Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Writer's Wednesday: Beta Benefits

Last week I finished up a beta read of a friend's 105K word novel.  Today I dropped into the first pages group over at YALitChat to offer a critique.  And I wonder... am I mad?  Do I not have other things to do than read other people's work just because my current novel is sitting with its own set of betas?
Work snatched from Cabepfir on

Of course.  But truth be told, I not only enjoy reading others' work, but I learn so much by doing it.  So I figured I'd share with you some of the benefits, and encourage you to help out a fellow author by offering up your own unique insights.

Learning to See the Forest for the Trees.  It's one thing when you read a blog post that tells you to make sure every scene you write advances the story.  It's another thing entirely to put that advice into practice.  But by beta reading an entire novel for someone else -- for which you are presumably detached -- it's WAY easier to see which scenes are unnecessary or bogging down a story.  You learn to feel it in the way your eyes glaze over and you start to skim.  And once you have a sense of it from someone else's work, it's much easier to go back to your own work and be critical of each and every scene.

Recognizing Realistic Dialog.  Formal or unnatural language doesn't stick out so much when you write it yourself.  You've got your characters in your head and you can probably hear them speaking, so it all works for you.  But when you beta, you come at dialog with a fresh set of eyes.  Those times a speaker should've used a contraction (I'm sure) instead of more formal language (I am sure), will stand out to you like a sore thumb.  You can then apply what you've learned when you go back to your novel.

Understanding What's Meant by "Hook" and How to Do It (or Not).  Have you ever been beat reading for someone, gotten to the end, and thought "so what?"  Either the story wasn't for you -- which happens when we read in a genre we don't really like* -- or there was no hook.  The next time this happens to you, take time to figure out what's wrong with the story in your mind. Did it start too soon?  Not enough action?  Too much action before you care about the characters?  If you can identify both what not to do and how to fix it, you'll be that much closer to creating a hook in your own story.

Getting Slapped with Backstory.  Yet another one of those fatal flaws that it's so much easier to see in others' work.  Like, when the plot opens with two paragraphs of action and then the MC has a two-page flashback explaining how they got to that point. Now, in your own book, this is all critical information that YOU have to know as the author.  But as a beta reader, you can learn to tell when an author has done an info-dump versus gently winding in backstory.  Again, you can learn techniques in both the good and the bad.

There are numerous other benefits, of course.  Making friends, forming a support team, learning the ropes from someone more experienced.  But anytime you can learn and improve your own skills by helping someone else, what's not to love??
And since we at the Oasis are all about DEFINITIONS on our Writer's Wednesdays... have you ever been curious about where the term "beta reader" came from?  According to wikipedia:

The term "beta" is an appropriation from the software industry which uses the terms "alpha" and "beta" for software that are internal works in progress and publicly released tests, respectively (though a "beta" version may still be tested internally).

Now you know.  So, what have your beta experiences been like?  Did you find you took away insights or was it one-sided?

* Of course, if a book is exceptionally well-written with a strong hook, it probably won't matter that you're reading outside your genre.  Take Across the Universe for example.  Even though I really don't care for sci-fi or dystopian books that much, when I read the first chapter online, I WANTED to know what happens next.  Talk about a hook!


  1. Great post! I always find myself critiquing in groups. I love learning from them as well. I also learned not to read other's critique of the piece before I post my own so that I'm totally honest and not double-guessing myself.

  2. Good deal. I read a lot of regular novels that way. I look for how things are handled, how the conversation goes, how they describe things, then I go back and see if there's anything I can or should apply to my own writing to improve it.

  3. I just completed my first beta read for someone outside of my cousin and I LOVED it. Giving her comments on her story taught me so much about my own writing. I think it's rewarding experience for both parties. :)


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