Sunday, June 24, 2012

Beta Readers

We've all heard the term beta reader.

Wiki defines it as:  is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described as "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."

So the beta is the second (or third or fourth or fifth) person to see how well you've put on paper the story that's been in your mind. Ever wonder who the alpha reader is? You, the writer.

The scariest thing I ever did was let another human being see my story. She was a coworker. Her input was really basic. If I entertained her, I succeeded. She liked it, and I was encouraged, but I realized I needed a bit more detail in the feedback.

I read in Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy about having a Wise Reader. When I sent further edits of my manuscript, I included this summary of Card's description:

What the beta is not:
  • Trained in literature
  • Needed to tell me how to fix the story. I need to figure that out. (So no diagnosis or what’s wrong or prescriptions)
What you need to do is answer questions:
  • Were you ever bored or found your mind wandering (tell me where)
  • What do you think of the characters? Who do you like? Who do you not like? (Why to both the above)
  • Was there anything you didn’t understand?Did you get confused anywhere? Did you have to read any section twice?
  • Was there anything you didn’t believe? Any time you said, “Oh, come on!”
  • My Online Critique Group
  • What are you still wondering about?
I think these beta readers are absolutely needed in the writing process. When we're involved in critique groups, we're with other writers who are trained to pick the writing apart. It's very much about diagnosis and prescription. But sometimes we just need people who can experience the story.

What do you ask of your betas?

Do you ever have those times when what you really just need is encouragement?

If so, how do you let your beta know that?


mooderino said...

Excellent post. Even if the reader wants to offer prescription and diagnosis I wouldn't mind if they answered the above questions too.

Moody Writing
The Funnily Enough

JeffO said...

Great post, Donna. Like you, I found the hardest part of writing (aside from queries and synopsis, that is) was showing my work to someone I knew well, in this case, my wife. Like your first reader, she was not helpful in terms of offering heavy critical feedback, but she was encouraging, didn't look at me like I had three heads, and didn't throw me out of the house or anything! Which really was exactly what I needed from her.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I have two test readers who are just as you described - they just enjoy science fiction. They are also the best for finding things wrong with the big picture.

Pam Williams said...

So a beta reader is sort of like a groupie who has nothing else to do but read manuscripts. How do you find them? Everybody I know is too busy. I gave three manuscripts to a friend last year but so far I've only got one of them back. Of course, she has five kids... On the positive side, she is very thorough. This isn't the same as paying an editor for a line-and-content edit, is it.

Nancy Thompson said...

I prefer CPs over betas, but I've used a few betas, as well. They generally don't give me the kind of feedback that is helpful, mostly just encouragement which is not a bad thing at all.

Unknown said...

Sometimes I have specific questions for my beta readers. With the last one, she's a soon-to-be published author. Her insights were excellent. She saw issues that no one else had to date. Or that no one bothered to vocalize until I brought up what she said. While it was painful at first, I'm so glad she offered to read for me.

Mark Penny said...

I read about the trained reader once, too, but I think it was the other book: Characters and Viewpoint. It struck me as a great idea. Someday I'll use it.