This essay was written for and orginally published at Working Stiffs.

What's a beta reader, and why do I need one?
by shannono

Some weeks back, Nicola asked for an essay on beta reading basics -- that is, what it is, why it exists, and how it works, as opposed to the mechanics of doing beta, which is being tackled by a couple of the best betas around, I hear. I readily volunteered, since this something I feel fairly strongly about, but as usual for me lately, real life and writer's block intervened. Beta readers are wonderful things; unfortunately, to get to that point, you first have to actually write something. ;)

Now I finally have a few minutes to jot down some thoughts, so here goes nothing.

First, you should all know that this essay will go through at least one beta reader before it sees the light of day. Why? Because I know I'm not perfect. I make mistakes. And since I care about my reputation as a writer, I don't want those mistakes to end up on permanent display if I can help it. This perspective is going to color my comments, and I want to make that clear from the start.

Having said that, I will add that most of my comments and suggestions are not absolutes. Fanfic and beta reading are different for everyone, and I will attempt to address all these schools of thought in my comments. However, I am going to start from my own point of view -- as a full-fledged supporter and proponent of the entire beta reading process.

What's a beta, Mommy?

First things first; let's start with a few definitions. What is a beta reader anyway? Well, a beta reader is simply an editor -- a person who reads your finished or partially finished story and offers you comments, corrections, and suggestions on ways to improve it. It's much the same as what a professionally written piece goes through before it reaches the publication stage -- grammar and spelling are corrected, confusing sentences are straightened out, and any missing information is filled in.

The term "beta reader" itself evolved from the gaming industry's practice of building new games, testing them ("alpha testing"), and then sending them out to teams of gamers for a second look, or "beta testing," before putting the games on the market. These terms are now used in the software industry as well.

Beta readers can be called "betas," "editors," "proofreaders" or any number of other titles, but the basic job description is the same. Beta reading can cover a wide range of services, depending on what the writer is looking for. Many writers are fairly well satisfied with their stories when they're finished writing and simply want someone to double-check for typographical errors; some want their work picked apart so they can put it back together into something much better. An author's choice as to the amount and depth of beta she wants is not necessarily of the writer's talent or skill level, however. Many very good writers choose to undergo deep beta for many of their stories.

Why beta?

Not every writer chooses to use a beta reader. This is a personal decision, but even though I am firmly on the "always beta" side of the fence, I'd like to discuss both sides of the issue.

More than once, I've seen a writer with the apparent impression that using a beta reader takes the story out of her hands and makes it no longer "hers." This is never how beta should work. A beta reader should not dictate changes, beyond the correction of very basic grammatical and spelling errors (and even some of those are often negotiable). A beta reader should make suggestions; it is up to you, as the author, to choose to use them or not. The story always ultimately belongs to you.

However, even if you use not a single suggestion from your beta reader, I continue to believe that it is best for both you and your story to have at least one other person read the story before it is posted. Why? Because most writers have a hard time seeing the flaws in their own writing, simply because they're too close to it. You know what you mean when you write, and it's difficult to see mistakes when you know what you intended to say. The mind tends to automatically superimpose the correct spelling or phrasing. Most authors also have certain things that consistently come out wrong, whether it's using the wrong homonym or misspelling a certain word. (I learned something new about compound adjectives when writing this essay. Yes, the Grammar Guerrilla had been doing something wrong for years and never knew it. It happens!)

In addition, you should consider that the reader does not have that insight into your thought processes. You may know the reasoning behind what was written, but the reader might not. It has to be clear in the story.

That's where beta readers come in. Betas provide a fresh point of view on the story, asking the questions that the general reader would, whether it's "Did you really mean to have Scully 'shutter' in horror?" or "Didn't Mulder already find his watch in the third paragraph?" This gives you a chance to answer those questions before the final story is posted, saving later confusion and, possibly, embarrassment.

Criticism is hard to take. Even the lightest of betas can make you cringe if you're not accustomed to it, and deeper beta can leave you curled up on the floor, whimpering. (Not that this has ever happened to me, oh no ) But in the long run, it's worth it, because it helps you put your best work out there.

In the professional publishing world, almost nothing is ever published without going through several rounds of editing and proofreading. Have you ever read a newspaper story and found a misspelling or other error? This is embarrassing for professionals. Professional publications are supposed to be correct, and when they're not, the company looks bad.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, with fanfic. While few readers will give up entirely on a well-written story just because of a few errors, many will not use their limited free time to struggle through a story, even one with a good plot, if it's riddled with misspellings, grammatical errors, and confusing phrasing. A few mistakes are no problem, but continual errors will leave the reader confused and, in many cases, send them right to the delete key. Worse, once you've posted a story or two with a lot of errors, many people recognize your name and hit "delete" before they even open the post. Bad first impressions are very hard to overcome.

How deep is your beta?

The exact level of beta desired varies from writer to writer, and even from story to story. Personally, I usually prefer a midlevel variety of beta, offering basic corrections as well as general comments on the story, suggestions on how to improve phrasings, and questioning on plot developments and characterization. However, I have posted stories with almost no beta -- even occasionally none at all, although I reserve that for very light stories -- and I have undergone some very deep beta on a handful of stories.

Each writer is different. Some writers are very accomplished and can post well-written stories with little or no assistance. Some writers have trouble with grammar or spelling and want help in those areas, while others may be native speakers of another language and need assistance with English idioms and phrasing. Still others are very much beginners and need quite a bit of help with the basics of plotting and sentence structure.

The lower levels of beta are most typical and, in fact, fine for the vast majority of fanfic. While many authors (including me) look at fanfic as a sort of "training ground" for later forays into original fiction writing, the fact remains that this is, first and foremost, a hobby. Each author is entitled to put forth as much or as little effort and time as he or she wants. This goes double for those who are writers and editors in "real life" -- I speak from experience when I say they put up with more than enough editing on the professional side of things!

On the other end of the spectrum is the major beta school of thought. You may have heard the terms "deep massage" or "machete" beta referred to in discussions over the past year or so. What this entails is picking a story apart, line by line -- not just correcting errors but also making suggestions about how to rephrase lines, what should be cut entirely, what needs to be added, what works and what doesn't. This kind of beta reading is not for the faint of heart; in fact, it can be quite painful. However, this hard-core beta process makes for a fantastic learning experience for an aspiring writer. In fact, most of the writers who submit to this process are already very good and are simply looking for new ways to improve their skills.

My beta and I just didn't work out

Some people have been dissatisfied with the beta reading process, and I believe there are two main reasons: miscommunication and mismatching. In some cases, both are at fault.

The problems usually arise when a writer expects one kind of beta and gets another. This most commonly happens early in a beta relationship, when writer and beta don't know each other that well. Clashes can also occur if writer and beta hold widely differing views on the show's characters and plotlines. A person who professes not to buy a Mulder/Krycek relationship, for example, may not be the best choice to beta your M/K slash epic. However, if you're trying to convince people that it's plausible, you might want to ask anyway; if you can even begin to persuade her, then you must be doing a good job!

In any new beta relationship, the writer should be very clear about what she wants, and the beta very clear about what she does. If you only want basic corrections and you get back deep massage, you're going to be very taken aback, and vice versa. Same goes if your beta is expecting a quick read and you're looking for something that will take hours. Many of us have found ourselves in situations where we had agreed to beta and then discovered that it entailed much more than we expected, or that the type of beta we were doing was not what the writer wanted at all -- and there's no way to bow out of that kind of situation gracefully.

To head off this kind of problem, before you get to the point of sending a new beta a story, you should go over it with her carefully. Tell her how long it is; summarize the basics of the plot, including ratings, romantic pairings, and anything touchy, such as rape or character death; and specify what type of beta you're looking for. This is a good rule even in long-standing beta relationships, especially if the story is different from the norm or if you're looking for something different in terms of beta.

On the other side, the beta should also warn you of any shortcomings, habits, or time constraints you might have to deal with. If the beta isn't that great at grammar, she should say so; if she's got a two-week trip to Maui coming up at the end of the month, you deserve to know that she'll be unavailable.

Matching up perspectives can also be important in beta relationships. When it comes to interpretations of the show and its characters, you and your beta don't have to agree on everything, but you should understand your differences so they don't clash. If your points of view are vastly different, it might be wise for you to find someone who more closely shares your views. You can still use the, um, "differently-clued" beta, but it is wise to have at least one beta who shares the same perspective, especially on matters of characterization.

You should also always keep in mind that you are not obligated to accept all, or even any, of your beta readers' comments. The story still belongs to you, the writer, and it is ultimately your decision if any changes are to be made.

However, if you consistently finds yourself discarding all of the comments from any one beta, it might be a good idea to let that beta relationship fall by the wayside. At that point, it becomes obvious that the situation is not working out for either you or the beta.

Should I have a harem?

The number of beta readers you choose to use can vary, based on not only what kind of beta you want but also on the story itself. Generally speaking, longer, more complex stories tend to cry out for more betas; however, very long stories are usually limited by their very length. In other words, it's hard to find a half-dozen people to beta read a 500K story -- and even harder to juggle all of their comments into something coherent. Not that it can't be done, but it takes a lot of work. (Again, been there, done that ...)

On the other hand, I've known writers who've used ten betas for a tiny little vignette. Really. I've used nearly that many myself in a few cases. It all depends on the type of story it is, the complexity, and the amount of effort the writer is willing to put into it.

Once you've found a few betas you like, do your best to stick with them -- but don't rely on them exclusively. Like writers, betas can become complacent when they read all of your stories and can start missing things. Some longtime writers have fallen into a real beta rut, and it shows in their stories. In some cases, it's as if they're posting the same story over and over. There may not be anything truly wrong with the stories; they're simply flat.

For this reason, I recommend trying out new beta readers on occasion. It's a good idea to get a fresh perspective from time to time, either in addition to, or instead of, your regular betas. Variety is the spice of life, after all. ;)

I'm a writer, not a beta!

In my opinion, the beta pipeline also works in reverse. That is, every writer should also be a beta at some point. Why? Because critical reading of another writer's work helps you see the flaws in your own writing more clearly. It also exposes you to a wider variety of writing styles and practices; you can look inside another writer's thought processes and see how they construct their stories. This practice has been used for many years; it's the main purpose of community writing groups, where writers critique each other's work.

Many writers avoid beta reading because they don't like it, and that's fine; this is a hobby, after all. But if it's simply that you're uncomfortable with your skills as a beta, you should give it a try, at least. You can suggest that the writer get at least one other, more experienced beta, to supplement your work. You might also ask the writer to reciprocate by critiquing your beta. Be sure you're clear to begin with on what she wants in the way of beta, of course. But do at least try it; you might discover you have a talent for it.

Okay, you've convinced me. Where do I sign up?

Heh. Convincing you was the easy part. Finding a beta, well, that's not so simple. Dasha has some great suggestions on her site -- in fact, read both of her essays on beta reading, available at her site and here on Working Stiffs -- but I'll include a few suggestions here.

  • Make friends and ask them to beta. How? Sending feedback is a good place to start. No, don't write and say, "I love your story. Will you beta read mine?" What I mean is, send good, thoughtful feedback to several authors, and it's likely that at least one or two will grow into actual correspondences. Then after you've exchanged some messages with one writer, tell her that you're writing a story and looking for a beta reader, and ask if she has any suggestions. This will most likely work better than asking for a beta directly.
  • Join a relatively small discussion list or two and meet people there. This is closely related to the above, although you don't have to start with feedback; correspondences can grow out of list discussions instead. But again, once you have a few correspondences going, you can ask those people for help. On a smaller list, you can also post requests for beta help, and you'll get better responses than you would in a large public forum.
  • Send an e-mail to the Beta Readers' Circle. This group exists for the express purpose of providing beta, although response times can sometimes be slow.
  • Check the list of volunteers at the ATXC FAQ (also available here on Working Stiffs). The SUe (yes, that's her screen name) has put together a list here of people who have offered to beta read. I don't know how up-to-date it is, but at least it's there.

There. It's not the end-all, be-all, but it's the perspective from my little corner of the fanfic world. Think of something I missed? Write me and tell me!


© Copyright 2000 by shannono

Thanks to Robbie for beta reading. Comments welcome at



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