Beta-Reader Bite Back

Old Man and Ferret at Lavaur Market

I see the term “beta reader” everywhere these days. It makes me wonder.

Full disclosure dictates that you understand I’m an old geezer writer. So, I’m bringing some ancient views to this relatively new practice of using “beta readers.” I understand the concept and its potential value, mostly. But, there are a few things about the practice that dwaddle my undersides a bit.

Beta means probably broken. In the world of software development, beta means “not ready for prime time.” In other words, don’t expect things to work out quite right. When it comes to writing, this usually means one of two possibilities. First, the masterpiece needs technical copy-editing. It demands attention to syntax, construction, that kind of thing. Or, second, the story line itself is a fail for one or more reasons. These are obviously less technical problems and always subject to reader interpretation.

Now, if a beta reader is required to deal with the technical shortcomings of, say, a novel, the writer hasn’t done his or her job. That novel should never see the light of day before it has gone through a tough and effective editing phase. In other words, a beta reader should never be an editor unless, of course, the reader IS an editor by profession. If your new masterpiece is released to anyone without good editing, you are insulting your reader and making yourself look like an amateur. I just can’t get behind the idea of subjecting a reader to doing the hard work of editing a piece of writing. I want my reader to, uh, read. It isn’t necessary that you, as a writer, be a great editor. There are professionals who can do an awesome job on the written word. As a writer, you’re always better off knowing the basics, though. In the end, you should never subject anyone other than an editor to technical doo-doo in your writing. That’s something no reader should ever have to endure.

If the beta reader is used to judge the story line, character development, style, or any of those other intangibles, it’s still a mistake. This turns the reader into a critic. Now, critics are fine if you don’t take them too seriously. Unless that new novel is blatantly bad, reading as a critic boils down to offering an opinion. Since everyone in this golly-bang universe has opinions, a group of beta readers can provide only one thing – a bundle of opinions. In other words, a small consensus view, which is usually not a consensus at all.

Helgi Hoseasson

So what, you ask? Opinions are good, you say. Sure, most of the time. However, I don’t like the practice because it seems that beta readers are usually selected in a subjective way. That puts pressure on the reader to walk the line between honest evaluation and putting unnecessary stress on a personal relationship. Not good. At the end of the day, opinions may temporarily shape your feelings but they are not likely to shape your writing destiny, unless you are very good or very bad at what you do. Your writing may not appeal to a particular group yet it may set a new standard for future writers. The history of writing is filled with these kinds of scenarios. Unique talent is often unrecognized at the moment. But, it’s still talent, still ground-breaking, innovative and destined to be a future classic. Only time will ultimately determine the worth of the author and his or her creations. It’s also good to remember that even great writers have produced some real bombs in their day. Happens all the time. If you’re a serious writer, it’s wise to take a long-term view of your art.

Pride of ownership matters. Call me stuck in time but I don’t like the idea of anyone reading my work until it’s in the best shape possible. In other words, no beta releases, ever. No experimentation at the expense of my readers. I want the thing to shine, to be fully edited, to be as near perfect as possible before anyone else sets eyes on it. Experience tells me that nothing I’ve ever written is perfect, no matter how much work and time it has consumed. There will always be flaws. For this reason alone, it goes nowhere until I’ve done everything I can to minimize the beta-ness of the thing.

When it’s as nearly perfect as I can make it, I turn the work over to one person, and only one. It’s someone I trust to make an honest assessment, to be as objective as possible. It’s also someone whose relationship I know will never be challenged by the effort. When I turn the work over, I ask only one question: Tell me if you like it?

That’s right. I don’t want any other feedback. I just want to know if my reader likes what I’ve done, what they’ve read. From my point of view, that’s the end-zone of writing in the first place. Did my reader enjoy the experience? If so, it’s a go. If not, I ask the obvious next question: Why? At that point, I either go back to work or plow on through to publication. This ends all beta-ness.

OK, this is just a geezer point of view on a process that has changed radically over the years. I can see the reason why many writers seek out beta readers. There is some sense to it all. But, I just can’t shake the feeling that anything “beta” should never see the light of day. Only the finished, properly edited work should crawl out of my personal writing space.

Perhaps I’ve missed the concept completely. If so, I’m not so old that I can’t learn a new trick or two.

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10 thoughts on “Beta-Reader Bite Back

  1. A lot of what you’ve written in this post rings so true for me. I have never liked the term beta-reader. It always sticks on the way out of my mouth. With my first novel, I lacked confidence and I did hand the novel over (too soon, by the way) to a couple of people and asked them to tell me only the one thing you have mentioned – did you like it? This time around I have a tad more belief in myself as a writer. I have a list of questions and a couple of trusted readers – people, as you say, who won’t pull their punches and at the same time will not attack and at the end of the day we’ll all still be close. They are getting a clean copy of the book. I value their opinions, but I keep in mind that it is just that – an opinion. It’s my book and all ultimate decisions on how characters act, or talk, etc. are my choices to make and live with. I get bugged when I see people putting up posts in various groups asking others to help them name a character, or come up with a setting, or any of the other things people ask advice or help with when these things are clearly their own responsibility as authors to take care of. EEEK, I could go on quite a rant here, which is bad blog etiquette. So enough. Thanks for a great post!

  2. I am completely in your camp here. For one thing, I write literary fiction, and it seems to me that there isn’t a great pool of betas I could use. Lit. fic. is also much less formulaic than genre fiction, so for a beta reader to compare my book to some kind of story template would be frustrating for all involved. For another thing, I have this “who are you to tell me my book isn’t up to snuff?” thing, which would be pretty hard to overcome!

    Also, I’m a geezer too. So…

  3. Like the other commenters, Michael, I have to agree with you. It’s a matter of pride with me too to polish and keep polishing my work before it goes anywhere.

    I had no idea what a beta reader was … I thought it was another Kindle-y sort of thing. So thanks for clearing that up … not that I’ll ever use one.

  4. I am in total agreement with you. No one sees my works before full publication except my editor. These Beta proofreaders/editors that come out from the wood work with no credentials or experience can actually hurt the end user experience and lower the pay scale for others who have mastered their craft. Opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. I like vanilla while you like chocolate. Is vanilla a better flavor? No, but if the ice cream makers listened to their beta tester and denied the public chocolate – now that would entirely unfortunate.

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