Beta, Schmeta

When I was first starting to write fiction, there was no such thing as beta-reading. The term comes from software development, and it’s certainly vital in that area. I have beta-tested other people’s software, and I’ve had others beta-test my software, and if I ever write another text adventure it will be beta-tested, you bet. But I’ve come to feel that the creep of this process over into the fiction-writing community is a colossal mistake.

I did belong to a critique group in the ’80s. We passed manuscripts around and scribbled in the margins, but it wasn’t called beta-reading. It was a cooperative enterprise, and it operated according to clear rules. The criticisms of the stories were no-holds-barred, but there was never any criticism of the writers, that was one thing. Also, it was face to face, and that makes a big difference. Beta-reading for people you’ve never met, or asking people you’ve never met (and whose work you don’t know) to beta-read — that’s just stupid.

After having a couple of aggravating experiences recently when I undertook to do a beta-read of someone’s less than enthralling attempt at writing a novel, I’m giving it up. No more beta-reading. And on the flip side, I won’t ask anyone to beta-read anything I’ve written. I’ll write it, I’ll send it out. It’s time to trust myself. Hell, that was what I did with every single short story or novella I ever sold to Asimov’s or F&SF. And you know what? None of the editors at those magazines ever changed a single solitary word. That’s prima facie evidence that I know what I’m doing.

Admittedly, I have certain advantages in the trust-yourself department. I’m a retired professional editor. I can do my own line-editing and copy-editing. I may hire a proofreader, or not. The last proofreader I hired, I spent $600 for her to find about eight typos in a novel manuscript, two of which I had already found myself after I sent it to her. She also suggested deleting a few optional commas, and I took her advice on maybe 40% of them, but in the aggregate it wasn’t worth $600.

That leaves developmental editing. Three years ago I spent $5,500 on a dev edit of the Leafstone series (those book covers up there at the top! buy them! they’re on Amazon! read them! they’re great!), and I did make some very worthwhile changes as a result. But at this point I’m not sure I’m going to ladle out money for that process again either. By the time I’ve banged my way through three or four drafts of a novel, having somebody come in and say, “Gee, I think there’s too much description in this scene,” would just be insulting.

My writing is good enough. It really is. Beta reading is for people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. So they ask someone who doesn’t know how the fuck to evaluate a manuscript to make random weird suggestions. Does that sound like a worthwhile process? I don’t think so.

Just to be clear: I love suggestions! My writing isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. But why should I go out of my way to solicit suggestions from someone who has never written a novel and who is going to spend maybe 1% as much time reading the book as I spent writing it? If you want to participate in my story development process, that’s a different thing — but be prepared for a daily dialog over the course of six or eight months. Otherwise, as Nero Wolfe used to say, Pfui.

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1 Response to Beta, Schmeta

  1. Catana says:

    It hasn’t happened too often, but I’ve read some poorly written and/or edited novels that end with gushing thanks to the editors and/or beta readers for doing such a great job. In one instance, about a half dozen people were named, none of whom had seen the blatant grammatical errors, continuity errors, or outright plot holes.

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