What is Beta Reading?

beta-read-imageBeta reading has become a part-time vocation for me. Over the past two years, I’ve beta read a dozen full-length novels—I’m working on the baker’s dozen as I write this. Also, I’ve proofread a few books and provided feedback for several short pieces.  It’s enjoyable work for sure, but it is work.

Fast reader doesn’t apply to me, although my comprehension is pretty good, even so, a recreational read takes half the time of a beta read. The time taken isn’t important to me, but it’s necessary in my case because I’m…a slow one-finger typist. Truly, I’m honored to be a beta reader and want to provide useful information to help the author evaluate and, if necessary, revise their manuscript.

My formal writing education stopped with a Business Communication course in my third year of college when everything was handwritten or typed, and computers were the size of buses—double-deckers at that. The best “English” class I’d ever taken in many ways. It focused on the importance of clarity and discouraged overly complicated sentence and paragraph structure. Writing to inform, not illicit an emotional response, was the fundamental message and it served me well in my accounting career. I’d never heard the term “show, don’t tell” until I started writing, but, on reflection, that’s what financial statements do.

Not being a trained grammarian is a plus in my mind because I miss grammar and punctuation mistakes and therefore don’t spend much time thinking about them—that’s the line editor’s job.  Nor am I an expert writer. I can’t turn mediocre prose into artistic expression. Hell, I can’t tell you what artistic prose is, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to be purple.

What makes you think you’re qualified to be a beta-reader?

(What makes you think you’re qualified to be a beta-reader? You might say. And I might say back, screw you. But, I wouldn’t because accountants don’t talk that way—in public).  I’m as qualified as anyone else to be a beta reader because there are no qualifications for a non-existent service. (You spent too long doing taxes, you’re talking in circles. Yes. I’m not.)

Merriam-Webster on-line doesn’t have a definition for “beta read,” “betaread,” or “beta-read.”  I tried the Library of Congress search engine but couldn’t zero in on a definition. I even tried the Oxford English Dictionary. Sadly, the lack of a UK library card barred me from learning its wisdom on the issue.  If a UK-library-card-carrying person reads this post and has nothing better to do, (If they had something better to do, would they be reading your poppycock, you might say, but I rather you didn’t.) please let me know what OED has to say.

Wikipedia offers this definition:

An alpha reader or beta reader (also spelled alphareader / betareader, or shortened to alpha / beta), also pre-reader or critiquer, is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption.[1] Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.

Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterization or believability; in fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking.[2]

The two people cited in this definition, were recent authors but not “authorities” as far as I can tell.  Definitions by self-published authors and those that sell services to them abound on the internet, but each has its own twist. Some bloggers recommend authors provide a questionnaire to beta readers to guide them through the process. I’m not a fan of questionnaires, they’re too similar to homework for my liking. Given the lack of a clear standard, I’ve developed my own.


I do my best to think like a “reader” rather than a writer or editor. I concentrate on the story, plot and the characters. If all is well, I won’t have much to say. It’s the hiccups and stumbles that force me to speak. But, it’s not easy. I don’t want to criticize an author because I would have worded a passage differently. Each person has a voice, and that’s good. But, if I don’t understand the message, I feel compelled to say so. At other times, I think I understand the message, but I don’t like it, which is a difficult spot because I don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings or undermine their confidence.  On the other hand, it’s my duty to provide honest responses.

Why I Beta Read

I beta read for two reasons. I’ve had positive responses from “clients, ” and I’ve learned from the experience. During one of my earliest beta reads, I noticed a character from the prior book in the series had disappeared from the story line. Doubting myself, I went back to the older book to confirm the character had survived the “big” battle—he had. The writer sent me an Amazon gift card to show his appreciation.

Recently, I read an Advanced Review Copy of a very good post-apocalypses novel by R.E. McDermott entitled Push Back. This author does his research, and I was hesitant to raise an issue as an ARC reader, but he’d asked for feedback. He used the word “blank” as a verb in a line similar to, “…we’ll have to blank the old pipe.” It threw me for a loop, and I shared my stumble with him. He kindly explained that to blank a pipe was to bolt a solid or “blank” flange over an open-ended conduit to seal it and was a common industry term. I learned something in the exchange, but he changed the verb to something like “cap” to avoid confusion. Experiences like these make me volunteer to beta read.

Have you been a beta reader? Do you want to be? Please share your thoughts.

By: David P. Cantrell (c) 2016


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