As an author trying to make it into the big leagues and become published, I’ve spent time in the ‘minors’: posting writing for free on amateur sites like fanfiction.net or fictionpress.com. In that world, the term ‘beta reader’ or just ‘beta’ is common – like us fledgling writers, betas are our fledgling editor counterparts. Betas critique, correct, and compliment with an eye toward improving the writing for readability and improving our review count, not sales. In many cases betas are faceless and voiceless, found through trial and error in that murky cloud called the Internet.
Imagine my surprise when I opened my Romance Writers Report (RWR) to find not only the term ‘beta’ but an entire article** not only defining the word, but encouraging the use of betas by the pros!
**As much as I’d love to point you at the article itself (written by Maria Connor), RWR is published by Romance Writers of America (RWA) for the use of their paying membership, and therefore unavailable to the general public.
Having used a number of beta readers myself (usually two or more on any given piece of writing), I was stunned to see that professional authors were unaware of such a resource. Ms. Connor notes in the opening paragraph that when asked, authors said they’d never used a beta reader, but they did use Kindle readers. REALLY?
Betas are the bread and butter of good amateur writers, the first set of eyes to see a new chapter or story and given carte blanche to not only correct grammar and awkward wordings (and find all my missing words), but to also chime in on plot issues, incomplete descriptions, even things as esoteric as whether or not dialog is appropriate for the era of the story. Ms. Connor details what a writer can expect of a beta and how using one can teach the writer to deal with constructive criticism. She includes a checklist for betas (including asking questions like ‘Are the characters believable?’ or ‘What themes are you finding?’) and advice to the writer (“The number one rule is be nice to your beta.”) – all things that my betas have done for me for years now.
Those of you who know my writing history will be asking yourself (or me) “So what? You know this, we know this, why are you blogging about THIS?”
Simple: This is one occasion where the students may be teaching the teachers.
Many of us trying to earn that magical title of ‘published author’ look to literary agent blogs, publisher websites and best-selling authors tweets to find that trick, that edge, that will push us over the top. What reading this article taught me is: don’t overlook your peers, whether they share your goals or not. They may be your greatest resource!
We all have the ability to be teachers, whether we realize it or not. So the next time you’re asked to look at someone’s writing or beta a story, consider that you may not be helping your friend with her fanfiction, you may be nurturing the next Nora Roberts.
And if you don’t have a beta yet, GET ONE! A friend, a writing partner, even a spouse can do it – just be prepared for an honest and deep evaluation of your work. It’ll be just as hard for your beta to highlight your writing blemishes as it’ll be for you to face them.
NOTE: I will give RWR a plug – it’s one of the many benefits that RWA membership provides. With limited advertising and great articles about the writing craft, profession and publishing industry as a whole, I look forward to receiving it every month. For more info, check out the RWA website at http://www.rwanational.org/.
Also, the RWA national conference is scheduled for July in Nashville – though the current storms and flooding have put the event in jeopardy. If you’d like to support those suffering in the rising waters, please consider donating to the Red Cross: http://www.middletennredcross.org/general.asp?SN=8522&OP=8919&SUOP=9359&IDCapitulo=78T3Z2WSK0
Finally, I’d like to thank my husband for beta-ing this blog entry! Betas ROCK!