To Beta or not to Beta?

All right, I never thought of them as “beta readers.” The first ones were just “friends who believe in me and keep me going.” Back when I was working on my first novel, 700+ pages with no guarantee of publication, that was what I needed most.

As I wrote each chapter I would painstakingly print out copies (dot matrix continuous feed paper…ah, memories of the dinosaur age!) and then put them in manila envelopes and mail them to friends. And then I would wait on tenterhooks for the phone calls that would tell me, “I really liked that one, keep going!” At times when my spirits flagged, or I had doubts about whether I could finish this immense project at all, those moments of human contact kept me motivated.

The world is different now. All I have to do it push a button and my latest chapter goes winging its way around the world, delivered instantly to the handful of people I rely upon for work-in-progress commentary. Within hours most of them have responded, having red-lined passages they did or didn’t like, pointed out typos, and commented on any plot elements they thought weren’t working as well as they should be. It’s incredibly efficient, but somewhat less personal. There are days when I miss the anxious hours of waiting for a friend to tell me I was on the right track, then hearing him deliver his message with all the subtle nuances that live communication can entail. Email makes life easier — and certainly faster — but I’m not sure it always makes it better.

I read once that a new writer should seek feedback from three kinds of people: family, because they will always tell you your work is great; friends, because they will encourage you no matter what; and strangers, because they will not be afraid to give you real criticism. These days the internet makes it easy to find the third group. If you google “writers club online”, sixty-six million options present themselves. (Seriously. Check it out.) Weeding out the ones that involve posting your work online (because no one who is serious about publishing will ever do that) you’ve still got a couple of million choices left. You might even luck into some live writing clubs in your area, where people all sit in the same room and read from (gasp!) actual paper. Or you can pay for “professional betas”, who will give you a promise in writing that they’ll deliver meaningful commentary, and who won’t post your work to their livejournals.

But all that’s all for new writers, right? Best-selling authors with decades of publication under their belts surely don’t need that kind of feedback any more. Right?

Apparently many do. We don’t talk about it a lot, but I’ve been on convention panels where the subject came up, and I’m continually surprised by how many authors, like me, have a circle of hand-picked critical readers that comment on their stuff as it’s written.

What’s in it for us? Obviously we’re past the point where we need someone to hold our hand and tell us to keep going, and by the time you’ve published your fifth book it’s safe to say you’ve learned how to write. So what do we, seasoned professionals, need betas for?

I can only answer for myself: Distance.

Writing a book is like painting a picture. For as long as you’re standing close to it, concentrating on every brush stroke, you can’t really see the whole thing. You’re working with a mental picture of what it should look like, and you’re trying to make that happen. But to see how far you’ve actually gotten, you have to back up and look at the whole work.

It’s not that easy with writing. You can’t step back and see a whole book at once. And the amount of information you communicate to readers at each stage of the project is crucial. How can you judge the effectiveness of your plot hints and surprise reveals when you know already where each one is leading?

That’s beta readers are for. They don’t have your mental image of what the book is supposed to be. They don’t have your intuitive knowledge of where the story is going. If a passage was written unclearly, then they’re just not going to grasp its meaning…whereas you, in reading the same passage, already know what it’s trying to say.

I find that kind of feedback priceless. And these days, I only recruit betas who will give it to me. Gone are the days when I needed friends and family to pat me on the back and say, “Keep going, you’re doing great!” Now I need strangers to tell me, “Sorry, I just didn’t get why Jesse killed that guy, you really need to make that point clearer.” But the concept is still the same. Through beta readers we writers can step outside ourselves, shut out all the mental distractions that keep us from seeing what our artwork really looks like, and gain a fresh perspective. Yes, sometimes that’s inspiring and sometimes it’s frustrating…but it’s always valuable.