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?