The Best Beta Reader


When writers and beta readers work together, the goal is to elevate the written work through linguistic purification. Beta reading coupled with ensuing revision ideally removes all manner of errata. It distills the final work into it's purest possible existence. And there's a second goal, too; for the writer and reader to become ever closer as professionals, in trusting interdependence.

Think about writing. It's a powerful force whether you're trying to express love for a desired person, or intending to birth a new nation; whether you're calling for an end to a shocking injustice, presenting an astonishing new theory, or anything in between. Some of us presume to make this writing thing that supposedly anyone can do, a life's work. It's best for us to take the work seriously but not take ourselves too seriously in the process. For the truth is, not everyone can do it well and even those of us who have some measure of genius must work at it with earnest sincerity and untiring energy. It's no wonder that we benefit so much from the sincere assistance of our editors and others who contribute to the effort. We rely heavily on our helpmates to uphold our work and become midwives of our creation.

Now think about reading and especially this thing called beta reading these days. Beta reading's the maiden flight of a work that requires outpouring of a writer's mind, and often their soul as well. There's no mystery in why we run variously amok from typos to tantrums, to successive approximations, and from rewrites to triumphs in the end, hopefully. It's damned difficult work at times, and our very beings are poured into our works, which become like children we birth and raise to be pure, proud and powerful. Any writer worthy of the name wants their work to be read and appreciated in some way, in the end.

Trusted readers willing to participate with us in the final stages of publication can smooth our paths or kill our motivation to continue, even in the very profession of writing. You betas penetrate our blindness to our own errors and suggest alternate routes to glory. We trust you with our most prized and precious things, our manuscripts. We want to know your thoughts, and at the same time, we cringe at the prospect of receiving them. Every writer wants their work to be understood and valued, even those whose primary motive is money. And even if the valuing is really about an as-yet unattained perfection.

We know we need honest reports from our beta readers and at the same time, we risk a lot emotionally in all stages of the writing process. For me, the stakes rise higher and higher at every step of the process from the seed idea to the final book before our eyes. We deeply need to look upon it and think, This was worth the effort, if we are to keep on writing.

At the same time, we need to find and correct any sort of flaw that has crept into our creation as we built it and this is why we collaborate with betas, for no other reason, and especially not to receive praise. We need cold facts about the manuscript so that we can distill the work into a purer state. Because we also fear what we need and want, and because we are universally our own most brutal critics, we need you to be kind as well as honest.

Now think about satisfaction for both writers and their beta readers. Like writers, betas seek specific goals though most of those objectives differ from the ones valued by their writers. Remember always that the writer chooses the beta reader, not the other way around and this alone sets the nature of this creative partnership. Betas work for writers and of course for themselves as well, but the main flow of benefits is from the beta to the writer and believe me, sane writers are deeply grateful for a good beta's contribution, without which it's likely some flaws may survive and pass into the publication. We turn to you only after doing all we can possibly do to make the work perfect, knowing we can't get there alone. We need you, and somehow you need us. Now, therefore, let us work as partners, both accurately and respectfully.

I'll try to be honest; in my work, at the beta stage, it's still easy to find flaws. Here's a typo, there lies a cliché, no matter how sincerely I may stretch toward perfection. Even egregious missteps can be found; the dreaded, tedious repetition or just a plain old boring passage or slightly purple-ish chunk of prose. The beta I need and want sees all of this and yet doesn't lose faith in me and my ability to make it right once I can see the issue with their help.

My ideal beta doesn't even dream of praise because it's wasted effort in a serious business yet they express appreciation in another form. They communicate neutrally as a caring professional always does. And the writer returns that respect, in kind. Think of a doctor you respect who is charged with telling you what malady you have and delivers even devastating news both accurately and compassionately.

I can't speak for other writers, but as for me, I want accuracy and truth but packaged in kindness. I strongly suspect this "tough love" nonsense that has crept into beta reading circles is a poison that diminishes demand for a beta's services except from masochists. Love is always strong but never tough, and I want betas who love what they do because it strengthens relationships. Think of that doctor again and how his revelations are delivered so tactfully.

And lastly, think what tact comprises. It's "adroitness and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues.” Synonyms include "sensitivity, diplomacy, thoughtfulness, consideration, and discretion." Tact is the loving, artful delivery of your findings, beta readers. It's a communication that merely conveys the findings and without judgment or shaming or any other tone that may discourage your client writer from gratefully incorporating your insights into their work. If you don't have this capacity in you, please get out of beta reading.

And so, beta readers, be perceptive and dedicated but never forget that tact is of the essence because it protects your relationship with your creative partner from dark forces that lurk in pejorative terms and comparative judgments and self-referencing statements.

Remember always the real goal is to to purify the work, not the writer.