When are you ready for a beta reader?

April 8, 2014 Writing musings 2

Having been a professional programmer for years, I’m quite familiar with the idea of beta testing and beta versions. When you write some code, you do your own (alpha) testing to check that it works, and when you’ve got it debugged to your own satisfaction you hand it over to someone else to be tested independently, and that’s beta testing. A beta version is something that’s being readied for release, but isn’t quite there yet.

So when I started editing ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, naturally I assumed that the same principle would apply: a beta reader’s role is checking out a version that’s had the initial kinks worked out, is tidied up but isn’t quite polished enough for publication. So it was quite a surprise to discover that not everyone sees it that way.

Trawling through forums and blogs for information about beta readers, I came across people who were asking for beta readers, but their requirements were very different from my expectations. Here are a few approaches I came across:

  • I’ve written the first few chapters, can someone tell me whether the plot/characters are working? [What you really need is a critique partner or group. If you can’t find a local group, there are plenty of good online groups like Scribophile.]
  • My grammar/spelling is terrible, I need some help! [If this is first draft work, a critique buddy/group is the best bet (see above). Otherwise, you need a copyeditor or line editor.]
  • I’ve finished the first draft, I need someone to tell me how to improve my character development and increase tension. [A generous beta reader might do the job here, but you’d be better off with a structural or development editor.]
  • I’m ready to publish, but I need someone to do a final check for typos and fix my punctuation issues. [Try a proofreader; it’s too late for a beta reader at this point.]

None of these, in my opinion, are really looking for a beta reader. Sometimes you can get lucky and find a stellar beta reader who can fulfil all these roles, but since most beta readers are volunteers it’s unreasonable to expect it.

I’ve explained in a previous post what I look for in a beta reader – in essence, someone who will judge the book as a reader, pointing out overall strengths and weaknesses. Something like a reviewer, with the proviso that a beta report is purely for the author, and the beta reader accepts that the work isn’t finalised yet. A book review is much more oriented towards other readers, and assumes the work is fully polished.

But I’m curious to know what others think. Am I unusual in assuming a work ready for a beta reader will be well past first draft status? At what stage do you send your book to a beta reader?

2 Responses to “When are you ready for a beta reader?”

  1. H. Anthe Davis

    I actually have several beta readers for several different stages of the writing process — though I suppose some aren’t technically betas. One of my friends reads my ‘dailies’ (though slightly less often than daily when she’s busy) and gives me general impressions on the scenes produced in that day. Erica reads my chapters as I write them, and points out anything that springs to mind in the chapter as a whole. I suppose I would consider them to be alpha readers.

    I have another friend that I get to go through the whole work once I’ve finished a draft, because she points out overall thematic issues, mood, ethics, etc. I think this is sort of at the Scribo level; the base text is complete but it’s not yet polished, still in the heavy editing phase.

    Then there are a few people who read through it once I’ve gotten it into a polished near-finished state: the actual beta.

    Because I’m working on a long, complex series, I feel I need all this backup; it’s hard to keep everything cohesive in my head, even with all my files of notes, so immediate feedback on a scene-by-scene basis is valuable even in the alpha stage to let me know what needs to be fixed — either RIGHT NOW or a bit later when I start going over it in the editing phase.

    As for copyediting, line editing, proofing, I’m fortunate in that all my alphas and betas are just as crazy for the English language as I am, and therefore are happy to point out my errors and giggle as I go ‘arrglghdfvkhelrsdf’. I think I’m in an ideal situation really, with friends and associates as supportive as mine have been.

    • PaulineMRoss

      Wow, yes, that is ideal. You’re very lucky. Although myself I don’t think I’d want someone to read my ‘dailies’. I quite like being secretive about it until the first draft is finished. Then I leave it to brew for a few months before dusting it off and bringing it out into the open for public scrutiny.

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