• Perspectives

Beta Reading, From Chaos to Clarity

The journey from idea to polished work involves more than the solitary effort of one writer.

Collaborative partners throughout the writing the editing process, beta readers can be crucial in shaping a story—but writing tools aren’t up to the task.

How can beta reading be improved by the tools writers use?

Written by
  • Rex Mizrach
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Rough drafts, redefined

True story—Ellipsus was born in 2023 from the ashes of a particularly hellish beta reading session.

Chapter one began under the dim lights of a dive bar, where my co-founder/partner John and I first met and bonded over a shared love of Nabokov, and after a few beers fantasized about rewriting the Star Wars prequels (with more Obi-Wan/Padme intrigue and interstellar realpolitik)—a project that, thankfully, remains in the realm of what-if. After years of storytelling, workshops, and a few novels-in-the-drawer, we thought we had our process settled.

For better or worse, we’ve always been collaborative. But when trying to workshop a novel together last year, even the short distance between our adjacent rooms and decade-plus years of shared brain-space couldn't shield us from the chaos that is beta reading. Changes got lost in the drafts; drafts were scrapped with valuable insight. Copying documents from Microsoft Word to Google Docs meant lost comments. Reincorporating the work led to disjointed feedback, sent via text, or shouted through walls. The process made soup of our brains, which eventually led us to a realization—there must be a better way to do this.

Editing vs. beta reading

The evolution of writing is a story of editorial partnerships. In the 20th Century, due to publishing being quite a bit smaller (and more exclusionary), editing reached a golden age—relationships and working partnerships were fostered over many books and as many years, with writers trusting their editors with their visions (and sometimes their lives). The publishing industry is rife with anecdotes on interventions by editors transforming good stories into masterpieces—like the collaboration between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his longtime editor Maxwell Perkins, who helped Fitzgerald refine The Great Gatsby into the quintessential Great American Novel.

But those stories have passed into myth—as many writers know, professional editing, like traditional publishing, has become depersonalized, less concerned with incubating talent beyond what that means for profits, at the loss of attentive reading, developmental support and guidance. With that shift, writers have increasingly turned to their communities to workshop and hone their stories at every step of the way.

What is a beta reader?

Borrowed from the language of software (we love a synthesis of tech and creativity), a beta reader is an early-stage tester of written work. Much as an alpha reader might be limited to friends and family who won’t mind sifting through the absolute chaos of a first draft—when a writer feels the draft is going somewhere, they seek out a trusted reader to critique. Professional editing offers a more end stage, technical examination—line edits, grammar, concerns of consistency. Betas clean up spelling and sentence structure, but the real work is a trust exercise—a beta can act as sounding board, brainstormer—offering a deep-reading for tone, themes, character development; teasing out plot threads and signaling places where readers might run into confusion. It’s that blend of intuitive reactions with creative insight and critical analysis that make beta reading so vital for collaboration, from drafting to editing, all the way to The End.

Beta reading has its roots in fan fiction communities, where a culture of collaboration and feedback forms the foundation of fandom creativity. Because many beta readers are also writers working on adjacent projects within fandoms, reciprocity is a loop—fan writers pay it forward. Obviously, if you’re writing a Star Wars fic, you’ll want someone from within the fandom to make sure that your coffee is caf, your ciggies are death sticks, and Cassian Andor’s dialogue isn’t drifting too far into OOC (out of character) territory. But with fanfic culture becoming more mainstream—in part due to fan writers writing and publishing original works—that cooperative editing style has seeped into general writing communities online. And self-publishing, which often lacks professional support and requires a faster turnaround than traditional publishing, requires a culture of mutual support.

Where can writers find beta readers?

When we first reached out to writers in our community, we found that the first hurdle to collaboration is just how hard it can be to find a beta in the first place. Beyond the insular world of traditional publishing, MFAs, and workshops, writers are left navigating a sea of scattered communities lacking dedicated focus, often turning to Tumblr, Reddit, Discord servers, and fandom spaces where mutual interests align and beta exchanges can happen.

Navigating these spaces leads to unexpected alliances—a writer discovers that the insightful AO3 commenter shares common interests; a casual conversation about character development transforms a Tumblr mutual into a critical part of the drafting process—a beta reading partnership is born. The best support systems grow organically, and the partnership, the understanding between fellow writers is what matters most. In the past year, a new crop of tools skinned on top of ChatGPT has promised to allow AI to do the beta reading for you—but beyond line editing, a beta’s purpose is to anticipate an audience’s reaction to a work through nuanced, human feedback—a skill which bots are still very much lacking.

Where betas struggle - fragmented tools

Collaboration is multi-dimensional, and writers often rely on different tools for each step of the work, but that complexity often derails the process—from navigating fragmented communication, to drafting in non-collaborative tools and copy-pasting into Google Docs to gather comments, to compiling disjointed feedback… the fun never ends.

For writers and beta readers who don’t happen to live in the same apartment (or time zone), communication tools are essential to orchestrate a project—chat apps like Discord, WhatsApp and iMessage, emails, video calls... But discussing the work in chats that are disconnected from the text itself is confusing, especially when notifications go unnoticed and texts get entangled in a web of conversation.

This volleying between tools means valuable insight gets lost in translation, and when the paper trail dies at copy-paste, comments lose context. With multiple beta readers, comments can pile up to the point of confusion, leaving the writer overwhelmed and unsure of what advice to follow.

And while it’s easy to split the work apart, it’s hard to put it back together again. The need to maintain a cohesive voice and direction means that without a structured approach to revision, the essence of a story can become diluted or lost. With an overlap between writer and beta reader, attributing contributions is necessary to sort through changes, edits, and suggestions. But once it’s time to compile and incorporate comments or edits into the final draft, the question who wrote what becomes increasingly blurred.

Obviously, this chain of issues begs the question—how can writers and betas be empowered to connect and elevate their work?

And how can feedback, communication, and the collaborative process be improved by the writing software they use?

Manage beta reading with Ellipsus

Connection, coordination, and communication—these are the needs of writers and beta readers, and they’re what we’re addressing in Ellipsus!

We're shipping features aimed at streamlining collaborative partnerships, from the process of inviting collaborators, to managing feedback within a single tool, to simplifying the drafting flow—making it more straightforward for writers to work together.

Here’s how writers can manage their beta readers today.

Invite collaborators or simply share a link

Currently, there are two ways to get betas involved in a doc. You can invite them as an editor—which will allow them to edit drafts, add comments, and chat—or you can share a view-only link, if you still prefer to collect comments through channels like Discord or WhatsApp. As an owner, writers can define who’s allowed to do what within a document, ensuring that every change or suggestion is made with their consent and that the integrity of the original work is preserved.

In the future, we want to make permissions even more flexible, with options like anonymous commenting or comment-only collaborators.

Collect and discuss feedback with comment and chat

We want Ellipsus to make real-time and asynchronous collaboration fluid and effortless. When inviting betas to a document, they can highlight specific passages to share detailed feedback in context. And with in-document chat, writers and betas can coordinate and talk where the work happens. Each draft has its own dedicated chat, where collaborators can have spirited debates while ensuring insights stay connected to the text.

Iterate with drafts and easily incorporate changes

Once the feedback phase is complete, the focus shifts to re-drafting. Writers (and their editors or co-authors) can create unlimited drafts to explore new directions or revisions. Each draft stays linked to the main document so that writers can focus on writing, not file management. Once a draft feels good, writers can merge it into their main document and see a detailed comparison of additions and deletions.

Maintain a comprehensive version history

Navigating through version history to track changes and edits can be a daunting task, so we're rethinking the structure of version history to make it more user-friendly. Writers can go into their document to see when changes were made, who made them, and when drafts were merged. We want to enable writers and betas to explore changes and rewrites without losing sight of their original work—providing a clear, continuous paper trail, ensuring that no thought or suggestion gets lost.

On the horizon

The evolution of beta reading and collaborative writing requires new, transformative tools that incorporate features into a simplified, streamlined process, connecting writers and betas throughout every step of their work. We at Ellipsus are so excited to see how we can improve this process!

And if you’re excited too, why not join our beta—or find beta readers and writers who love to collaborate on our Discord!

Join the beta

Let's be pen pals.

We'll be in touch!
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