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What is a Beta Reader?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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A beta reader is someone who agrees to look over a piece of fiction for spelling, grammar, characterization, and continuity errors. Unlike a true editor, a beta reader is typically unpaid, and he or she sees the work at a very rough state. Many authors like to use beta readers to improve the quality of their work before they submit it for professional editing and critique, and beta readers are usually profusely thanked in acknowledgments, in recognition of the time and energy which they invested in the work.

The term is borrowed from the software industry, which uses “beta” to describe an imperfect release. This release is used by beta testers, who try to identify problems with the software before it is used by the general public. These beta testers often try to deliberately break the software, looking for any points of weakness which could pose problems, and a good beta reader, or beta, does the same.

The duties of a beta reader are myriad. In addition to acting as a general proofreader looking for typographical errors, the beta reader also looks for flaws in characterization and plot. The beta may question why a character does or does not do something, or how someone ends up in France with no apparent explanation halfway through the third chapter. Authors sometimes miss these flaws as they are caught up in the greater whole, so a beta reader is especially valuable.

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Many websites provide directories of beta readers, who usually specify what kind of fiction they like to work on. Some, for example, may specialize in fan fiction, while others like working on fiction novels intended for professional publication. In some cases, a beta reader agrees to edit in exchange for beta reading of his or her own work, in a quid pro quo trade. The best beta reader is unknown to the author, and therefore able to provide a useful and honest critique of the work.

Any author who imagines that he or she does not need a beta is sadly mistaken. Beta readers will only improve the quality of a written work, although they may sometimes offer very severe criticism. Many authors like to use multiple betas to solicit wider opinions, making their work even better. In rare cases, a beta reader may be excessively harsh or even mean, but these betas are highly unusual. Most are supportive critics who offer meaningful and thoughtful commentary on the work.

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Discuss this Article

anon328170
Post 6

I've used Beta Readers who I exchanged my story with, but the best crits I've received came from "professional" Betas online.

Because I don't know the Betas personally, I don't take their critique personally so I know it's honest. Not to mention they have a contract that protects my work as well. So I know it's safe. --Amber I.

watson42
Post 5

I love being a beta reader and viewer for new software. It means you get to see something before anyone else, and often companies are so thankful to get someone willing to take the time that there are other perks as well.

Mammmood
Post 4

@everetra - Frankly, I’ve read some novels – even bestselling works of fiction – that I think could have used a few more beta readers.

The novel I’m thinking of is a popular teen fiction series, and while the stories are compelling and certainly have a wide audience, I think the quality of the writing is rather poor.

It reads like fan fiction that you might find on Internet websites. Maybe the quality has been deliberately toned down to appeal to the teen crowd, I don’t know, but I certainly don’t believe that authors should lower their standards to appeal to the younger crowd.

everetra
Post 3

I work in the software industry and so am very familiar with the idea of a beta version of a software product.

This is the first time that I’ve heard of beta readers however. I had no idea that authors sometimes solicited the work of non paid readers to check their fictional works. It’s a great idea, and what I like most about it is anonymity.

I’ve never had a work of fiction published myself, but I was part of a writer’s group some years ago. I can tell you that the worst part of the writer’s group is the critique.

Having your fellow club members critique your work can be a nerve-wracking experience. They are certainly not anonymous, and it’s tough not to take the criticisms personally.

College fiction courses can be just as brutal, especially if the professor gets in on the critique as well. Anonymous beta reading is a much better idea in my opinion.

manykitties2
Post 2

Where would you go if you are looking for a beta reader? Also, do beta readers do their work for free or do they charge for their service?

I have written a few short novels and would love to have them go through some sort of outside editing before submitting them for publication, or even self-publishing.

I feel confident that the writing in my books is good, but of course everyone makes mistakes. I am mostly concerned about how to choose a quality beta reader and how to find one that specifically works in my genre.

Also, how do you assure that your intellectual property is safe if you send a copy of your material to an anonymous editor?

animegal
Post 1

For those who love reading fan fiction I am sure you know that it can be tough finding stories that are grammatically correct and flow well enough to be really enjoyed. Often writers have great ideas that really could work, and they just need some serious polishing. Offering yourself up as a beta reader can be a great way to contribute to the fan fiction community and it can also improve your own writing skills.

I have worked as a beta reader for quite a few writers and have found that my own grammar has gotten a lot better since I have started to pick through other people's work. Helping people with continuity issues and keeping their characters in canon has really made me a better writer too. It is really amazing to see what a good beta reader can do for a story.

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