Beta readers

Welcome readers of Kev’s blog to my monthly editor’s guest post where I’ll be discussing beta readers today.

Every author’s dream? Or nightmare?

Come to that, every editor’s dream or nightmare too.

But, firstly, what is beta reading? And alpha reading?

An alpha read is looking at an early draft copy that is pretty raw.

A beta copy should polished and virtually finished. It should be well self-edited so that it is clean for the beta readers.

Beta reading is basically reading through a draft MS and giving a reader’s opinion of the story.

‘Meh, I didn’t like it’ isn’t really good enough.

It needs to be ‘Meh, I didn’t like it because …’ of plot, characters, pacing, tension, or even overall style of writing.

Also, ‘Meh, I didn’t like it because I don’t like vampires’ doesn’t cut it either. If you don’t like vampires, don’t offer to beta read vampire novels. Obvious huh?

According to Wiki, beta reading can include proofreading. In this instance I totally disagree. This is not what beta reading is about at all. Nor is it editing.

However, there are lots of would-be beta readers out there offering to do just that. Invariably students who seem to find proofing someone’s MS more interesting than studying.

But, this does raise an important point. At what point do you submit beta copies? Before or after you have paid for an edit? I have to say, I loathe beta reading anything chock-full of errors. I can’t read the story for the errors.

The author’s dilemma is whether to pay for an edit, and then make changes after beta feedback, or send out unedited copies with errors?

Not my issue. Luckily. I’ll come onto editing issues and betas later.

What should a beta report or feedback consist of?

I’ve heard first-hand stories of betas saying, ‘Yeah, liked it’. And that was it.

Others have a twenty page template that they fill in dutifully, comment on each chapter separately, and go through the whole MS using track changes to annotate. For free.

I’ll be honest, the only free beta reading I do, is for a chapter or two, or – very – short stories. And they get a one or two page summary of my opinion, plus, if there are loads of stupid errors I will mention them. I won’t touch novels for free.

My paid-for beta reads get a much more in-depth analysis, a ten (or so) page report, plus, examples of spelling/grammar/punctuation problems if they wish. So far, everyone has said yes to that, but it’s included in the price anyway.

I don’t send the MS back with mark-ups. A beta read is not a cheap edit or a cheap proofread, and I think this is part of the problem at the moment. People who don’t have the money to pay for the finishing skills are using free betas to hopefully plug that gap. And it doesn’t work.

Where do we find these golden gems who spend hours pouring over our novels?

Mostly on forums, or occasionally, for people who live outside the internet, from real life groups. Trouble is, once you know people, even on forums, chances of objectivity are decreased.

And, finding readers is totally hit and miss. Some authors can receive half a dozen responses. Others? Nothing.

How do you choose a beta reader?

Well, if you are asking for free ones, I guess you take whatever is offered. Maybe you will get results, maybe not. There are an awful lot of young beta readers specialising in NA/YA (unsurprisingly), fantasy, romance etc. No erotica, vampires, werewolves. So if you write crime, sci-fi, dystopian, mystery, spec-fic you might have a smaller potential market.

I’ve beta read: crime, fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, memoirs and travel – that come to mind. Should you look for a specialist beta reader? An avid fantasy reader, or a geek who knows all the sci-fi terms? Maybe a historical fiction reader who knows what the ton is?

Why pay for a beta reader?

I’ve read more than one author complaining about lack of interest, or failure to feed back, or getting poor feedback, so they went down the paid-for road on the grounds they could guarantee some type of response. And, they seemed happy with what they received from the paid-fors.

So while many people say an author should never pay for a beta reader, others find it a solution that works for them.

Catch as catch can.

Betas and editing

But what about the editing perspective?

I worked (editing) with someone and suggested the author delete certain sections.

‘Oh, but I added those in on the advice of my beta reader(s).’

Said beta readers were so lacking in imagination they would struggle to visualise the sun in a blue sky, so we had paragraphs of tortuous description that added nothing to the story.

‘I didn’t have it in originally because I’m not very good at description,’ added the author.

Seriously, what is the point of editing someone’s work to make it smooth, polished and flow better when an author decides to pay more attention to beta readers than their own instinct or my recommendations?

What an author should be looking for is an general idea of what works and what doesn’t work, not nit-picking comments about detail. Authors don’t need a thesis, merely pointers, ideas, opinions.

One of the golden rules is that authors don’t have to take on beta advice. And that’s important to remember if you go down the beta road.


About roughseasinthemed

I write about my life as an English person living in Spain and Gibraltar, on Roughseas, subjects range from politics and current developments in Gib to book reviews, cooking and getting on with life. My views and thoughts on a variety of topics - depending on my mood of the day - can be found over on Clouds. A few pix are over on Everypic - although it is not a photoblog. And of course my dog had his own blog, but most of you knew that anyway. Pippadogblog etc

32 comments on “Beta readers

  1. Reblogged this on CKBooks Publishing and commented:

    Kevin has some good thoughts on beta – readers.
    My thought is – and I’ve said this before – always thank your beta readers in some tangible way, whether you thought they gave you good advice or not. They are giving you their time, the that is a most precious commodity 🙂


  2. Odd . . . I came to respond to a response to one of my comments and both my comment and the response are gone . . . so . . . nevermind.


    • I found your comment in my trash and restored it. Sorry about that. Don’t ask how it got there though ’cause I honestly have no idea. Only thing I can think is, sometimes when I’m typing really fast the keyboard does stupid things like mistaking several keys for shortcuts. It’s extremely annoying. IDK!


  3. I think the best thing I’ve found about having a paid beta reader is getting the feedback within a reasonable amount of time!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for clarifying what seems like the quagmire of beta readers! I wasn’t quite sure even what alpha readers were until I read this post, so thank you for clearing this up for me! It seems you have to be clear in your own head what you want from beta readers and chose carefully and accordingly. Also I’m sure serious editorial issues would affect beta readers ability to judge a book so perhaps it should be highly polished before being released to beta readers. Thank you for sharing this thorough and thought through article. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read one comment recently by a professional British editor and she said too many authors are sending out copies to beta readers that are basically alph copies because they are too unfinished, and, as you say, not sufficiently polished.

      I think there is some confusion about what beta readers are, and should be, because they have morphed into anything and everything. People practising their editing skills and proofreading skills instead of concentrating on an overall opinion about the story and the impression it made on them.

      Thanks Annika 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve worked with a (physical) writer’s group for years. We alpha read each other’s work, and as we are all published authors (though we all still have day jobs), we are well used to being helpfully critical, as we all know what it takes to produce a saleable piece of work. This functions as my structural edit.
    After this, I now use a round of beta readers, drawn from people who have reviewed my previous books. I provide a questionnaire, and ask for any other feedback they might care to offer. It’s working really well for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Just want to express that I’m happy to see you Kev. ♡

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yeah, friends and family aren’t particularly recommended as beta readers.

    I think there are two aspects with feedback. 1) people say they want honesty but …
    2) in terms of pointing out weaknesses/flaws/problems, it’s all in the wording. Not glossed over so they sound like strengths but nit so brutal the author ends up contemplating jumping off a bridge.

    I think if the author is in a hurry, then yes scrap the beta round. It can take ages. Plus a decent editor should pick up on all the basics, structure, pacing, characters blah blah.

    Probably not, but they are the trend at the moment. Interesting some people will budget for two three paid ones to guarantee timing and a certain level of feedback.


  8. Thanks for the thorough outline of the beta-reading task. I’ve gotten useful feedback from beta-readers, but I think it helps that I provide a list of questions about different aspects of the book. I like to swap beta-reads, but only with authors who I know will send the best they can do. Like you, when reading really rough and error-laden work, I can’t see the forest through the trees. Thanks for the clarity of what isn’t and is included in a beta-read.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think questions can be useful, but the beta/s may spot something totally different too. I think swapping betas must be a nightmare: length, genre, style, type of feedback and aaaaagh time. But if you have authors it works with, good find.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Other than on the blog, few people read what I write and the blog readers are very general with their feedback. If I ever find alpha readers, I’ll graduate to beta readers.

    Seriously, everyone I know who has alpha and beta readers drew them from a circle of friends (or, at least someone they interact with). That (probably) puts a slight taint to the feedback unless one develops a relationship that establishes a mutual understanding of the respective roles.

    I’ve alpha/beta read (never really know if I’m one or the other) for a number of people (four or five, don’t rightly remember) and gave what I thought was unbiased feedback (what I liked and what didn’t work for me irrespective of my relationship with the writer).

    That was last year and none of them asked me again to read anything, so I either convinced them to give up writing or they found someone else to read their stuff. Whatever the reason, it’s kind of awkward asking them to read my stuff (it’s awkward in general to ask others to read my stuff, let alone soliciting feedback — I’m also mindful people have jobs and families and reading takes a lot of time).

    Which then begs the question . . . why not just hire an editor and forego the whole alpha/beta stage?

    Bonus question: does everyone need alpha/beta readers? (Hint: I have an opinion on this)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, friends and family aren’t particularly recommended as beta readers.

      I think there are two aspects with feedback. 1) people say they want honesty but …
      2) in terms of pointing out weaknesses/flaws/problems, it’s all in the wording. Not glossed over so they sound like strengths but nit so brutal the author ends up contemplating jumping off a bridge.

      I think if the author is in a hurry, then yes scrap the beta round. It can take ages. Plus a decent editor should pick up on all the basics, structure, pacing, characters blah blah.

      Probably not, but they are the trend at the moment. Interesting some people will budget for two three paid ones to guarantee timing and a certain level of feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a decent editor… probably the best so tend to skip beta reading. 😉 Great post, Roughseas!


        • Hmmm. I edited a short story and questioned some – to me – unnecessary description. One of the betas had suggested fleshing out the characters more. Except it wasn’t that sort of book. Anyway, the author agreed with me it was redundant. But we actually upped the word count by the time he’d finished dealing with my questions and comments!

          Thanks 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

    • That’s basically where I am with the whole beta read thing. Honesty is the best policy… Sounds like you’ve applied this, hence the response or lack thereof leading to not being asked again in some cases. Point is, if authors aren’t willing to accept constructive criticism, what do they expect from a good alpha/beta read?


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