15 June 2016

BETA Readers - Love'em or Loath'em?

This is actually Part 4 of The Mother of all Writing Processes series. 

We began with getting ideas and planning and organizing them. Then we discussed Drafting, followed by Revision. 

By revision, I meant what you would do on your own, before anyone else sees it. The second phase of revision is essentially to get someone else’s eyes on your writing. In the academic classroom we usually call this phase of the Writing Process the Peer Review. In the real world of fiction writers, we call this “sending my manuscript off to my beta readers” or similar declaration – typically with either a tone of delight and triumph or with a tone of derision for the necessary evil to which an author must submit.

Peer Review

In the composition classroom, I consider Peer Review one of the most useful activities beginning writers can do to learn how to improve their writing. My students, however, do not see it that way. Although they begrudgingly participate, most of them work with minimal effort through the process despite my detailed explanation of what they should do. No amount of exhortation seems able to convince them of the benefits of doing peer review. 

First of all, it's more than just proofreading a classmate's paper. I understand that they may lack confidence in what they have written and don’t want a classmate to see how poorly they write. I get that sometimes they write personal stuff and don't want anyone to read it. I know the classmate who reads their paper is “untrained” and no better at writing than the author is. Or, for others, there is the paper from the internet which would be discovered if it were shown during peer review.

I’ve found several ways to do Peer Review and I try to offer more than two ways during a semester, depending on what seems to work best for the group in the classroom.
  • The simple exchange of papers between two students; they read each other’s papers.

  • The small group round robin exchange, usually with 3 to 5 students; each author can get multiple feedback comments.

  • The full class round robin; everyone passes to the right and passes again after 15 minutes or so.

  • In my MFA program in fiction, we passed out our papers (short stories or novel chapters) in advance of the review session and classmates wrote detailed critiques to be given to the author, as well as having a full class discussion of the work; usually enough time for two or three works to be discussed in one class session.

The success of any method depends on how vested the participants are in their own success, success being measured by the amount of useful feedback a paper receives. In the MFA program, I’m sure sometimes a classmate or two felt less interested in giving the full effort. The same lack of effort comes in all the other methods. To first-year students, just “gettin’ ‘er done” is the goal and a quick skim and “I like it” seems to be enough to pass. It is not, of course. In some cases, I’ve provided a checklist or a list of questions to be answered as a way to force better reading and thinking about the papers they are reading.

Beta Readers

Those who have taken the pledge to write fiction to the best of their abilities and for the better part of their “free” time, do not usually share their work in a group unless it is through membership in a writer’s circle or similar club. Instead, they share their work with a special person known as a “beta reader.” I’ve always thought the term odd: Am I, the author, the alpha? or is the paying reader the alpha? I’ve joked about preferring Delta readers to Beta readers – or even a Gamma reader who could see right through my head to know exactly what I should have written in place of what I actually wrote. Either way, the test reader serves a primary and crucial function in a writer’s life.

Having stated the above as something like a fact, I must now confess hypocrisy. I do not send my manuscript to a beta reader. There are two reasons (not “excuses”!) for this, and by declaring my way of doing things I do not intend to discourage others from using a beta reader. I believe in their effectiveness given the right circumstances.

For me, the first reason is far more nefarious. As a young man in junior high school, I enjoyed writing science fiction stories, usually based on ideas I got from reading science fiction stories. In one class, we were encouraged to write every day, whatever we wanted to write. I started a serial called “The Adventures of Micro Man”: about a superhero who could shrink himself to get out of tight jams. The teacher liked my stories so much that I was asked to read them in front of the class. That was highly nerve-wracking. Even though everyone in class seemed to like this weekly “story hour” by me, as a budding introvert, it scared me to death. Furthermore, I was under pressure to write something exciting each week or my entire identity and reputation would be destroyed!

An even worse example, and perhaps the single most devastating criticism I have ever received – what finally caused me to clam up and never share my writing with anyone – came when I proudly shared my latest science fiction story with my father, a high school social studies teacher. After reading it, he gave the story pages back to me all marked up in red ink. He pointed out everything that was wrong with it. Nothing good was said about my story. Granted, I was a teenager and a beginning writer but I did my best and was proud of what I produced, willing to acknowledge I still needed to work on it, but . . . . Later, I came to understand his reading mantra, which I quoted when transforming him into a character in one of my novels: "There's no reason to read fiction because it's not true; why waste your time reading something that's not true?"

So there are my reasons for not using a beta reader. The other, current reason is a combination of two more factors. First, I’m rather timid when it comes to asking someone to read something I’ve created. I know it is imperfect – hence the request to test-read it – so it takes a special kind of friend, colleague, or fellow writer to accept the task. Finding someone who is both willing to read an imperfect text and who is also knowledgeable enough (writing conventions, spelling and grammar, etc.) is a challenge. Once found, a writer may rely on that sole beta reader forever. Nothing wrong with that, so long as the beta reader can be both objective and constructive – and not hold back the tough remarks.

One of many checklists on the internet. Or make your own.

Commitment. What the writer asks of the beta reader can impact the quality of the feedback. Is the beta reader merely reading as a surrogate “paying” reader just to see how the story flows, if it is engaging, if it hits the points the author wishes to make, or if it is even interesting? Or is the beta reader expected (assumed?) to be checking the sort of issues an editor would focus on? A beta reader may catch some typos or awkward sentences and point them out to the author, thereby acting partly as an editor. But if the text is not so interesting, has too many problems, perhaps the beta reader will not put as much effort into a good, solid reading as if the story were truly compelling. Friendship may require a friendly reading, too; one wishes to remain friends after the reading. It also takes a significant commitment of time to read and comment on a manuscript, especially if it is a novel of 100,000 words. Is money involved? or would that pollute the reading and commenting experience? That’s a lot to consider when arranging for a beta reading project.

As I stated above, I generally have not used a beta reader. There may be slaps on the wrist coming my way, but asking someone, even a friend (a friend may be the worst “test” reader!), to read something and tell me what he/she thinks of it is something from a list of worst ways to torture someone like me. However, due to the nature of the project, there have been manuscripts that received a reading prior to my final submission for publication.

Most recently, my novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF which was based on the life of a real person required me to share what I was writing with that person. I definitely needed her feedback to make sure I was telling her story the way it should be told. In this case, the beta reader was also the heroine of the story. (I blogged about that process here.)

Another novel of mine, A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, my so-called vampire story, was also based upon my real experiences and so I “let” the person read it who I had transformed into a major character in the book. I had to change a few things because of that “test” reading. In another case, A BEAUTIFUL CHILL was based partly on some real experiences and the real person who became one of the dual protagonists, so naturally I allowed her to read it. Neither readers of these two books were true beta readers; they were not expected to critique or edit anything, merely to have the chance to vent and rant about how they were portrayed in the novels.

Recently, a colleague of mine at Edgewise Words Inn asked me to “beta read” a short story. I thought to myself “Sure, I can do that” and immediately took a look at how long it was! No offense intended, but when time to write is limited, especially when you’ve invited the muses to visit and you’re sitting by your keyboard waiting for them to arrive, taking some of that time to read and critique a different work seems counterproductive. However, as a friend and colleague, I felt obligated to do my best. Fortunately, as I read it the story caught my interest. That made the process go more smoothly. In fact, reading this story and thinking how to make it better, marking it and writing comments to that effect, actually helped to call the muses to my own project. Reading . . . writing . . . two sides of the same coin!

Lastly, I must again confess something. I went to university to study English, Literature, Composition Theory, Linguistics, and Creative Writing. My day job is Professor of English. I teach students how to write . . . to a greater or lesser degree; every semester, every class group is a different ballgame, but I digress! Therefore, I’m supposedly trained in use of the English language. I write in different styles as fits the subject of the story. I know how to spell and use grammar correctly – correctly for the characters in the story. So it seems as though I should not need a beta reader. For technical matters, perhaps that’s true. However, every writer can use a different set of eyes on a manuscript. We become jaded and our eyes trick us, glossing over the error that sits on the page in plain sight. So I believe in the beta reader . . . but I have my reasons for not subjecting anyone to being one of mine.

Best of luck to you finding, nurturing, and keeping your lucky beta reader!

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. I know how hard it is to beta read--for me it's the issue of not reading as an editor, but reading it for content and interest.

    1. It's a niche job at best. Nobody makes money doing it. Maybe you get to read a good story before the masses get their hands on it but otherwise, it's a thankless endeavor for the most part. But we love you for your efforts, nevertheless!

  2. I think it's an honor to beta-read and, as you noted, it's a tremendous learning experience. It is time consuming, however, and I limit myself to the number of them I'll do.

    I've had some bad experiences. In one case, I commented on the first few chapters of an unfinished manuscript. The author responded with a request to read a re-write to which I acquiesced. I didn't make it through 10 pages because every paragraph was riddled with problems. Things like misspellings, lack of capitalized words at the the start of sentences, and more. I suspect the re-write was done as a series of text-messages. I was upset that the author hadn't taken the time to fix obvious errors, but didn't mind letting me waste time looking at them.

    Since that experience, I'm much more circumspect about taking on unknown authors.

    My, I've gotten carried away. Good article, by the way.

    1. Yes, it is an honor to be asked, but some potential readers find it an intrusion on their time. I hesitate to foist the rantings of my mind on anyone unless that person owes me a really big favor!
      Thanks for your comment. So many different experiences, I suspect. I welcome the sharing of them.

  3. I should add that, during the school year, I essentially serve as beta reader for between 100 and 150 students. Based on my feedback marks and comments, they are required to revise and resubmit their writing.