Posted On March 29, 2010 by Print This Post

Beta Readers: Saints or Sinners?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Beta readers, which is interesting considering I didn’t know what the term meant until about a year ago. Growing up in the computer age, I was familiar with the “beta” concept, but I never understood how it applied to writing. Not until a chapter-mate of mine made a side comment about how nice it was to have a beta reader go through her manuscript from front to back with a pair of fresh eyes.

Ding-ding!

I know some of you are thinking, “Slooow top,” or maybe, “Toe pick!” for you Cutting Edge (1992) fans. I do love that movie and nearly swooned when I looked up the release date. Can it really have been 18 years ago? Gack!

Beta readers are much like beta users. Software giants count on early end-users to track down and annihilate bugs in their programs. Like writers, computer programmers have been staring at the same old code for months, if not years, until they cease to detect their own mistakes.

Sound familiar?

If you don’t have a beta reader, find one. If you’re greedy like me, find two or three. They are invaluable at finding major plot holes, character deviations, transition and pacing issues, and glaring grammar mistakes. Beta readers are different from critique partners in that they provide feedback once you’ve finished the manuscript. Whereas, critique partners typically provide recommendations on a few chapters at a time.   Detecting some of the problems I mentioned above can be difficult when critiquing another’s work chapter by chapter. Especially with long time lapses in between critiques.

Where does one find a beta reader? As with anything, there are many ways. Word of mouth, writing loops and chapters, friends, and family members are a few of the more common routes. Not to complicate things, but a critique partner can also be a beta reader. That’s the situation I have with Adrienne and Kelsey. However, Lucie’s a “true” beta reader.

I understand the beta read process won’t be to everyone’s taste. But I recommend giving it a nibble. Just one small bite. My only word of caution is to choose your partner(s) wisely. Like any critique, beta reads can harm if not done with the correct intention.

Every comment a beta reader makes on her partner’s manuscript should reek with “I got your back, babe.” There will be times, maybe several of them in a single manuscript, when plain-talk is going to be the best way to flesh out a problem. This is the moment when you know you’ve picked your partner well. Or not.

Here are a few examples of “plain-talk” from a recent beta read of my own work:

  • “I think you have a better hook without these last three sentences.” (hook/pacing)
  • “In the scene where Valere comes into Cora’s room with a knife…I just had a hard time believing she would behave that way. Meaning, I didn’t believe she would try to bandage his hand. She just doesn’t have motivation to do so. I think you can still have him grab her, overpower her, but not because she did something I felt was out of character.” (character deviation)
  • “I think you need to draw this out a bit. Describe what his weight feels like across her body. Maybe it takes her a minute to realize the weight is Beale and when she does, what does she feel? See what I mean? This is a big moment for her and I think the added punch would be great.”

Not a single word these ladies wrote made me feel as though I was inferior or sucked as a writer. They gave me their opinion, which I have the ability to take or leave, and did so in a professional “got your back” fashion.

So ask yourself: Do you trust her? Does she provide recommendations with the intent to improve the manuscript? Or does she share her writerly wisdom to hold you back? Is she truly invested in your success? Or is she simply going through the motions because she needs something in return? Does she provide encouragement, even through the rough areas of your writing?

Ideally, these are questions you should ask yourself BEFORE you commit to a partnership, whether you’re sharing one chapter of your work or thirty. Unfortunately, some of these answers might not become evident until your partner’s first read. And other times, you’ll know she’s a keeper before you ever send her a sample of your work.

I hate to brag, but this is how it happened for me. Adrienne, Kelsey and Lucie are aces. I value their opinion as much as I value my own about my writing. And, there are times, when I value their opinions more.

We all write in different sub-genres. We all trust each other. We all click.

I hope you find your “click” too.

* * *

RU Readers, where did you find your beta readers/critique partners? Share your stories! How have they helped you? Hurt you?

Writer John Arden Warwick returns for part two of his exploration into the question “Are men capable of love?” Be sure to stop by and help John answer this vital question important to all women!

Tracey’s Bio:

Tracey Devlyn writes historical romance with suspense elements. She’s a member of Romance Writers of America and Windy City, Hearts Through History, The Beau Monde and Kiss of Death RWA chapters. Oh, she’s a co-founder of the amazing Romance University blog too!

Her manuscript, A Lady’s Revenge, won first place in the Put Your Heart in a Book contest (New Jersey RWA) and finaled in the Ignite the Flame contest (Central Ohio Fiction Writers).

Tracey lives in the Chicago suburbs with her once-in-a-lifetime husband and their Alpha puppy. For more information, please visit www.TraceyDevlyn.com.

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29 Responses to “Beta Readers: Saints or Sinners?”

  1. Tracey –

    Great post! And I’m with you in that it took me a while to understand the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. I still have more CPs than BRs right now, but perhaps that will change as I continue to develop as a writer.

    As far as CPs and BRs, I found two through on online loop, another through RWA Online, you guys through my networking with Theresa Stevens and Lucie through Adrienne. I’ve also done some dabbling with a couple other writers through general networking and contest finals.

    One thing I think writers need to consider is how those relationships will and should change over time. Maybe we’ll consider a post in the future about how to dissolve relationships that are no longer working (not that I have that intention with my CPs & BRs!).

    Kelsey

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | March 29, 2010, 1:55 am
    • Hey Kels,
      You’d better not be thinking about dumping us! Yeah, I think a post on dissolving the CP relationship would be beneficial. From what I’ve read, this need arises more often than not when someone has outgrown what her partners can provide. It’s really difficult situation.

      Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 29, 2010, 12:36 pm
  2. Great post, Tracey! I think the critique partner relationship is like any other one. It’ll change and grow over time. For me, if it’s not changing and growing, that’s a problem.

    I love to look over the work we all do and see how we are growing together. It took me awhile to find my wonderful critique partners though. I’m grateful for the journey I’ve taken with other crit. partners because I learned from each and every one of them (even the ones who paralyzed me!), but I think what I’ve found with Kelsey, Tracey and Lucie is something special.

    Critique partners are like spouses. Might have to kiss a lot of frogs!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | March 29, 2010, 7:15 am
  3. I have two wonderful CPs, and normally that’s all I want. But for my newest book, I have a beta reader. Last night, I skimmed her comments — and there are a lot of them! I’ll certainly pay attention, as she has fresher eyes than my CPs, who are used to my writing.

    Posted by Edie | March 29, 2010, 7:58 am
  4. morning all!!

    I belong to two wonderful critique groups, and they’re very supportive….I also have a new CP that I met here! =) Hi Jen! I am also a beta reader for another lady, who’s a brilliant writer. Hi Sandi!

    But I agree, you have to find a “fit” ….just like being married! And it’s really really really (did i stress that enough?lol) important to crit plainly as Tracey says, “I got your back” and not “I’m stabbing you in the back”…=)

    carrie

    Posted by carrie | March 29, 2010, 8:24 am
  5. Thank you, Tracey. I certainly could use a critique partner, and eventually a beta reader. I was searching for this kind of help—until I realized that, in my case at least, it’s just not going to happen.

    My problem is that it’s a two-way street, and I have nothing of value to offer in return. My ideas of what makes for a good read simply aren’t representative of today’s fiction market in general and the romance genre in particular.

    There are plenty of highly commercial themes that the whole romance genre revolves around, but which I don’t care for, to put it mildly. Suppose my hypothetical partner writes about one of them? Or more, since they tend to turn up together? If her novel is about an arrogant, cynical duke who’s forced into a marriage of convenience with a feisty, smart-mouthed virgin, am I going to scream, “No, not again!”?

    Of course not. That’s what readers want. Or at least, what editors want. Obviously they didn’t ask this reader. But I can’t condemn another writer for giving readers what they want, and publishing companies what they need to stay afloat.

    As for the themes I DO like, alas, the market seems to be, shall we say, somewhat limited. I can give plenty of artistic reasons for my preferences. But art won’t pay the rent.

    In short, I don’t want to steer anyone in the wrong direction. If I’m on a fool’s mission in my own writing, the only one who’s wasting her time is me. I don’t want to cause anyone else to do the same.

    I wonder if there’s a way around this dilemma. Can any of you see one?

    Keep up the good work!

    Posted by Mary Anne Landers | March 29, 2010, 8:45 am
    • Mary Anne –

      As Carrie mentioned, finding the right fit is critical in a CP/BR relationship. I don’t have any insightful opinions on overcoming your particular dilemma other than keep your ears open. You might hear a writing colleague/friend talking about the same concerns you have regarding the romance genre.

      I do believe there’s someone out there for you. With a little patience and creative networking, I think you’ll find her/him.

      Hang in there!

      Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 29, 2010, 12:48 pm
  6. Trying to find someone to CP or BR has been a real challenge to me. My family and close friends have all ducked when they see me coming, and perhaps that’s a good thing, since my sister has an MA in English Lit and my mother has a PhD in Library Science. Neither of them have ever understood my facination with historical romance; my mother always tried to get me to read Louisa Mae Alcott instead of Georgette Heyer, and I always told her someday all my questionable choices would pay off, because I would be a published author!

    “Someday” has not yet arrived, but it is getting closer. By the end of April I will have at least one of my manuscripts completed, but still no willing readers in the family circle! I get the feeling they are a little afraid to read it because they think it might not be any good 🙁 . Then again I am a little afraid for my mother to read the “love” scenes! 😉

    I believe I have finally found someone I trust who will BR my manuscript; an intelligent, well-educated and well-read co-worker of fairly recent date–so no life-long baggage for me to deal with! Wish me luck–then wish me an agent and an editor!

    Posted by Diane | March 29, 2010, 9:27 am
    • Huge “good luck” vibes being sent your way, Diane!

      Are you a member of any writing groups? A couple of my RWA groups have an online critique group. My historical critique group is awesome. So many different perspectives, and they provide a lot of support.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 29, 2010, 12:51 pm
  7. Great post, Tracey!

    I just recently came in contact with the term Beta Reader. I think it’s a great idea. You are so lucky to have found a close circle of supportive CP/BRs. Like Diane, I’ve had a difficult time. Almost every time someone sounds great and I agree to exchange chapters I find out this is a first novel or a first draft. (I’ve been writing for over three years and have taken many classes.) I still critique the work I receive and make suggestions, but it is time consumming, and the critiques I get back are often not what I’m looking for. “Your writing is great. I wouldn’t change a thing.” (If that’s true, why am I not published?) Or I give a line by line critique and get back a paragraph of negative things with NOT one positive. The entire critique process is upsetting to me. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because I can’t find the right partner(s). With the current manuscript I’m trying to get published, I’ve actually hired a professional editor to assure the quality of feedback. But boy would I like to find a dependable, supportive CP. I have not yet tried to find a BR, but just agreed to do one for a friend.

    Posted by Wendy Marcus | March 29, 2010, 9:59 am
    • Hi Wendy,

      Early on, Adrienne, Kelsey, Lucie and I made a pact to provide constructive feedback, or we wouldn’t bother with the partnership. “Your writing is great” tells us nothing. I like to hear when I get something right (who doesn’t!), but what I’m really after is the good stuff–what can I improve?

      Check out my comment to Diane above. Writing groups can be a great source of finding CP/BR.

      Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 29, 2010, 12:57 pm
  8. Well I am so happy to see I am not the only one having a hard time finding a CP! I agree it can be a challenging situation to find the right partners. I think a BR is fine, if they are not trying to change your voice completely. Do you ladies have any links or recommendations to those who offer beta reader services? Also do they charge for their services?

    Posted by Jane L | March 29, 2010, 10:45 am
  9. Great post, Tracy. I really appreciate what you had to say. Up to now, I was unclear on what a Beta Reader did. I’m lucky to have super CPs and haven’t thought about BRs at all. However, perhaps it’s time to go looking.
    But, as you say, it can be tricky to locate the right person.

    Posted by Barb Huddleston | March 29, 2010, 11:00 am
  10. Crit partners are so hard to find. I’ve been through a lot of them. I think people generally have good intentions, but sometimes they lead us astray. For me, finding people who were roughly at the same writing level was key. Plus, I’ve been lucky because I have people in my life who know a whole lot more than I do about craft. I met all of these people through networking either through RWA chapters, conferences or writer’s loops.

    Plus, I think it’s important to find people who enjoy the type of books you write. I myself would not be comfortable critiquing a sci-fi book because I’m not a sci-fi reader. I don’t understand all the nuances of that genre.

    I know RWA’s Kiss of Death chapter has a critique service where they match members with other members. Kelsey, Tracey and I are also members of the GIAM groups run by Amy Atwell. This is a fantastic group! Can’t say enough about it. It’s primarily a goal setting group, but there is such a sense of camaraderie that it has become a wonderful support source. Anyhoo, they also have a critique service that Kelsey helped get off the ground. Kels, can you talk a bit about it?

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | March 29, 2010, 11:08 am
    • Hi all –

      I’m getting close to the end of my day (and a long boat ride :)) so apologies in advance if I’m not particularly long-winded.

      Both Adrienne and Tracey are right in that many RWA chapters and loops have some type of CP matching scheme. The goals group Adrienne referenced is for writers who are at PRO level or above (meaning they’ve completed at least one manuscript), although they don’t actually have to have a PRO designation. Once a writer joins a goals group, then s/he is eligible to register for the critique partner scheme. In this group, writers post writing samples so potential CPs can get a feel for the writing before they commit to any type of relationship.

      I always recommend that you start out with a CP on a trial basis. Maybe trade 20 pages or a chapter to see if you’re at the same level. Be honest about where you are in your writing, and ask that your potential CP do the same.

      One other thought – if you’re finaling in writing contests, look for others who are doing the same – you might be a good fit for one another.

      K-

      Posted by KelseyBrowning | March 29, 2010, 1:38 pm
  11. Great post, Tracey!

    My beta readers are saints! All of them are voracious readers of my sub-genre (paranormal), so they know if something makes sense or not. One is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to paranormal romance. When I’m stuck, she’s even helped me brainstorm. Of the five, two are writers, one wants to write but hasn’t had the time, and the other two just like to read. A good beta reader doesn’t need to be a writer, but they do need to be an avid reader of the sub-genre.

    I consider them my own little market research group. I even bounced my cover ideas and back cover copy off of them to get their reaction.

    Posted by Laurie London | March 29, 2010, 12:03 pm
  12. Hi Tracey, I loved this blog. It was very informative. I am a beta reader, sort of, for people, and as such, I have to realize that I am there to help authors out. I know that I have their backs, but I must also be kind and honest in my suggestions. I like it so far. I am pretty honest about my opinions, but I don’t put them down.

    As a writer, it is a very scary process for me because it is the first time I actually let my writing out there. I write poetry, but I think that is way different from my attempts at writing a novel. I feel like I need all the help I can get, and having beta “readers” is quite helpful. This blog was very helpful. Thanks again!!!

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

    Posted by Paula R. | March 29, 2010, 3:58 pm
  13. Hi Paula,

    Thanks for sharing. Congratulations on putting your work out there! I remember how hard of a step that was for me. I promise that it’ll get easier, especially when you find the right partnership.

    Good luck!

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 29, 2010, 6:39 pm
  14. Hi Tracey,
    I’m lucky to have formed cp relationships with a couple critique group members that go beyond simply posting material on a loop and offering feedback. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I’ll get honest, open, constructive feedback. I still belong to the critique group, and value the opinions of the members, but I truly value the more personal relationship that has evolved with a handful of members along the way.
    This is a great post…nothing new there : ) This is a wonderful site!

    Victoria

    Posted by Victoria Gray | March 29, 2010, 8:14 pm
    • Hey Victoria,
      Thanks for stopping by! I can’t tell you how much I miss the Critters. They are a wonderful group and I hope to get back there soon. Now that I’m done with editing ALR, it might be very soon.

      You’re right, though. It’s nice to be able to send an email to a CP with a “Have I amped up the tension enough?” or “Does this give the story a stronger beginning?”, etc. Having that type of support is immeasurable.

      Hugs, Tracey

      Posted by Tracey Devlyn | March 29, 2010, 8:25 pm
  15. Hi, everyone.
    Dang, I did not want to miss this yesterday, but I guess chiming in late is better than not at all.

    I am so grateful for Tracey, Kelsey and Adrienne. They are the best. And thank you ladies, for allowing me to join your group.

    These women are amazing writers. I respect their craft and their creativity, and that’s always in the back of my mind when I do a beta read. I try to be honest and offer “gut reactions” as well as spot potential plot holes and problems.

    It’s a fine line, and could cause a great deal of hurt if you don’t know, really know, that your partner has your back. I would fight for these women. For their books. Oh, I might blast them with a gentle shove when I’m doing a beta read, but respect drives those comments. And that’s the bottom line. I stand for these writers, and as Tracey said, we have each other’s backs. There’s no better place to be.

    As the “latecomer,” I can say that I had a very difficult time finding the unpolished areas of my manuscripts before I found these wonderful beta readers. I’d been working with a crit group for years, and still do, but the beta read, as Tracey said is a totally different thing. It’s the polish. That final touch that can make or break a book.

    I wish all of you the kind of partnership we have. It works!

    Lucie j.

    Posted by Lucie J. Charles | March 30, 2010, 3:10 pm

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