Is beta reading the same as editing?
The differences between beta reading and editing, from an editor who beta-reads.
Welcome back to the Midnight Blog! This month, we’re talking about beta-reading and editing: what’s similar, what’s not, and why.
All the time, I see questions like these crop up in writing and editing groups online: “Is beta-reading the same as editing?”, “Can beta-reading replace editing?”, “What’s the difference between beta-reading and editing?”
It’s no wonder that those questions come up so often. In the modern publishing landscape, where authors can find all kinds of feedback on their manuscript through so many avenues, the lines between beta-reading and editing have become a bit blurred.
To put it shortly, beta-reading and editing are not similar services; they are fundamentally different in many ways, and understanding how they differ is a crucial aspect of understanding what your writing and story needs.
Let’s start with some basic definitions for these services.
Broadly, editing is a technical craft that works on your manuscript with the intention of improving it in some way. Because editors are professionals, most writers work with one editor at a time.
A beta-read, on the other hand, is a reader’s reaction to the story that’s on the page.
Writer Marve Anson, with whom I had the pleasure of working with last year, described her experience of getting a beta-read like getting “a glimpse into the reader's minds as they fall in love/fury with the characters.” I love that description and think it’s the perfect expectation for a writer to have of their beta-readers: a glimpse into their minds. That kind of feedback can steer your revisions, refine them, and help you get your story ready for deeper editing.
As for how many beta-readers writers use, they typically work with more than one at once. Some work with so many that they refer to their beta-readers as a “pool.”
When to use an editor vs. beta-reader
Now, when does a writer typically start working with an editor vs. a beta-reader? For both, it depends.
A writer can usually start working with a developmental editor (the first stage in the editorial process) once they have a finished manuscript and have done some self-editing, but this varies by editor. Some editors offer coaching to help authors finish their manuscripts, and some editors will refuse a manuscript if they don’t think it’s ready.
What’s the editorial process? It’s the traditional order for editing a manuscript before it gets published or is considered publishable quality. It usually goes like this:
Developmental editing --> Line editing --> Copy editing --> Proofreading
As authors go through the process, they incorporate edits between steps.
This process is a general rule-of-thumb; some writers skip steps, some editors combine steps, sometimes a story goes through multiple rounds of editing before it’s ready to move forward… the list goes on. Writers may work with more than one editor during this process, but almost never more than one at once. You don’t see developmental editors and copy editors working on the same manuscript at the same time.
Beta-readers, on the other hand, don’t have a formal position in that process (yet!), meaning it’s up to the author to determine when they need a reader’s feedback.
These are some common times when a writer might ask for beta-reading:
After a draft is finished, but before self-editing (to get a feel for where their revisions could go).
After self-editing or revisions, but before they seek an editor (to make sure they’ve done all they can personally do for their story before it goes to a professional).
Right before a book is self-published (to catch last-minute typos and inconsistencies; also to get an idea of how readers might react to the story and make sure it resonates with the target demographic).
Some writers ask for readers all throughout the editing process; some writers don’t use them at all. It’s up to writer preference and their access to trustworthy readers.
Similarities and differences
Both editing and beta-reading are meant to read an author’s story before it’s published and give the author feedback. It also serves both editors and beta-readers to be widely read in their genres of specialty.
In some areas, the responsibilities of editors and beta-readers do overlap. Do editors have surface-level reactions to the story on the page? Of course! Do some beta-readers want to help you improve your manuscript? Sure. Do some editors offer beta-reading services? Absolutely. So it’s totally understandable to wonder where these fuzzy-looking boundaries lie.
Here are a few places where beta-reading and editing diverge:
Training – an editor needs professional training (often through editing-specific organizations like the EFA, CIEP, ACES, etc., or by working with publishers themselves) to edit at any level. A beta-reader does not need specific training to be a beta-reader.
Purpose – an editor’s entire purpose is to make changes to the manuscript, whether directly (like copy editors, who make changes at the word- and sentence-level) or indirectly (like developmental editors, who provide feedback about how an author may make revisions, but usually don’t make too many changes to the actual manuscript). A beta-reader’s purpose is primarily reactionary: they ask questions and document their feelings about the story as it’s written. It’s not their job to make changes, only to point out where changes might need to be made on the author’s part.
Cost – Because editing is performed by professionals and is considered a formal part of the publishing process, it costs a professional amount of money. One of my colleagues, copyeditor and proofreader Matthew Webster-Moore at Moore Attuned Editorial, has an excellent article about why professional editing costs so much, if you’d like to learn more (and another one about how to save money on editing!). Many editors acknowledge that their rates might induce sticker-shock and can negotiate their rates within reason by modifying existing packages, putting payment plans in place, etc. Paid beta-reading has recently become a popular way of receiving guaranteed feedback on your novel without the professional price tag. However, beta-reads have historically been done for free by a writer’s family, friends, or writing colleagues. Writers can still find free beta-readers if they know where to look and/or if they’re willing to beta-read for someone in return.
The biggest difference, however, is the depth of feedback.
Beta-reading vs. editorial feedback
Because the purposes of beta-reading vs. editing are different (change the manuscript vs. react to the manuscript), the feedback is similarly different.
Beta-reading feedback can reveal plot holes, important questions, unintended reactions, or other important inconsistencies. Using that feedback, deciding what to revise and how to execute those revisions fully falls to the writer (which can be more complicated that it sounds).
Editorial feedback can do all of that and more, with “more” being, give the author a clearer path for revisions. As a result, editorial feedback is much more descriptive and provides solutions or resources to help a writer better understand their craft. Writers can still take, change, or leave editorial suggestions at their discretion, but they still have them as a starting point.
Here are some examples of appropriate beta-reading feedback:
“I love this character’s sass! I’d love to know why she wants to do this, though.”
“I’m a little bit lost here. Why is a priest (who isn’t supposed to have magic) using magic here?”
“I felt myself skimming through this chapter – the explanations are really detailed and beautiful, but I had a hard time understanding why they mattered at the time.”
Even though it can be vague, beta-reading feedback can be immensely useful to a writer. If you want someone to relate to your main male protagonist but he comes off as unintentionally creepy in chapter 2, that’s critical information! If you want your readers to trust a certain character, but your beta-readers all think that character is a traitor, you need to know that. Writers are all too aware that they’re often too close to their own work to see blind spots, character name changes, unclear settings, or logical problems and beta-readers help with that.
Sometimes it’s easy to see the solutions from beta-reading feedback. For example, if the reader doesn’t know how old someone is and the age is important, make it a point to clarify their age. Other times, the solutions aren’t so clear.
Consider the last example in each list, regarding the skimmed chapter. Since the beta-read reaction doesn’t address how the author should deal with the slow section, the author might be inclined to trash the whole chapter (which would throw out some good work) OR only take a paragraph or two out (which may not be enough to solve the problem). They might line edit essential words out, they might add unnecessary action to the scene to make it appear more active… the list goes on.
Contrast the previous examples with the following editorial feedback snippets:
“I love this character’s sass! This would be a perfect place for her to explain her motives, either through dialogue or internal monologue, because this gives essential insight about who she is and what she values as a character. That information can help readers relate to or understand her better.”
“Throughout the book, whether or not priests can use magic is a question that is answered inconsistently. That inconsistency can throw readers out of their suspension of disbelief or lose faith in the mechanics of the world you’ve built. Revision of the affected scenes for consistency or an explanation for why some priests can and some can’t use magic would resolve those questions.”
“This chapter features some significant worldbuilding and beautiful imagery, but it’s not immediately relevant to the story at this point. As I read, I felt myself skimming through this piece to get back to the main story. Removing this chapter would help keep the story’s pace going. However, don’t trash the whole chapter; since the protagonist goes to the city later in the story, some of your more poignant details can be used to illustrate the city as the protagonist explores it. I’ve pointed out a few places in that chapter where those details might work.”
The most obvious difference is specificity and depth. The feedback can explain what the issue is, why it’s an issue, articulate solutions, and explain why those solutions could work. The writer doesn’t have to do quite as much work at figuring out what the issues are or different ways to fix them because they already have options in front of them.
So, how does a writer know whether or not they need beta-reading versus developmental editing? That takes a little bit of awareness on the writer’s part of where they are in their journey.
A developmental edit can help writers of all stripes, but especially writers who are stuck or lost, writers who have already done everything they possibly can for their novel, and newer writers who are looking for personalized feedback on their craft.
From personal (and professional) experience, a beta-read typically works best when a writer has a pretty strong idea of where they want the story to go and have a general awareness of their strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Beta-reads provide them with a second pair of eyes and a nudge towards which issues are the most pressing.
Now you might be wondering, if you’re an advanced enough writer, can you substitute editorial feedback with beta-reading? It would be much cheaper that way. While beta-reads are valuable, they cannot replace editing. Treating beta-reading feedback, even a lot of beta-reading feedback, as a substitute for editorial feedback can get really tricky really fast… especially if your beta-readers aren’t editors themselves.
While a beta-reader’s personal reactions may overlap with the elements of good storytelling, they don’t always correlate directly. And, of course, just because something doesn’t suit a reader’s taste doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ultimately, that just means pure feedback without guidance can ultimately be misleading or confusing, especially if you get conflicting information from your readers.
At the end of the day, beta-reading and editing both have their places in the process and help you along at various stages in your writing; one is not meant to replace the other.
What are your thoughts about beta-reads? Have you ever beta-read for others? What was your experience? Drop a comment or email me, I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time!
All my best,