Wadded paperWelcome to the first post of this site’s blog. No fanfare. No title. I’m just here to talk about editing.
Today, I want to talk about the beta reading, the poor man’s method of editing. As an editor, I want to charge for my services. After all, this beats Uber as a side hustle – no fuel costs, no wear-and-tear on the vehicle. But it’s labor. One should always charge for their labor.
As a writer, I completely get why one doesn’t want pay for an editor. Self-publishing and small press are crapshoots. Editor’s fees make it that much harder to recoup your investment. But you need to polish, and every writer, including this one, is too close to their work to see mistakes clearly.
Editing tools are great. I have a ProWritingAid subscription and am writing this post in Hemingway. But those cost money as well, and again, you’re too close to the work.
So, many writers turn to beta reading. Get a fresh set of eyes on the work without handing over huge amounts of cash. That leaves one question.
What the heck is beta reading?
In software, there used to be alpha testing and beta testing. Alpha testing would happen in-house with other developers or QA testers. They would put an app through its paces and see what broke. You may have done beta testing. Big software producers, like Microsoft or gaming companies, want end users to find real-world bugs in their products. Mind you, this is old-school development, and it did not always work. Anyone remember Windows Vista? Apple fans may not want to admit there were a couple of iPhone iterations and versions of OS X that stunk up the joint. But they happen.
While Agile has elminated the Alpha and Beta testing system, writers still use it. Even writers who hire editors. I have two alpha readers. Jenn Nixon reads all my science fiction while Brian Thornton reads anything I write as Jim Winter, crime fiction maestro*. Both of them have read pretty much every novel or novella I’ve written in each genre. How do I pay them? I return the favor. Or I do other tasks for them they don’t have the budget to pay for.
Which is how beta reading works. But again, what is beta reading in this context?
When I write, I write with the door closed. No one gets to look at what I’m working on. I might bounce a scene off Jenn or Brian (or even both), but the story remains locked down until I’ve done one pass myself. And lately, that goes through ProWritingAid after an eyeball pass. After I take their suggestions, I pass it on to the betas, the second wave. Now, what do they do?
Some make a cursory pass at the story. If it’s a series, they point out assumptions I’m making about what a reader would know or figure out. Are my ranks for law enforcement or the military correct. And while a line edit is not expected, some of them often will have reams of tracked changes to go through. Sometimes, it’s just a quick summary. “I liked this story, but I was confused as to why Davra likes vanilla ice cream when she’s clearly a sea salt caramel kinda girl.”
Betas are doing this for free or for trade. So, if you don’t like what someone says, keep it to yourself. (Note: Even if you’re paying a freelance editor, it’s always best to ask why than get nasty. You’re paying them to improve your work. You might want to know why you can’t say, “For all intensive purposes”**)
Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. I once had a beta ask me why it took me ten chapters before she knew the story did not take place on Mars. (Apparently, the narrator saying, “Unlike Mars, we have a magnetic field” in chapter one was not a clue.) She also didn’t quite get the Andy Weir-style of narrating via log entries. I suspect she was trying to sell editing service via a backdoor. Yes, that happens. No, I do not do that when I beta read.
Other times, a beta will ghost. This is for free, and often, it’s a favor that’s not a priority. Real life takes precedence, and random writer on Facebook takes a backseat to child or spouse in the hospital. Deal with it. And sometimes, the reader just won’t get it. That’s why I use three. If two flag the same problem that the alpha or #3 didn’t, I fix it. It’s a good barometer.
A friend of mine just starting out said betas are hard to find. He even toyed with offering a paid beta reader service. He did the most recent Suicide Arc novel as a free beta. What he would be selling is best branded as a critique. (Incidentally, I’m open to that.

Contact me

, and we’ll talk if you need something like that.) The fact is you have to network. Shake hands. And occasionally, find a person who just reads. They’re not a writer. They’re the person flopped out on a bean bag chair or on a beach flipping pages of your book. That’s useful, too. Very useful.

Betas are a hedge against turning in or publishing bad work when you can’t afford me or another editor. Even when you can, they can tell you if your story’s a winner.
*Yeah, let’s go with that. Fake it ’til you make it!
**If I have to explain that one to you, you might want to drop what you’re doing as a writer and go buy a book on grammar.

Need professional help? Contact TS about line and copy editing for your crime or science fiction work.

1 thought on “Beta Reading

  1. I have a hellish time seeing my own (instructional / technical writing) errors without waiting a solid week, which is usually not possible. My wife sometimes uses me as a final unpaid set of eyes on some documents, especially in an area I have some knowledge. I’m good at spotting pattern errors, but not always real-words-in-the-wrong-place errors. (I should set Word to automatically highlight “form” and “from”.) Sometimes my purpose is to stylistically smooth things and make them more readable, without changing the meaning. Both varieties are pretty draining.
    I remember a discussion/argument between two of our classmates, one who wrote reports and needed to be very careful in their creation, and one who had a more physical non-computer job. The non-computer guy absolutely couldn’t get that anything sitting at a desk could ever be tiring. He couldn’t grok that focus took energy. Anyway, your trade arrangement sounds good and all parties probably have a solid understanding of the process.
    As for hanging out your shingle, a local folk singer I’ve known for a long while pays some of her bills that way, going for more academic texts. Break a leg but not you bifocals, bro.

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