Random Thoughts: On Beta Reading
The chatter around the blogosphere often talks about the perks that come with being a book blogger – receiving advance copies of books for review, connecting with authors in a way that is often not the norm for non-bloggers, making connections in the publishing industry and being allowed to attend industry events.
But there is one perk that comes with blogging that’s not often talked about. And that’s being asked to be a beta reader. For those who don’t know what that is, Wikipedia provides a definition:
A beta reader (also spelled betareader, or shortened to beta) 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.”
Not all authors use beta readers. And not all authors seek out bloggers to be their betas. But some do. And while there may be those bloggers who ask around to see if authors are looking for betas, in general the author would reach out if they were looking for someone to read and critique their work.
The perks of being a beta.
While I may call it a perk – because to me it definitely is a perk – it’s not one that’s always fun, it’s almost never easy and it’s most certainly not free. Being a beta requires a pretty significant time commitment depending upon the level of development of the story. While some beta reads simply require a few tweaks here and there to the plot and a handful of edits to grammar, some require a more significant edit.
And that takes time. As does reading the book with a careful and critical eye. When proofreading, checking for content and continuity errors, weak points in the story, unnecessary dialogue or scenes, or any other issues a story may have, the time to read the story takes far longer than when reading a story for review. Add in the time it takes to stop to make detailed notes and suggestions and the time spent with the story can be quadruple, if not more, than the time spent with it for review purposes.
So why is this a perk again? Well, because as a beta your opinion counts. In a very real way. Edits you suggest may get taken into consideration by the author and could potentially affect the story. An unfinished story arc or a weak plot point that you address may become finished or strengthened because of your input. Continuity errors that get corrected because of your critical eye will likely be reflected in the published work.
As a beta reader your views could make a difference to the finished product, which is not something that typically comes from reviewing a book. Even if you were to review it early, the likelihood of the points you make in your review affecting the published story are pretty slim.
But if you enjoy being an integral part of the process and helping to perfect an author’s creation, then being a beta reader can be just as exciting as it is challenging.
Beta reads are not the same as reviews.
Beta reading is not the same as reviewing. At least in my experience. While there are different types of reviewers that range from the more subjective to the more objective, reviewers are generally commenting on a finished story for the purpose of giving their opinions to readers on whether a story is worth their time and money.
A beta reader’s opinions aren’t for the public. They’re for the author. And while their feedback on the story may come from their experiences as a reader and reviewer, their words don’t need to be tailored to fit a certain review style or format. And while nit-picking in a review is often criticized, taking edits to that level of specificity in a beta read can be a good thing.
And all betas are required to give an honest and thorough critique. Not that honesty and thoroughness should be overlooked in a review. Honesty is always important. Being truthful in a review is key to making your opinion a trusted one, but the level of specificity necessary to voice that opinion is not the same as with a beta read. Saying that you “loved it” may be sufficient for a review, but those same words aren’t necessarily helpful when being a beta.
And while a review is supposed to be a fairly concise look at a story and not a point-by-point critique of each and every positive and negative in that story, that level of detail can be extraordinarily helpful when beta reading.
Why? Because the point of beta reading a book is to make it the best possible book it can be before it goes out to the world at large. So, while saying that it’s “great” or “awesome” might be perfect ways to describe a book for review purposes, it’s not always the best way to describe a book to an author looking for an in-depth critique.
Where things get tricky.
While being selected as a beta reader is a huge honor – there are far fewer beta readers of a book than there are early reviewers – it’s also a huge responsibility. And one that can potentially put the reader in a difficult position.
Beta readers who are friends and family have it the hardest. Which is why, generally, beta readers shouldn’t be family members or friends. Brutally honest and extremely critical feedback is sometimes necessary to making that story shine. But finding friends and family willing to be critical of their loved one is not always a realistic expectation. They have to see that person again, and anything less than a comment of “phenomenal” can often be hurtful. So they’re not always willing to be that critical, honest or thorough in their analysis of the story.
And they, more than anyone, may know the sensitivity of the person asking for the beta read and feel that any harsh criticism would deflate their spirit and crush their creativity. And so they either soften the blow or outright lie just to avoid that responsibility.
Beta readers who are book bloggers or reviewers may also be in a tough spot. Typically authors will approach bloggers to beta read their work who they already “know” from their reviews or from interacting with them online or in person. But reviewers who “know” the author in advance may feel they are too close to be able to voice their honest feedback. And they may not want to risk severing their relationship with the author by being as critical as might be necessary for the story.
Even turning down an author for a beta read may seem like a slight. And so the reviewer might feel obligated to take on the project. And if the story does require significant edits or changes they may feel too uncomfortable to voice their thoughts. So, in order to avoid any potential drama, they may choose to be vague or less thorough than they might otherwise be.
So, yes, it can be tricky. A perk can quickly turn into a relationship-severing nightmare. One that no family member, friend or book blogger would ever want to have happen.
The responsibility factor.
Even with the potential to insult the author or hurt their feelings, there is a responsibility that comes with beta reading a book. And that’s to be truthful and as thorough as possible when giving feedback.
If the story does have hundreds or thousands of copy edits, it’s better to catch them early. Especially if the author is going the self-published route and may not be paying for an editorial service to do the necessarily clean-up. While the author may be shocked or surprised to see the number of track changes edits or comments in the margins it’s better than seeing review after review pour in after the fact talking about how poorly edited the work is.
And while it may be even more difficult to voice an opinion about how the story is developing, the connection with the characters or a storyline that doesn’t flow, it’s better to put that out there for the author to consider rather than having them be surprised by it when the reviews start rolling in. Whether they choose to take those comments into consideration is their decision, but voicing them, as difficult as it may be to do, is the responsibility of the beta reader.
Critical doesn’t mean cruel.
But being critical doesn’t mean being cruel. And being honest and thorough doesn’t mean being vicious.
Stating that something is confusing or that one scene doesn’t transition smoothly from the previous scene can helpful. Saying that something just sounds stupid, not so much. Discussing aspects to a character that may make them less easy to connect with or understand – helpful. Saying that a character sucks or is an ass-hat – again, not so much. Sometimes it may be the author’s intent for the character to be a jerk. But it may not be their intent for the character’s motives to be confusing.
While page after page of redline edits may be a shock at first, when they see that those edits are there only to improve their creation, they might be reluctantly appreciative. When presented in a way that the edits are impersonal and only for the betterment of the story, it’s a much easier pill to swallow. Whereas page after page of what appear to be personal attacks is not.
So, to try to wind down this rather longer than intended post, I will just say that the perks of being a beta reader definitely outweigh the potential drawbacks. If you have the time and the ability to look beyond your friendships to read a story in a way that could be helpful, then go for it. And while there is enormous responsibility put on your shoulders, is there anything more exciting or rewarding than being even just a small part of the process? I don’t think so.
Are beta readers an absolute must? In my opinion, yes they are. Even if there is a team of trusted editors and other experts hired who can do just that, having a beta reader take a look at a story before it becomes widespread can give the author at least some sort of gauge where their story is from an independent party’s perspective. Just like the author, the editorial team may be too close to the book and an outsider’s point of view can shed new light on it. If the beta reader’s opinions are trusted, then it certainly can’t hurt.
Should bloggers be beta readers? Sure. Why not. Bloggers can be great beta readers. Authors who are looking for readers of their work for critique purposes can get to know a blogger’s style and views by simply reading their reviews. While this can muddy their relationship with the blogger and potentially lead to drama if the author or blogger is not as professional as they should be, the reward still outweighs the risk, in my opinion. The blogger gets the chance to be one of a select group of very early readers whose opinions count and the author could have a book that is better for having taken those opinions into consideration.
Should bloggers be the only betas? No. Definitely not. I think that beta readers should come from a diverse group of people. Whether that group includes family, friends, colleagues, industry professionals, reviewers or readers, it’s always good to have multiple perspectives and not just the one.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. As long as there is a level of mutual respect, that is. Expending the effort to have your opinions criticized definitely makes it not worth it. Taking the time necessary to be thorough when proofreading to have your edits ignored without any consideration may also make it seem like a worthless endeavor. But when your opinion is valued it makes every second more than worth it. And while not every bit of feedback will – or should – be accepted, just knowing the author took the time to read it, consider it and make a decision based upon that feedback, is so incredibly thrilling.
And what about acknowledgement? I say don’t choose to become a beta reader with any expectation of acknowledgement. While Wikipedia mentions that some authors thank their beta readers in the acknowledgement section of their book, it’s not always the case. And an author shouldn’t feel obligated to do so. Beta read because you want to and because the experience itself is its own reward. Just like with reviewing, do it because you enjoy it, not because you hope your review will get blurbed in a book.
Why do I beta? Aside from making connections with authors, beta reading is the perk that I love above all others. It’s actually how and why I started blogging in the first place and one of the reasons I kept going when in those early days I thought about walking away. I find it much, much easier to beta read a book than to read a book for purposes of a review. It’s much easier for me to voice my thoughts in fragmented sentences than flowing ones. And it’s much easier to spot those editorial mistakes before they reach the final copy than to cringe when I catch them in the finished version. And I find it much easier to voice my thoughts when I have an audience of just one. Even if that one person is the creator of the work.
What about you?
Do you beta read? What do you like or dislike about being a beta reader? As a beta reader do you prefer the content or copy edit side to beta reading? Do you consider beta reading a perk or a drawback? And have you ever been put in a difficult spot because of your critique? What has your experience been like?