What is this new-fangled "Beta reader" thing?

msstice

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I wanted to understand how old and universal the practice of beta reading was. My only education in process came from scattered autobiographical/biographical notes from Clarke, Asimov, Hemingway and Faulkner. I don't recall beta readers being mentioned. Sometimes editors gave feedback, but that was mentioned as exceptional. I asked the internet and amidst the beta writer services spam I found one contrarian post that basically said "Don't do art by committee." They mentioned that the feedback they got was from stories being accepted or not, and some discussions in a writer's group which they used in their subsequent writing. This was similar to what I read in Stephen King's notes of his writing. What are people's opinions on beta reading and what to take away from beta readers?
 

Biskit

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I found one contrarian post that basically said "Don't do art by committee."
I think that's probably the heart of it. If you want to make money then you need a selection of beta readers to smooth over the sharp edges and make it more commercially appealing. If you want to get in people's faces (or heads) with "this is my story", then go easy on the beta readers.

If you want to make money and get in people's faces then you need serious talent.
 

HareBrain

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I found one contrarian post that basically said "Don't do art by committee." They mentioned that the feedback they got was from stories being accepted or not, and some discussions in a writer's group which they used in their subsequent writing.
Beta readers are too late in the process to count as making art by committee, unless the author is so uncertain about their own work that they judge everyone else's opinions as superior to their own and make massive revisions at the first sign of criticism. (Also, there is an argument for "art by committee" -- the Simpsons writers' room for seasons 3-8.)

If you're writing short stories, then maybe you can afford to use acceptance or rejection as the main pointers to what you're doing right or wrong. But I'd suggest no one has the lifespan to do that with novels. Plus there are many reasons for rejection that wouldn't amount to the author doing something wrong. (And how would a form rejection give you any hint what that was?)

Such an attitude also smacks a bit of arrogance, that you as the author are capable of picking up all the plot holes or errors that readers could. And presumably you're writing for someone else to read it, so why would you not get a few of those potential readers to check how well your writing or plotting works?
 

Yozh

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Newspeak for having a volunteer do unpaid proofreading and maybe rendering a bit of amateur editorial advice.

I think this is the heart of it. I‘ve read that authors from 100 years ago also had others read near-finished work. For example, E.M. Forster had friends read through his stories that had homosexual themes in order to perfect these works even though they were absolutely unmarketable at the time he was writing. (Many of these were published posthumously)

It’s just easier now with word processing and internet to get more opinions. And the word itself is new, probably coming out f software development where “beta testers” are trusted experienced users test-driving a product before it goes to market.
 

sknox

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The term itself has obvious origins, of course. As for the practice, I think it arose out of necessity as editors became more and more an explicit cost to the author rather than being part of the costs borne by the publisher. With the advent of self-publishing, the practice has exploded.

As for what to ask of beta readers, it's going to vary by author and even by book. In general, though, it's a classic case of the answers depending on the questions asked. Ask better questions and you'll get better answers. As a predicate to that, the clearer the author is about what they want, the better able they will be to craft good questions.

It occurs to me that Chrons would be a good place to develop a set of questions to beta readers. For example, can you (the beta reader) commit to having all comments back to me by [date]? Timeliness is important. Another question would be, are you familiar and well-read (e.g., have read more than N novels) in this genre? I can see an author looking for readers in that exact sub-genre, but also looking for someone not familiar at all with the genre. Again, all depends on what feedback the author wants.

And a final, important point. As author, I need to understand I am asking another person for their time and attention. That has value. Am I prepared to pay for that? This can involve money, but often the compensation takes the form of reader the other person's work. So, if I'm asking for three beta readers for my one novel, I may be committing to providing feedback on three novels. But I won't ask for beta reading for free.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Or to put it differently, they may provided insights, not specific to what you are writing, but to set you thinking about what it might mean in your story or your writing in general. Also, they may see some of the problems more clearly, their minds not clouded with the myriad different concerns and possibilities that you, the author, necessarily entertain for the story as a whole.

And as others have said, beta-readers are nothing new, although the term itself is a relatively recent one.

Consider the Inklings, and most particularly Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams; they seemed to gain a great deal of benefit from sharing what they had written with trusted, knowledgeable, intelligent writer friends. They didn't always follow the advice or suggestions they received, in fact, some times they disagreed rather strongly. But the value of comments from such a group of readers is not always in the actual suggestions you receive, but how even refuting those suggestions may send your mind down unexpected pathways that help you to clarify for yourself what you intend to do and why.

Also, didn't Melville correspond with Hawthorne, while he was wrestling with Moby Dick? Am I remembering that correctly?
 

ColGray

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Or to put it differently, they may provided insights, not specific to what you are writing, but to set you thinking about what it might mean in your story or your writing in general. Also, they may see some of the problems more clearly, their minds not clouded with the myriad different concerns and possibilities that you, the author, necessarily entertain for the story as a whole.

And as others have said, beta-readers are nothing new, although the term itself is a relatively recent one.
Totally agree: It's a new term for an old thing that has evolved and grown beyond, My writer friends and i swap work, to fill the editorial gap. Done well, beta reading trades on and deepens community involvement.

Shawn Coyne, (20+yr editor at Big5) discusses editorial role changes during his tenure-- it went from, creative assistant + professional opinion-haver, to, portfolio manager. As trad publishers consolidated, it reduced competition and so quality became less important than having "enough of good enough"--did he have something for every category of reader? Story Grid begins with Coyne eulogizing the lost days of Maxwell Perkins (editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, Rawlings, and more) and how he spent years identifying, nurturing and working with promising talent to produce amazing works of literature. That job no longer exists, but the role remains critically important, which is why community is so important.

It also speaks to the self-delusion of, you can't create art by committee. Leaving aside film and television (writers rooms, multiple groups of creative people), Perkins edited, culled, refined and worked though some of the greatest works of art in English literature. The art is one person's vision, honed and improved by committee.
 

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The criticisms of work by committee are usually leveled by someone who thinks they alone know better. It's easy to show great work done cooperatively, including things like constitutions (of any number of countries), the work done by juries around the world and over generations, and so on.

Creative work is a peculiar critter, first to last. Some, such as sculpture or painting, is almost entirely the work of a single hand, while others--ColGray mentions examples--are almost never that. Writing varies, but the advent of self-publishing has opened the craft to the lone creator far more than in the past.
 

AnRoinnUltra

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I think it's important Beta readers get what you're doing and advise based on that. I was very lucky with 'The Turd' in that there was a couple who used to read the chapters on Sunday morning (one was a writer and would read them aloud) -I got technical stuff from them (that description is too vague etc.). I also had a non writing friend who just liked the story and would come back with more structural advice (lose bit part character x etc.).
That was a one off though, and I haven't had it since. I shy off the critiques a bit because I make advice based on what I want to see, and I reckon I'm not really getting what the writer is going for. I think more eyes/ input will always make a better story, but the trick is finding people who see where it needs to be.
In short: if the Beta reader is in on the thing, take every advice they have -if not, horseman pass by;)
 

Teresa Edgerton

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the lost days of Maxwell Perkins (editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, Rawlings, and more) and how he spent years identifying, nurturing and working with promising talent to produce amazing works of literature.
But what you are describing here is actually writing with an uncredited collaborator (editor, mentor, or whatever) who weighs in after the author has produced something, if raw and unfinished, nevertheless substantial—which is a very different thing from "writing by committee" which is listening to too many suggestions from too many different voices at a point where the author is still extremely unclear about how they wish to proceed at all and has little actually down in writing. These are entirely different things.

Beta-readers tend to be somewhere in between, in that there may be a number of such readers, but these come in relatively late in the process, where the author has completed at least one draft, and has a fairly clear vision of what they wish to accomplish, even if they are not entirely sure of how to accomplish it.

Collaborations can be successful. (Whether of the kind where two people sit down to write a story together, or of the sort where the author has input from a editor or other mentor. I am sure we can all think of famous examples.) Beta-readers, likewise can be useful, whether a few writer friends, or members of a formal writing group. (A note on writing groups: there are excellent ones, and there are terrible ones. Most are somewhere in between, because not everyone in any given group is going to be worth listening to.)

But the author who is constantly asking a variety of other people what they should do from the very beginning of a project is asking for confusion and not giving themselves a chance to make their own choices and learn their own lessons and thus to grow as a writer. This is what some of us mean when we say "novels aren't (or shouldn't be) written by committee." As I have said before, if you put your work into the hands of others while it is still too malleable, they will leave their fingerprints all over it. And the result of that can be a smudgy, misshapen mess. Worse, trying too hard to please too many people and follow too many rules can eventually lead to a loss of all joy in the creative process. Not listening to any advice at all, ever, is equally unwise.
 

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Fiberglass Cyborg

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Beta readers have even become a thing in fanfiction, to the point where fic writers who don't use them tend to tag everything with "no beta we die like men".

This whole new ecology of creative writing courses, writing retreats, writing groups, beta readers, writing coaches etc. etc. feels a little odd to me. Creative writing used to be the ultimate self-taught art-form (though granted you had to be literate first!) No conservatoires, no art colleges, no royal institutions - you just figured it out yourself in the privacy of your own home. Which is one reason so many more women became successful writers in the 18th and 19th centuries than became artists or composers. They didn't have to storm the gates of the patriachal institutions to learn their craft. (/rant)

For a long time, I was a member of a songwriters' group. To be blunt, nineteen times out of twenty, the specific suggestions I got as part of a critique were just plain useless. What was useful was seeing, "oh, this bit didn't land with that guy like I thought it would, and the woman in the corner has missed what I was going for entirely. I know what I need to work on now." Not sure how that translates working with beta readers but I imagine there's some overlap!
 
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Toby Frost

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msstice

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We've had a wonderful discussion here, as always.

My key takeaways ("I heard what I wanted to hear."):

1. You should ask for beta reader feedback when the work is fairly set, otherwise you may lose your creative ownership of the work.
2. Beta reader feedback should be taken as a gestalt and often as "This worked and this didn't" as opposed to literal suggestions to be applied. This is because readers are usually correct when they identify something is off, but are bad at identifying the details of the problem and how it should be solved.
 

sknox

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I would add this: beta readers vary as widely as do just plain readers. Some will be excellent at small details. Some will give only general comments. Some will prove to be contrarian. Expect to go through many before you find a good working relationship.

Then treasure that.
 

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