A to Z CHALLENGE – On Writing – B is for Beta Readers

B is for Beta Readers.

When I started writing my debut novel, PAINTING BY NUMBERS, I had no idea what the hell a beta reader was –  some kind of Ancient Greek Newscaster I wondered. But when I was about a hundred pages into the book, I met a published author who explained who these strange beings were and why they play such an essential part of the writing process.

Just in case you don’t know, basically, a Beta reader is a critical reader, someone you trust with your manuscript who will give you an honest and constructive critique of your work in progress. Those two words HONEST and CONSTRUCTIVE are very important. The last thing you need is some ill-informed eejit  telling you that your work is brilliant when it stinks, or telling you it stinks without any positive suggestions for improvement. That’s why I wouldn’t recommend friends or family – it’ll only end in tears or a bloodbath. The best beta readers are perhaps fellow writers or people who read a lot and can offer informed and constructive ideas about what they think is right and wrong with the story so far. I don’t pay them any money . (I am Scottish after all) We have a reciprocal agreement and I beta read their work.

My beta readers were life savers when it came to helping me improve by book. They spotted a range of issues from plot holes and  problems with the narrative arc, historical and technical inaccuracies, through to droopy dialogues and character developmental issues.

Some writers have up to half a dozen beta readers on the go, but for me I prefer three. Three readers will give you a range of views and suggestions, and from that you can then work out how to improve or develop your work. One beta reader is not enough and for my money six or more could only confuse me.  And unless you are very confident or super stupid, don’t be tempted to submit your half conceived baby to one of those open online critical forums that proliferate the web. The stakes are too high to allow complete strangers to kick the living daylights out of your work.

It’s also important to stress that my beta readers are not editors or proof readers. Betas are reading for content, structure and overall flow (unless you want them to do more than that of course) But it is worth employing a good editor as well, to scrutinise your work in microscopic detail and pick up any issues that you or your beta readers  may have missed.

Finally, you may also wish to consider a gamma reader who is not a senior Ancient Athenian butcher, but someone who reads the finished manuscript for the first time with a fresh pair of eyes.

So if you are in the middle of a book or considering starting one, do yourself a huge favour and go get yourself some critical support.. after all, writing is more of a team effort than  many  would have you believe.

THE PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE FINALIST – PAINTING BY NUMBERS – a dark, surreal thriller is available in digital and print formats from Amazon UK/Amazon US and all good online stores.


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13 Responses to A to Z CHALLENGE – On Writing – B is for Beta Readers

  1. Helen Howell says:

    I totally agree with you three betas is more than enough. I also had three for my first Novella Jumping At Shadows and their help was essential in looking at one’s work with new eyes.

    A very good post Tom.

    • Tom Gillespie says:

      Thanks Helen.. I seem to remember one beta reader in particular who pointed out that my dialogues were way too long…. and that was totally invaluable advice ….. ^____^

  2. Jane Bwye says:

    An excellent post, Tom. Beta readers are essential, and I was lucky enough to gain one or two valuables for my book.

    • Tom Gillespie says:

      Thanks Jane .. easy to forget how vital they are in all the bluster to get the damn thing finished

  3. Totally agree, Tom. I now have a yardstick by which to measure the Old Feller’s devotion to me. He beta read Cameron’s books, and he is an unreconstructed homophobe!

  4. DC Lozeau says:

    You hit the nail right on the head, Tom. I, unfortunately, didn’t have any beta readers for my first book, Tip of the Iceberg. (with the exception of my wife) And after a dozens re-reads by myself, three edits through my publisher, and of course, my wife, my published book was not error-free. I have had close friends that purchased Tip of the Iceberg point out some of the mistakes, mostly spelling. I will definitely use a couple of betas this time around for my latest WIP, Destiny’s Fate.

    A great and informative post. Thanks again, Tom.

  5. Tony Noland says:

    So true. Honesty from your beta readers is crucial. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s wrong.

    I’m doing the A to Z challenge, too, although not about writing. Feel free to pop by.

    • Tom Gillespie says:

      Thanks Tony.. hard faced and brutal.. but totally honest with constructive points to make.. otherwise, as you say.. we are pissing in the wind..I’ll check out your posts..

  6. Ali Bacon says:

    Hi Tom
    Gamma readers are new to me – but I suppose that’s just a beta reader farther down the line? Only problem with that is there does come a time when you have to say ‘it is finished’ – and wait for the reviews 😉
    Ali B

    • Tom Gillespie says:

      Thanks Ali, You may just need that fresh pair of eyes to look at it before you send it off wherever it has to go..but I know what you mean..

  7. ahhh so NOT an ancient stoneage Kindle then!
    Thanks for that – would have embarrassed myself at a Writers’ conference with that one 🙂
    Gamma readers tho… Nice.

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