Monday, August 2, 2010

The Importance of Being a Beta. And Having One Too.

Almost two years ago, when I surfed through various writing websites, I stumbled upon the term “beta”.

Beta? In the writing world?

I’m a math teacher. My thoughts instantly went to teaching trigonometry and “What’s the formula for the cosine of alpha + beta?! I thought about teaching my daughter the Greek alphabet to the tune of Jingle Bells so she can be a big nerd like her mom. And pledging sororities when I had to memorize it myself.

So what exactly is a beta?

Wellll, a beta is the

• second letter of the Greek alphabet
• second highest grade or mark
• second position from a designated carbon atom in an organic molecule at which an atom or a radical may be substituted (in chemistry – thanks Free Dictionary!)
• second in order of importance

Okay—you get it—a beta, while denoting other things, pretty much means “second”.

In the computer software world, a “beta version” is often test ready; whereas, an “alpha” (ahem—the first letter of the Greek alphabet) involves software at an earlier stage.

And in writing—the alpha is the writer; the beta, the reader. A beta’s a person who reads a piece of work with a critical eye—whether it be for grammar, context, fact-checking, analysis of continuity, plot holes, and consistency. Yep—the beta serves a most important role in the writing process.

I have had—oh, I don’t know—a katrillion betas for my novels. Being a teacher, I am blessed to be surrounded by a plethora of gurus in every area imaginable. Three English teachers have had read portions or entire manuscripts. My husband’s a history teacher slash soccer coach so I have an instant fact-checker when I try to talk “upper-ninety” or “Andrew Johnson”. Somehow I can’t seem to steer myself from science-y elements so I practically lived in my fav chemistry teacher’s classroom last year. Even a most discerning art teacher reads my novels with a most critical eye.

And since I write YA, this year I finally cracked open my rib cage and exposed my heart to three of my high school students. Considering they’re my audience, their feedback proved amazingly insightful.

My critique partners, people who are in the biz or are at a similar stage in their writing - whoa. These people are essential. Find them, relish them. They’re out there, playing the same game I am, and they often bring that insider’s scoop as to what agents are looking for. Two of my writing betas are freelancers who are top-notch at the editing process—helping me make those cuts I can’t bear to make myself.

And of course—people who I will always, always relish as betas—are those that read just because they love me and will shower praise on me no matter how much my story sucks. Like my mother. And my endearing eleven-year old daughter.

I totally heart all my betas and value e-ve-ry thing they bring to the table. It took a lot of sorting the wheat from the chaff to find my good betas and I’m always on the lookout for one more writing beta, but I have gleaned so much from the people who’ve helped me (PS—willingly) and will seriously have an acknowledgment list three pages long when I do eventually publish a book.

And while having betas, and good betas at that, is an essential part of the writing process, I have also discovered that being a beta can be just as important.

WHAT?! Are you kidding me? I’m a full-time teacher, a mom, a grad school student, and I write! When do I have time to read somebody else’s stuff?!

But I do it. I read other people’s WIPs (ahem—Work In Progress). I edit articles. I practically beg my seniors to let me red ink their research papers. Why?

a) I looove to read. And shoot—I read someone else’s work—I get to read FOR FREE.

b) The more I edit, the more of a critical eye I have for my own work. When I tell my seniors to quit using so much passive voice, guess what? I engage in more active voice in my own stories. When I edit redundancy in someone else’s work, I’m less redundant in mine.

So—hopefully you get it. The more I critique someone else’s work, the more technical I get with my own writing.

A win-win situation all around.


  1. I had no idea you were writing a book.

    Super cool =]
    I know whatever your writing/wrote/cut is amazing.

    I'd love to read an excerpt of it sometime if you'd let me.


  2. That's so cool!

    I had no idea that you were writing!

  3. Okay, take three, because this computer I'm using is acting all funny. I miss mine :(

    But reading this made me smile, and I'm glad I'm one of your betas! It's so true that reading other peoples' stuff/editing it makes you a better writer overall (and reader). I've been reading A LOT these past 4 days. I'm on my 3rd book. Look to be finished with my fourth on my list before I leave! And I must say, reading your stuff has helped me become a faster reader. And I know this skill will help me out a lot in college when I have to do bulk reading. And being a writer has helped me type way faster than I used to type. I love that I can type stuff so fast, and I don't think I will have any problem writing those 8-10+ page papers! Already wrote two lengthy papers for that assignment I was talking about that I had to complete (not too long though). I couldn't help it :) And I could have written more! A lot more, but I decided to leave it at what I wrote. Oh, and I get to meet the author of the book I had to read at NC State for lunch! One of the first ones to sign up for it, so I got in for sure :) I'm going to get her to sign my book, and I'm going to ask her questions about her writing experience to get another author's perspective! I'm sooo excited! She co-authored the book she wrote with her husband.

    I've started another story. Been inspired by all these different stories I've been exposed to, including yours! And I see more of things I may be lacking in the story I sent you.... But I am making sure I fix that in this next one I am writing. I can't wait to get back to it right now! I'm at my sisters, and I didn't bring my laptop…. So, I can't :( But as soon as I get a chance, I am!

    Hope this wasn't too long! Thanks for everything! Take care!


  4. Betas are awesome, for sure! Great post!


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