Beta Reading Articles
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Beta Reading at HASA: 2. But what does a beta reader actually do?
The best definition of a beta reader is a critical friend. It’s unlikely they would spend a lot of time and effort working on your story with you if they didn’t believe you were a good writer (or had the potential to be a good writer). Their aim is to help you make your current story better and, especially if you work together over a long period, to help you become a better writer generally.
In practical terms, a beta writer helps you identify issues with your stories and offers you suggestions for ways you might deal with those issues. Sometimes those comments can be as broad as “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this plot works because of reasons x, y and z. But it might work if you had character A do b instead.” Sometimes they might be as detailed as “perhaps annoyed might be a better description than angry” or “I think you need a semicolon here rather than a comma”. As a guide to new members on how a beta reader might work with an author, we have put together a companion article with beta reading samples that draws together examples of different approaches to beta reading.
All this describes what a good beta reader can do for you. Although it is rare, some who offer to beta read may get carried away with their desire to shape the piece, and the result can be that the author feels the beta reader is dictating how to write the story. Authors should have no hesitation declining advice that makes them feel their story is being 'hijacked.' Again, it is very uncommon, but it does happen. A good beta helps you to write the best version possible of the story you want to write. Someone who makes you uncomfortable is not a good beta for you, no matter how good their writing skills.
On the other hand, an author does have a duty to take a beta reader’s comments seriously (especially if the author asked for them). This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have negative reactions to them initially – sometimes beta readers are asking for major changes that will involve a lot of time and effort and there can be an understandable cry from the author that “surely they should get it” or “but it works well enough”. I call this the “stomp round the room for five minutes wanting to kick the cat” phase. (It’s fortunate I don’t actually have a cat!) Once I get that out of my system, I can go back and consider the comments calmly. I generally find my beta readers are right: there is something wrong with what I’ve written – even if it’s something different from the issue they’ve identified or requires a different fix to the one they’ve suggested.
That initial reaction shows clearly that the relationship between author and beta reader involves an enormous degree of trust, because the beta reader is making critical comments on the author’s “baby”. Authors have to trust that their beta readers are genuinely trying to help and that their comments are made with the author’s best interests at heart. In return, the beta reader must be able to trust the author to take their suggestions seriously and rationally. The beta reader should also be confident that they won’t have to pull their punches. If something is truly horrendous or doesn’t work, they have to believe they can tell the author (in a nice way) without the risk of sending the author into a deep depression or causing them to send a flame-mail back.
A beta reader’s comments are never supposed to be a denigration of the author on a personal level; they are comments from someone independent on the story or other piece of writing. So “This is nice enough technically, but it’s dull” doesn’t mean “You, the author, are a dull person”. (As an author, I’ve had that feedback a couple of times from my betas, and they were absolutely right. After realising I agreed wholeheartedly with them, I was spurred into rewrites which they tell me knocked their socks off – and which were filled with passion and interest far exceeding anything that happens in my dull life.)
Because of that degree of trust, it’s important that authors find beta readers with whom they connect on a personal level. If it’s hard to find a meeting of minds when you’re holding discussions about general topics, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to work well when discussing something as sensitive as someone’s story. Just as an author doesn’t have to accept specific beta comments, they also aren’t obliged to accept beta help from everyone who offers. The first person to offer may not be the best and you shouldn’t accept them out of desperation or in the belief you won’t find anyone else – you will. Moreover, you are freeing up that beta reader to do a cracking job with someone they do connect with.
The bottom line: listen to everyone, but in the end you have to trust your own instincts. Sometimes there is a jewel of a comment buried in a heap of unhelpful suggestions. The best writer can be a not-so-good beta because they are too sure they are 'right' and too keen to see the story written the way they would do it. The worst writer you know may have an excellent eye for someone else's plot holes. And someone who doesn't write at all may be quite sharp at spotting things that don't read well.
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