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  • Dave Butler

To Beta or not to Beta

By Dave Butler

When programmers develop new software programs or video games, they commonly share ‘beta’ versions with a select group of trusted users because they want to find the glitches, the kinks, the breaking points in their new product. After thousands of hours of coding,

these developers don’t release the programs to the rest of the world (or at least, they shouldn’t…) until their beta users have shared frank and detailed feedback, and then only after they’ve fixed the errors. And there will be errors.

Similarly, most authors I know use beta readers for their novels. To be clear, these aren’t the husbands or wives on the opposite side of their kitchen table or the friends or colleagues in their local writer’s group with whom they share an opening sentence: “Listen to this! Does this work?” These are alpha readers.

Beta readers should only see your story when it’s complete, only after you’ve undertaken your own series of rigorous edits, only after it’s the best product possible. They see the whole novel, from start to finish, from bow to stern. They look at the finished product as a reader with a fresh set of eyes.

I know many writers feel the same as I do after completing a novel -- all objectivity is long gone, and we no longer have any realistic sense of whether it’s either the best or the worst thing we’ve ever written. At this stage, you need other eyes on it. This is where beta readers come in. They read it, play with it, test drive it, ponder it, find the kinks and the errors. And there will be errors.

When I send a manuscript to my beta readers, I invite them to provide feedback on any aspect of the story. However, I always send a list of very specific questions about parts of the narrative about which I am most concerned or uncomfortable – it might be about the authenticity of a specific character, the action or tension in a specific scene, or how the story ends.

To do this, I have two categories of beta readers on which I rely.

The first are colleagues who understand the genre in which I’m writing, either because they also write in the same genre, or because they read widely in it. They tell me if the plot is compelling and plausible, if tension builds in the right places, if the characters are believable and authentic and interesting. Good beta readers like this are worth their weight in gold.

As an aside, I act as a beta reader for a select group of my own writing colleagues. I hope I help them as much as they do me, and I always learn from them. The more I write, the better the beta reader I can be. And the more I act as a beta reader, the better the writer I become. I can look at my own work with more critical eyes after analyzing the work of others.

The second group of beta readers I use are subject matter experts. In each of my first three mystery novels, I had law enforcement officers – conservation officers, RCMP sergeants, border patrol agents – read the stories to ensure the legal details were right. In one of my current works-in-progress, I write about hydro dams and river systems. To do that, I enlisted a close friend who is also a hydrological engineer. He helped ensure that my depictions of flow rates, dam stability and inundation plans were accurate. In the past, I’ve used pilots and bear experts and accountants as beta readers.

Early on, I was told by a famous author that I should take great care in using close friends or family as beta readers. If they tell me they love my story, does that mean anything? Are they telling me that because they love me and want to be supportive? Conversely, if they tell me it sucks, how uncomfortable will the next family get-together be…? You can decide that for yourself.

To be clear, beta readers aren’t meant to be copy editors. At this stage, you’re not normally looking for help with punctuation, grammar or spelling. Rather, you’re looking for big picture problems, and those embarrassing errors that will result in more mail than the rest of the story combined. The characters who change from male to female in mid-story. The character who dies early in the story then later comes back from the dead. The pine tree growing in a place where pine trees don’t grow. The creek flowing into the wrong river…

I’m often asked if writers should always listen to their beta readers. The answer is yes, because they are giving you frank feedback that is critical to your novel’s development.

But for me, the more important question is: should you do everything your beta readers suggest, make all the changes they recommend? Probably not.

What if Ernest Hemingway had listened to the beta reader who said: “hey, the whole story is about a fish. Why is this guy thinking about a lion at the end?” Or what would have happened if Leonardo da Vinci had changed a painting in response

to the person who said: “I can’t tell if that woman is smiling or not. You need to make it more obvious.” What if Charles Dickens had revised “The Tale of Two Cities” because his beta reader told him it couldn’t be the best of times and the worst of times … at the same time?

Ultimately, the story is your product, your creation. Deciding what to change and what not to change is up to you. However, as you gain experience, and as you find more experienced beta readers, you’ll become better at deciding which changes to make, and which to consider, then put aside.

Will beta readers make your story better?

If you choose them right, you can beta on it!

*For a great list of questions to use with your beta readers, go here:

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