looking for an essay on this topic. Thanks to the other folks who I consulted with and gleaned some advice from: Niamh Crilly, Annie M and Tex. Thanks to my beta readers who really do help me improve my writing.

Should you have your piece beta read or not? If yes, then what should you expect from the beta reader? What should the beta reader expect from you? These are the questions before us today. Before you read any further though, let it be known that before this note ever made its way to a web page or mailing list, it was beta read by three beta readers: PJ in NH, psuther and DangerMom.

Before you go hunting for a beta reader to check over your piece there are several questions you should ask yourself. They are:

  1. How receptive are you to feedback? Do the phrases: "this needs work;" "great piece but ___;" "You missed a comma;" or "your characterizations were off;" make your toes curl and incite you to kill? Can you look at such comments and advice as a medium meant to help your writing improve? If not, then my suggestion is to pass on the beta reader, and go over your material with a fine tooth comb, and do not ask for feedback.
  2. Can you check over your own material in a thorough manner? Speaking for myself, I can't. I wrote it so I tend to miss my errors. It's a very large blind spot I have. Post beta read though, I can find more errors that the beta readers may have missed. Case in point, I wrote a fan fiction called "Boxers, Briefs or Commando?" Having read it through, prior to sending it to a beta reader, I didn't catch one error. The beta readers caught about a dozen errors I missed. After making corrections they suggested, I found another error on my own. If you have this blind spot, getting a beta reader would be advantageous to your writing.
  3. Are you a good listener? If you invest the time and energy to ask someone to beta read a piece for you, will you listen to them? If you are going to ignore every suggestion they give you, I would suggest you pass on getting the thing beta read. What's the point? If you don't make one change at all, do not have your piece beta read. It will just piss off your beta reader.
  4. Are you secure with your work? This is a mixed bag question. If you're extremely secure with it, grammar, plot, and characterization-wise, well then, you are all set. You don't need a beta reader. Well, you may need one, you may just not view it that way ;-) If on the other hand, you are secure with yourself and insecure with your work, a beta reader may not be that bad a thing. If you want some honest feedback and comments prior to posting, this may be a welcome set up. If you are rather insecure, pass. See comment one.
  5. Do you want your writing to improve? This may seem like a silly question, but some fan fiction writers write purely for the joy of writing. They have no desire to improve. If you want to improve, then I suggest going for it and getting your piece beta read.
  6. Are you comfortable with your subject matter? Do you have all the knowledge it takes information wise? If you are writing about a subject matter you are not completely familiar with, it might be a good idea to have a beta reader who is familiar with the topic.If you've never been pregnant, and want to write a pregnancy into your story, then find a beta reader who has had this experience.

After asking yourself those six questions, you should now be able to ascertain whether or not you need a beta reader. If you don't need one, then feel free to pass on the rest of this essay. Those who think they need a beta reader or are a beta reader themselves, then please continue on.

What should an author expect from a beta reader? You should have expectations as to what your beta reader will do for you. These expectations, however, hinge on who your beta reader is, what you want from them and what they are capable of doing. Communication is key. If you do not tell your beta what you want, you may not get it. You may have a beta reader who only looks at grammr, when you want them to examine plot intricacies. Communicate with them. It will save you a lot of exasperation and time in the end. On with the list: What should you, the author, expect from your beta reader?

  1. You should expect your beta reader to take your story seriously. They shouldn't blow you off or treat it like they are just giving you feedback.
  2. You should expect your beta reader to be thorough. They should not just give it a pass and only make one or two comments. They should try to catch as many errors as possible.
  3. You should not expect your beta reader to play god and find every single mistake. They may miss something. In fact, I have had three beta readers and they all find different things, or have had different gripes over certain things. They are not at fault if they do not catch everything.
  4. You should not expect your beta readers to comment on things that are outside of their area of expertise. If you have someone who does not have the world's best grasp on grammar, do not expect them to catch these errors. Instead, they could look for plot holes, characterization errors and loose ends. If you find someone who is good at one but not the other, find someone who will complement the other beta reader's weakness. Two betas can be better then one. (This type of chore splitting is what I call beta specialization and I use it myself. Then if the one has comments on the other aspect, I listen but the beta doesn't have as much stress trying to work the whole thing over.)
  5. You should expect your beta reader to complete the job in a timely manner. If you need it done sooner then in a timely manner, ask them when they will complete it. Sometimes things come up. Otherwise, give the beta reader at least a week to finish a short or mid-sized piece, longer for anything over fifteen pages. They, like everyone else, have lives. Do not demand the piece beta read in an hour. They'll miss things. It's in your best interest to have them sit with it for a while so they can be thorough.
  6. Do expect your beta reader to be honest. They are not obligated to be nice. They should be honest. This honesty thing will help your work.
  7. Your beta reader should not be patronizing, but on the other hand they should not let mistakes and gaffes slide just to pander to your ego. They are stating their opinions on your work and are acting, hopefully, like a professional editor would, by taking it apart.
  8. Do expect some opinions to creep in. Some folks may not see things a certain way, the same way as you and this may come across in the beta reading. Not everyone will see Janeway using contractions. Note this as an opinion. Think about it. You don't need to change things though. This is only an opinion.
  9. Do expect some thing to be said about what the beta reader liked. They should high light what they thinks works.

That is what you should expect from your beta reader.

What should the beta reader expect from the author? The beta reader should expect something from them because they invested the time and energy into this story and are thus part of it. Beta readers should expect the following:

  1. They should expect the author to incorporate some changes. You didn't sit with a piece for hours on end just to have the author blatantly ignore everything you said. If this happens, then suggest to the author that they may not be ready for a beta reader at this point or politely refuse to beta read for them again in the future.
  2. You should expect a thank you note or a thank you in the story intro. You should be acknowledged for your work. You spent time working on a piece and you should be given some credit. If you didn't do much though, then you may only get a thank you note from the author. A thank you in the story intro may not be required if you didn't make that big of a commitment.
  3. You should expect dialogue with the author. They may have questions about your comments. If they do, be ready to defend and further explain your thoughts. You do not need to defend your comments. You may need to further the train of thought that you expressed. Case in point: I discussed with my beta reader the issue of Janeway's use of contractions. She explained why she thought Janeway wouldn't use them and clarified the issue enough so that I felt comfortable initiating this change.
  4. You should expect the author to tell you their expectations for what you are about to do. If they do not outline what you are supposed to check for, ask. You should know if you are supposed to look over everything or if they would like you to focus on a certain aspect like grammar.
  5. A beta reader should expect, much to my own beta readers' angst, the piece to be spell checked, grammar checked on a word processor if available before it arrives in their in box.

At this point, you should know whether or not you need a beta reader, and what is expected of both an author and a beta reader. If you need a beta reader, e-mail me and I'll point you to several places that have beta reading services or beta readers. Hope this essay has been helpful and will serve as a guide in the future when you're on the final steps of a story.

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Darrel W. Beach, BSc.
Programmer/Developer, Focus Systems Inc.
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