520. Beta Readers

This isn’t really a rant. Honest. If you had ever heard me rant, you would recognize the difference.

I find myself out of step with the modern world most of the time. I’m comfortable with that, but once in a while it catches me by surprise.

This comes of being an only child, raised on a farm, miles from the nearest small town. That is to say, alone. I also grew up in the era of the movie cowboy, the lone hero standing against the world. We’re talking John Wayne here; Clint Eastwood came much later.

In other words, I grew up in a place and time that preached individualism.

Today, we all cooperate.

That is, if we believe songs and movies and television and books, everything has changed. But has it really? I doubt it. We always cooperated on many things, and we still treasure the individual’s take on some things, although the balance between the two seems to be shifting. Even John Wayne always had some gang of scraggly misfits following along behind him.

I taught middle school as if cooperative learning hadn’t been invented yet. I could get away with that in the eighties and nineties, and a lot of other teachers had that same attitude. If I had to teach where “every child is equally and specially brilliant” — I’m quoting a TV ad for a private school — I’d rather drive a truck.


So, what brought this to mind? Beta readers. The word is new, but the idea isn’t. Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife is rumored to have burned the first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and didn’t like the rewrite all that much. We also hear that Mrs. Mark Twain often wasn’t too keen on what Sam Clements wrote.

Of course beta readers are more than censors. Ginny Heinlein always read RAH’s first drafts. She was agonizing about telling RAH that the first draft of Number of the Beast was not up to his standards, when an operation cured his mental fogginess and he saw it for himself. (It’s in the biography; I’m not claiming any special knowledge here.)

Since I always visit the websites of anyone who clicks a like button on one of my posts, I have been looking over the shoulders of a lot of young writers. I see people seeking beta readers and thanking their beta readers. They clearly think that beta readers strengthen the work.

Maybe. Even probably. Still . . .

It is certainly true that the editors who once filled that function are no longer as easy to reach. I also see the self-publishing advice that hiring an editor out of pocket before going to press is money well spent. Again, probably. It’s hard to spot your hundred and fifth grammatical error, after you have fixed a hundred and four.

Beta readers are all very twenty-first century, and I certainly have great respect for those writers who have the nerve to bypass traditional publishing. But for me . . .

Nobody reads a word I have written until it is checked and rechecked, read and reread, and then reread again a few dozen more times. By me, and only by me. It’s mine. I don’t share until I’m ready to publish. The first person to read my blog is you, and the first person to see one of my novels is an editor at some publishing house.

It’s all very much old school.

So beta readers need not apply to the old curmudgeon. But that’s just me. You’ll follow your own style. Writers always do.


7 thoughts on “520. Beta Readers

  1. Catana

    It may be more about literacy than cooperation. Many of today’s would-be authors don’t have a good foundation in grammar, and their vocabularies are distinctly limited. Some of them know what they don’t know; some don’t give a damn and assume that they’re just as good as anyone else. I’ve read books that would have been far more enjoyable if I hadn’t kept tripping over the typos and errors. Then comes the end and they’re thanking so and so for doing a great job of editing for them! This is a new era — one of which the editors aren’t necessarily any more literate than the authors.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JM Williams

      I think authors in the past also took more time with their books, allowing them to take more care and do more proofing as they went along. This may not be reasonable for full-time authors today, who need to churn out a book every few months just to get by.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Catana

        Yes, definitely time is a big factor. But it isn’t just professional writers who are guilty of rushing through. Writers just starting out have it impressed on them that they must produce, produce, produce. So thorough edits and proofreads get left behind. And the market encourages it. It’s loaded with books that are hugely successful because they fit readers’ expectations about genre and story, even though they are poorly written and edited. I don’t think anyone has written about how you can hit it big by appealing to readers who are no more literate than you are.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. sydlogsdon Post author

        Let’s see: working at a rush rate, lots of people on the line turning out product. Didn’t Henry Ford invent this? He made a lot of Model Ts, but they all looked alike.


    1. sydlogsdon Post author

      A decade before I became a writer, my first term in college, my roommate and I wrote an SF story and sent it to a magazine. It was bad, although we were too naive to know that. We still got feedback. It was before internet, actually before form rejection slips — probably before editors could afford secretaries or first readers — so our feedback was three words scrawled on a yellow slip of paper, “Sorry can’t use.” Three seconds out a busy man’s day, and it was probably more than we deserved.


  2. sydlogsdon Post author

    I’ve had good luck with the editors I’ve dealt with, both years ago and recently, but I have seen the English language completely disowned by advertisers. I have also seen good writers badly presented in ebooks.



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