So there’s a post that’s been going around presenting an argument against beta readers. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently, for a variety of reasons, and so obviously I have Opinions on both the post specifically and beta readers in general.
To get the basic stuff out of the way first, I deeply dislike (though am hardly surprised by) the sneering, arm’s-length-pinched-nose way the article talks about the term “beta readers” in particular. As far as I know, the concept of betas comes out of fandom (who cribbed it off software development), so old dudes choosing to single it out for ridicule above-and-beyond other, similar concepts (e.g. crit circles) gets my back up.
That being said…
Yeah. I kinda agree with the premise. Sort of. I agree with it in the sense that getting a good beta reader is hard, meaning most people end up with bad ones, and I’d argue that a bad beta is worse than no beta at all. Obviously (and as the article points out) this isn’t something limited to beta readers: I have a friend, for example, who’s lamented to me in the past that they stopped attending their local writer’s group because it basically turned into the group’s president hosting vicious teardown sessions of everyone else’s work. This, incidentally, is not the sort of beta/”crit” that’s helpful.
That being said, I have both performed and received beta reads in the past, and I do think they can be useful, under a couple of provisos:
One, your beta reader has to be someone who is engaged with the work on the work’s own terms. One of the things I think a lot of aspiring/unpublished authors struggle with is a perception that their work should be somehow universal. I have no idea where this comes from, but it needs to die. Like, yesterday. Not every book works for every reader, and that’s fine. What this means is that, if you’re going to use a beta, from the outset you need to find someone who wants to help you make your work the best version of your work. In fandom, you don’t get a Wincest OTPer to beta your Destiel fic. So someone who inherently hates the genre, tone, voice, and/or tropes of your manuscript is not going to give you useful beta reader feedback, period.
Incidentally, for anyone who’s about to complain about “delicate author feelings” or similar nonsense: this is exactly how it works in commercial publishing. You don’t want an editor or agent who hates or has a different vision for your book, and (reputable) editors/agents won’t buy/rep manuscripts they don’t believe in. In other words, don’t make the betaing process harder for yourself than actual freakin’ pro publishing—which isn’t exactly a walk in the park itself—and don’t trust anyone who tries to make it that way on your behalf.
Two, know what you want from your beta… and make sure they know it too. Protip: it’s not SPaG.1 Most betas will catch obvious SPaG issues,2 of course, and that’s fine, but the actual purpose of a beta is to provide developmental-style feedback.
That is, the beta is there to tell you what worked for them… or didn’t. They’re there to point out things that don’t make sense, as an indicator you might need to elaborate on things like motivation or worldbuilding, or to bring their real-world skills and experiences to the table to comment on technical or social issues (this is where sensitivity reading comes in). I always do my beating in a platform that allows inline comments, because it allows me to add “live” reactions to particular phrases or plot points that help in gauging emotional engagement and response.
Betas can also do line editing, though here’s where things can get tricky, particularly if your betas are also writers. A beta is not there to impose their writer’s voice on your work, but what they can assist with is pointing out where phrases or paragraphs perhaps sound awkward and need reworking. Exactly how much sentence-level rewriting I do when I’m betaing tends to vary. If the author obviously has a strong, developed voice already I’ll usually stick to just pointing out awkward phrasing and let them to sort out how to reword things. If they don’t, or if there’s a certain problem that’s particularly endemic, I might do actual sentence-level rewrites, although always in a track-changes way, and I try and make it very clear that the rewriting is just a suggestion/starting point. It’s how I’d phrase something… but I’m not the author. Which brings me to…
Three, you are not “accountable” to your beta readers. Beta readers are there to provide subjective suggestions on how to improve your work. They aren’t a gauntlet you need to pass or a teacher you need to appease to get an A. Getting few comments from your beta doesn’t mean your work is “good” while getting lots doesn’t mean it’s “bad”. In fact, it’s quite possibly the opposite: few comments may mean the beta wasn’t “into” the story and is just trying to be polite, while a lot of comments might mean they were very invested and and are brimming with Thoughts and Feels. Or not. But point being, you can’t tell by the quantity of markup alone.
Always come at beta feedback with an open heart and mind, and learn what you can from it (hint: sometimes the thing the beta thinks is wrong is only a symptom of something else, not a thing in-and-of-itself). Ultimately, however, if a beta tells you something you think is completely wrong or off the wall? Feel free to discard it. At the end of the day, your work is your work. Not theirs.
Similarly, as a beta, you’re there to offer suggestions and (potentially) act as a sounding-board for the author to talk at until they work through issues on their own. You are not there are a gatekeeper of the “you must meet this much of my approval before publishing!” variety; that’s what editors are for.
That being said, there is one potential exception, and that’s when the beta reading is specifically sensitivity reading. Even then, betas representing marginalized voices still aren’t gatekeepers, and one person’s opinion and experiences belong to one person. That being said, pay the fuck attention to feedback from your sensitivity readers, particularly if they’re telling you things you don’t want to hear…
And, finally, as with all writing advice, the above are only guidelines. They represent the approach of one person (i.e. me) to both being and obtaining a beta reader; you might find them useful, you might not. Either way, however, there’s one thing beta readers absolutely should not do, and that’s so paralyze you that you never feel a manuscript or fic is “complete” enough, either to publish or to send out on submission.
I’ve published fanfic and I’ve both self- and pro-published original works, and the “decision gates” for all of them are different. Ultimately, however, the single thing that most improved me for my next work was letting my previous one go out into the wild. Betas can help in that journey, but they should never be roadblocks along the way.
In other words: keep writing!
- If you need do this, i.e. because you’re self-publishing, hire a copyeditor. And pay them. Copyediting is hard, and it’s a very, very separate skill set to other sorts of editing/betaing. [↩]
- Which, if you’re writing fanfic, is probably enough. Honestly, I’ve published stuff that, on re-read, turns out to be littered with basic-ass SPaG errors, up-to-and-including sentences so badly written they contradict the entire plot. They very, very rarely get mentioned when people comment on or rec my fics. In general, readers in fandom know fic writers are doing things for funsies, and so long as the rest of your fic looks more-or-less like you know what you’re doing—with plot, with character, and so on—people are prepared to let the small stuff go. [↩]