Friday, September 30, 2011

Betas are Better than Alphas

(Note: I know I said I'd post on Thursdays, but a sinus infection sort of obliterated 'thursday' and I woke up with an Nyquil hangover on Friday. Forgive.)

Beta SP used to be used for high end video production before everything became digital.
The Beta Band was this awesome Scottish band that was around for a nano second then gone (but not forgotten, see High Fidelity soundtrack) and that was about all I knew about beta (except it's the second letter of the greek alphabet.)

Last week I came to the realization that I needed beta readers. I have great crit partners, who have been reading my work in chunks - in real writing time - for almost a year now. They know my characters and my world inside and out. The know my motivations, where there have been major changes, and what I've been worried about. In short, they know too much. They could never read BookEnd the way a reader would - the way an agent would.

Rachael Harrie came to the rescue again with her beta swap board. I found two wonderful beta readers (hey Yvie, hey Sharon). I mean, I'm saying they're wonderful because they've even agreed to read my 85K book and that seems a huge gift. If they like it and give me some useful feedback, that's gravy. I'm looking forward to getting their work, too.

I also reached out to an amazing, powerhouse editor and writer I met at a conference last May. Becky Levine wrote The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (essential, whether you have a writing group or not.) I asked her for some quick advice on what to look for in a beta reader. She gave me comprehensive advice and suggested we beta for each other. 


Then said, HECK YEAH!

Can't get over the generosity of the writing community.

So, below is my synthesized list (from many sources) of what I think is important when looking for a beta reader. 

Beta Readers
1) Understand the difference between a crit partner and a beta reader. Here's a link to a post by Mary Kole at KidLit that explains some differences. For me, a beta reader is the stand in for the reader (buyer) and the gatekeeper (agent). For that to work, they have to read your book when you are completely done with revising it. Also, the kind of feedback a beta would give is more general and not quite so specific (missed a comma, this is an en dash, not an em dash) - not that those kinds of things can't be included, they can. I just don't think that should be the focus of a beta reader.
2) Write a 'want' ad for the beta reader.
Include specifics about who you are as a writer, what stage you are in (querying? planning to in the next 6 months?), what the genre is etc. It might be helpful to include what you think comparable titles would be, to give the beta reader an idea of where your book would 'live' on the bookshelf. 
Then list what you want from the reader: light/medium/heavy feedback; one time beta read or ongoing beta read relationship; can/cannot handle tough love (Be honest here. everyone wants to say they can handle it, but if you truly can't, then the feedback you get from a reader who rolls this way will be useless to you).
3)Let them know that you are available to reciprocate and read for them (if/when they are ready). I believe you must be willing to do this. You want you and your beta reader to be invested in the relationship. I also offer to bake cookies for everyone who reads for me. Choc-chip-mint cookies. I know, so good.
4) Finally, don't forget to discuss what format you want to receive/give feedback in and the timeframe - is there a deadline looming for you or your reader? What can you expect and what can they deliver. Clearing that up in the beginning will avoid disappointment later.

Now a question: What do you want from a beta reader? What's your best/worst experience with beta readers? (OK, that was two questions, remember sinus infection?)


  1. A wise next step, Magpie. The reciprocation is a both generous and smart, because you learn as much from critiquing others' work as you do from a review of your own.

    Good luck.

  2. That is awesome that you now have such good beta readers. For me, the hardest part is asking anyone to read my stuff.

  3. A beta reader can provide the invaluable input one needs to take the story that extra step of the way.

  4. Every beta reader I've had has given great advice - esp. if I didn't like it at first. IMO, my initial reaction tells me how good the advice is. Hate it = good advice.


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