Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why Multiple Betas Are Important

The other day, I was chatting with my writing partner and she mentioned that another beta reader found some issues with her chapter she had to work on still. The gears in my mind instantly started turning. What was the issue? How big was it? How come I didn’t notice it? Does that make me an unobservant beta? Maybe I’m letting down other writers too? And of course, these questions were followed by a short-lasting depression.

But then I thought about my own manuscript. I currently have two alpha readers. When I receive back their comments the only similar change is their corrections to my punctuation. Everything else is different. One might question the realism of certain actions or dialogue. The other doesn’t notice anything about the realism and instead has issues with telling instead of showing. One may zero in on extraneous words and the other combats clich├ęs. It made me realize this: although we’d love to think we can be everything to everyone, we simply cannot. As writers ourselves, we naturally focus on our own problem areas when beta reading. Or the opposite - our strong points. It’s those areas in between that may go unnoticed. Honestly, there’s just too much to look for. Besides what I mentioned above, there’s back story dumps, “to-do lists” (as I call step-by-step action with no internal thought/dialogue breaks), adverbs, grammar…the list goes on. Then there’s the issues that aren’t noticeable until after you’ve finished the entire book like character development, plot holes, and loose threads. I read a piece once where the story came full circle with no growth in the MC or change in circumstances. Sure there was lots of action and the writing sucked me in, but when all was said and done I felt cheated. The story almost seemed pointless, but I would have never known that until I got to the end.

Just imagine all the hidden issues that could be missed in your manuscript with just one beta readthrough. This is why it is so important to have several readers, consisting of alphas: to keep you motivated and fine tune your draft as you go, and betas: to catch anything your alphas haven’t, and to review for pacing, etc.

So how many betas do you use, and what has been your experience with similar/different catches?


  1. I only use a few betas, and I almost always ask them not to focus on technical details as much as story holes and character inconsistencies - because the technical stuff is really for an editor, in my mind, not a beta reader. If a beta is taking all their time line-correcting stuff, I feel like it's a waste of time if I end up rewriting and revising, etc. I only need line stuff at the very end.

    However, I think I get what you're saying here because when I was at a certain point I needed more line stuff to realize where my prose was weak and what I could work on. I still need that, but not to the extent I used to.

    Is any of this making any sense?

  2. It does make sense for writers with editors. LOL But when searching for agents (or indie publishing houses) you need to put your best foot forward, and that means a squeaky clean MS. Some writers are just not the best when it comes to comma placement, etc. (like me), so I need my line by lines...but one day...one day, I'll have an editor, and perhaps it won't be needed for me either. :)

  3. I was mostly just rambling about me, and yes, while you do need to put your best foot forward, I don't think line edits should really be done until later drafts. Doing them on early drafts is just pointless in most cases that I've seen.

  4. Ah, I gotcha. You're saying betas vs. alphas. Perhaps I'm being unrealistic, but I'm hoping by catching some of this early on and having two other sets of eyes, I'll be closer to final than if it was just me. Always the optimist! :)

  5. No, you're right! You do need good betas, absolutely. I guess I'm just worried that some writers (and I don't mean you) take line stuff much too seriously - and they overlook bigger, more important things because they're missing the forest for the trees.