Why you need betas.

*Disclaimer* I’ll be honest: I’ve apparently been interchanging the terms “Alpha reader” and “Beta reader” for years now. I guess that, technically, Alphas give you quick feedback about the main elements of your story (plot, pacing, characterization, etc), and Betas go over your work with a fine-toothed comb. Here’s a good explanation.

Whatever. You just need readers who aren’t you. Don’t think otherwise. Now, back to your regularly-scheduled post…

Robert Heinlein has five semi-famous rules for writers. Four are pretty common sensical. The fifth is so blindingly ridiculous that, of course, it’s the only one I hear regurgitated time and again to justify an author’s contention that their work is ready to go as soon as they figuratively type “The End.” The rule is: “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial specification.”

Seriously, don’t say that. Don’t think it. And, for the love of Pete, don’t abide by it.

And that’s where your readers come in.

When I put the finishing touches on my zombie thriller Orpheus, I liked it. I liked it a lot. I was stoked that I had managed to write the kind of book that I would love to read. I’d nailed it. Then, because I knew that there was no way on Earth I really had nailed it, I started recruiting readers. Family, friends, Facebook acquaintances, friends of friends, even a “Twilight” fan. Each one can offer value and a different perspective on your work.

Here’s who I had as my readers:

My wife: She knows me better than anyone else, and is the only person in the universe who would tell me what I need to hear without sugarcoating it. Not a horror reader. Can’t not watch “The Notebook” when it comes on TV.

My mom: The woman who passed on her love of reading to me. The woman who has, for as long as I’ve known her, gotten up at like 5am every morning to read before work. Who does that? Anyway, horror reader from way back, but not a fan of the zombie genre. At all.

My friend (I’ll call him “Brad,” because that’s his name): Reads mostly zippy spy novels. Big, strong guy who watched most of 28 Weeks Later through his hands. That is not a fabrication.

Also, some extended family members, a handful of Facebookers, a daycare provider, and her friend whom I’ve never met.

I got valuable feedback from all of them. Brad actually printed out a copy, wrote extensive (and useful) notes all over the thing, and we discussed his take for a few hours. Then I stole the copy so I could use his notes. That was last year. It’s still in my bathroom.

Having other people read your work is a must, especially for new writers. Equally as important is who your readers are. People who read the genre, people who don’t, people who know you well, people who couldn’t pick you out of a lineup…the only person who does you no good is the one who would give you nothing more than, “Oh, I liked it!” Personally, I think that having someone who has never heard of you read your work can be the most valuable of all, as they’re the only ones who have no biases to get in the way of a genuine examination of your novel. To that end, online writing forums can be a useful tool. The good ones typically have a subforum dedicated to critiquing. If you go that route, be polite, take the criticism that is offered to you, and please critique others’ work, as well.

Putting your heart and soul into a work that only you’ll see is one thing. Putting it out for others to break down is nerve-wracking, but essential if you wish to take the next big step.

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One thought on “Why you need betas.

  1. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Have someone else read your stuff – it’s essential! Thanks for a great post!

    I had no idea about the distinction between “alpha” and “beta” testers, either… so that was educational. :)

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