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Egg whites

Can some kind person please explain about beating of egg whites?  Recipes
will frequently say something like 'add 2 egg whites' but I am never sure
whether there is any practical difference in results between lightly beaten,
well-beaten, and really well beaten so the whites stand in peaks, or indeed
not beating them at all. 

Are there any 'ground rules' about this?  Thanks for any advice.
John Lee (UK)
e-mail jlee@xxxxxxxx