The Importance of Being Beta

Writing is a solitary business, right? I mean, we all sit cloistered away in our respective cabins in the woods, plying our trade with keyboards, pens, and quills. It’s easy to feel isolated, especially since, until we get these stories out of our heads and onto the page, we really are the only ones that visit these worlds we work in. I often get the feeling that I’m rowing this boat alone, struggling toward that distant shore with none to aid me.

But that’s just not true. Maybe the way I wrote ten years ago, it would have been, but no more.

Alpha readers These are the folks that get the words pretty much as soon as they come tumbling out of my mouth (or fingers, I guess- whatever the point of egress may be). These people get my work in all its unedited glory, complete with goofy punctuation, oddball spellings, and gaping plotholes so massive, they threaten to suck in the whole story. My alphas get these things, grimace a little, and then help me tease out the tale in the midst of all the distraction. I have two of them: my ever-loving Husband, without whom the sun would not rise, and the inestimable Ms. M Elizabeth Tait. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been explaining something to one of them and they ask a simple question and I just stare at them and think, ‘Wow, I’m dumb.’)

Beta readers These people get the story after I have a) finished it and b) run it through a spell checker. It’s in a little better shape than what my poor alphas read, but it still needs a little more love. These people stoically sit down and pour over my manuscript for no other reason than that they inexplicably like me and that they love to read a good book. So in the hopes of finding one, they willingly slog through my stuff. Since they don’t get the book in a piecemeal fashion, they tend to have a good sense of whether the story flows nicely, whether the pacing is good, whether there are any inconsistencies between the different sections. They can tell me if the world as a whole is believable, if the characters are compelling, and if the ending is satisfying. They know what needs trimming down and what needs plumping up. And they’re like sniffer dogs homing right in on all my self-indulgent little non-essentials. In short, they’re fantastic. By the time my manuscript gets to these fine people, I’m so tired of staring at it I want to claw my eyes out- they’re able to look at it with fresh eyes and without any of my biases. I have a fair number of betas, but my sun and my moon right now are Nanopals and Madison, either of whom would be worth their weight at least in Cheetos.

And this is as far as I’ve gotten on the readerly food chain, but I know there are much bigger fish out there, too. I could go forth and hire a professional editor. Goodness knows my manuscript will be visiting one if it ever piques the interest of an agent, or at least a publisher. But for a girl just starting out on a very tight budget, alpha and beta readers are hugely important to me. It’s been great having other writers that I trust to swap manuscripts with, and it definitely makes the writing experience feel a whole lot less isolated.

How about you guys? Do you share with betas? Do you do beta reads for other people? What’s been your experience?

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5 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Beta

  1. I love being a beta reader. I am slow like a glacier wearing a molasses hat and I suffer from physical and digital tsundoku, but I loooove seeing the brain-spawn of fellow writers. It’s really something special to be trusted with a manuscript: imagine handing your baby to a stranger at the bus stop.

    Better yet, imagine handing your baby to someone you’d only met /on the internet/.

    Beta reading is a lot like borrowing a baby. You get to play with it and experience some cool moments, and at the end of the day you tell mom about how awesome the baby is and about all the cool stuff it did – stuff that mom’s probably stopped noticing. You might also have to tell mom that the baby pooped its pants and that she’ll probably have to clean that up. But, most importantly, you get to talk about the baby, and moms love that.

    Maybe you’re not a mom (like me – but wait! I promise my analogy has traction!) and you don’t understand why babies are so damn important and why they must be the subject of a million conversations. Answer: everyone’s passionate about something – even if it’s not a baby. I could talk or listen for hours about travel or English or parkour – and the same goes for writing.

    I love talking about fiction. I love hearing about made-up characters and places and plots – about subplots and themes and clever little snips of dialogue and villains and pacing and how /did/ you come up with that chapter title? If you are bold enough to share your work with me then I will gladly read, listen, discuss, argue, spurn, congratulate and cheer for you because you write stuff and I write stuff and holy-crap-we-both-write-stuff!

    …so let’s talk about the stuff we write!

    Writing is a weird art: for most people, the very act is a paradox in that we work in solitude and silence to create something we want to share with everyone. We want to be /heard/ but we don’t talk much – both because we can be humble and because, for the most part, I think we don’t know what we’re doing (you could ask a writer how to make a baby and they’d tell you, but if you asked how to make a novel, that’d be a whole ‘nother story*).

    …and that is why beta reading is so important and so awesome: I get to help make something that not even the maker really knows know how to make. I get to help make it /better/. I get to poke around in the creative hearth** of someone else’s brain and, if I’m lucky, I get to stir up some fire. If only briefly, I get to share in someone’s passion.

    I get to experience, vicariously, the childish glee writers feel when someone listens. I get to talk about everything I love – which includes your story. How awesome is that?

    /comment. Thanks for letting me ramble while utterly ignoring your questions 😀

    * Pun noted but not intended… judge away!
    ** This is why writers dunno how to write – because writing books tend to sound like this metaphorical crud.

    • I absolutely LOVE the baby analogy! I don’t have kids myself and I haven’t finished a book to have any beta readers, so I’m the one telling the mother/father everything about their child. I like it that way (and not just because I like babysitting). I like seeing the author’s face light up when I tell them the wonderful things that they’ve done. There may also be some hard-to-read faces when I feel the need to critic their work. I love it all.

      Thanks for the post, Jill! Needing Beta’s is a sign that your baby is growing up 🙂

    • Madison, my love, I’m officially asking you to write my blog for me from now on. I pay in gravel- five bits per article. ‘Kay, thanks.

      Beautiful! I do have babies (today is one’s birthday in fact!) and I absolutely agree with the baby analogy. I am bizarrely protective of my bundle of wordy joy, but I definitely want it to mature and be beautiful and I can’t do that on my own. I was just reading through the copy that I sent out to you guys and yikes. (Oh, typos, you make me weep…)

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