Layered beta reading

November 23, 2010

If you follow my blog or read the acknowledgments in my books, you know that I work with a beta reader and two critique partners. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call all of them beta readers for now.

As soon as I have finished a new chapter of my work in progress, I send it off to my three beta readers and they return it with comments and corrections. If a chapter undergoes major revisions, I might resend the revised chapter and ask them to read it again to see if it works better now.

That’s how the beta reading process works for me, and I never thought to do it any other way.

But recently, I discovered that one of my critique partners has a different system. I call it “layered beta reading.” She sends a new chapter to one beta reader first, then uses the comments from the first beta to revise the chapter before sending it to the second beta reader.

Compared to my system, the “layered” beta reading has two main advantages:

  • It allows you to pick up on any problems the revisions might cause. For example, beta reader #1 points out the characters should wear gloves during the snow-shoveling scene. So you revise and have them put on gloves. But by the end of the scene, you mention one character wiping a snowflake from the other’s cheek with her bare hand… without having her take off the glove first. The second beta reader would pick up on that continuity error.
  • The second beta reader’s reaction will let you know whether the revision worked.
  • Since the first beta reader already pointed out the major mistakes, the second beta reader can focus on the finer points.

The “layered” system as a few disadvantages too:

  • It takes more time.
  • Each beta reader gets a different version of the chapter, so you can’t compare their reactions before you decide what to change. You make changes based on what the first beta reader said without being able to compare it to another beta reader’s opinion.

Does anyone else work with multiple beta readers? If yes, what kind of system do you use?



  1. I *just* did beta reading with a short story for a submission. I sent out the entire draft of the story (after I’d been over it twice) to two people simultaneously, and when I got the comments back, I looked them both over, took the things both said to change into my original file, and then looked individually at the different things, choosing changes from one person, both, or neither.

    For longer work, I do the send to one person, then make changes, and send back to that person, or if they’re not available, on to a second person. But generally, I try to work with no more than two others. Otherwise the voices in my head get to be too much and the story isn’t “mine” any more.

    • Thanks for commenting, Lara.

      That sounds as if you’re mostly applying my non-layered system, with a layered method if the first beta reader becomes unavailable. That’s a great idea.

  2. Well, actually even with the layered system, you can still get two opinions on the same thing. If the first beta comments on something you’re not sure you agree about, then you leave it in. If the second beta comments on the same thing, then I seriously consider changing whatever it is. So you can have the advantage of more than one opinion on the same material when using the layered system. You are correct though it does take more time to use the layered system. Also for it to work, you have to be working with two people you’ve worked with before and who’s opinion you strongly trust.

    • Hi, RJ. That’s good advice.

      Ideally, your beta readers are people whose opinion you trust even if you use the non-layered beta reading system.

      I would never, ever work with a beta reader whose honesty and competence I can’t trust. If I have to second-guess everything they say, working with them would be a massive waste of time and energy — mine and theirs.

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