guest blogger: miss_zedem on beta readers

We’re attempting something new here at I’ve invited some friends to contribute posts on the various aspects of writing fiction and fanfic. This is the inaugural post.

Back in the mists of time, when I first started reading fanfic, I kept seeing author’s notes which included the line “beta’d by X”. I’d never heard of betas, and it took me a little while to figure out exactly what they did. My first impression was that they served the function of an editor – checking for typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors – and I arrogantly thought, as an English graduate, that I had no need for such a person.

How wrong I was. My first forays into writing fanfic were frankly embarrassing. Not because the writing was bad, exactly, but because it was… mediocre. There were ideas, good ideas, buried under the badly constructed scenes and clumsy plots, but because I didn’t really know what I was doing – or more accurately, because I thought I did – I failed to bring those ideas out. In other words, because I didn’t bother to get my work beta’d, it wasn’t the best it could be.

This is what a beta can do for you, and it’s something I’ve learned myself through beta-ing for others. When you beta for somebody, you’re not trying to help them win the Pulitzer Prize. You’re trying to help them develop their story into something stronger, something better. If the writer is young or inexperienced (and those two do not necessarily go hand in hand), you might end up teaching them aspects of story telling – how to use speech tags, how to pick a tense and stick with it. With a more experienced writer, you’re going to be less focused on the technical side of things, and more into the actual story – how convincing the relationships are, whether the big plot reveal works or not.

So how do you go about finding a beta? Well, on sites like Live Journal, there’s the tried and true method of sticking a post up on your journal or a community, begging for help and hoping someone volunteers. The problem with that method is that as with anything, the people who volunteer aren’t necessarily the best people for the job. Another method is to contact someone whose writing you admire – if you’ve seen them beta-ing for other people in the fandom, chances are that they’re amenable to being approached by other writers. The worst they can do is say ‘no’. And of course, some fandoms and writing communities have their very own beta page, where willing betas will advertise their services for others in the community.

Once you’ve found a beta, what next? Well you send them your story, telling them clearly what you would like them to do. If you’re worried about characterisation, then say so. If you’re panicking that your plot doesn’t make sense, ask them to see if they can spot the holes. If you’re thinking your sex scene isn’t hot enough, or your action scene isn’t action-y enough, or there’s just something missing – tell them. I’ve sent emails to my betas in the past where I’ve said “this isn’t working – tell me what’s wrong with it!”. And because they’re made of awesome, they do.

When you get your story back, have a read through the notes the beta’s made. You may or may not agree with them – I once had someone try to tell me that you couldn’t use an ‘-ing’ verb construction in the past tense, which, um… well. Let’s just say I politely ignored that. The point is, one size does not fit all with betas – you may find someone too brusque in their comments, or that they try to rewrite your story in their own style (note to betas – this is something you should NEVER do). Finding someone you can work effectively with is a case of trial and error. You may even find that you prefer to work with several betas – one who’s a grammar fanatic, one who’s not so good at grammar and spelling, but is great at character voices, and so on.

From a beta’s point of view, I believe firmly that honesty is the best policy. Make the writer aware of your limitations – “I’ve never watched Supernatural, but I can check for typos and spot plot holes for you” – and never be afraid to admit you don’t know something. It is NOT the beta’s job to be a one-stop shop for lazy writers: while it’s okay to ask questions and draw on your beta’s knowledge, it is not okay to expect them to do all your fact-checking for you. Having said which, Google and Wiki are a beta’s best friends when you’re reading something that just doesn’t sound right, and you shouldn’t be afraid to point the writer in the direction of what you find.

You may be thinking this all sounds very negative. And you’d be right – if you’re not careful, beta-ing someone’s story can become something akin to a school report.

Which is why you need to learn how to give good feedback. If you want to know what sort of beta someone will be, look at the kind of feedback they give. There’s an art to feedback and constructive criticism, one which can be learnt and taught. The key is, always, to focus on the positive. Find a person’s strength, and make them feel good about it, because it’s as important for a writer to know what they’re doing right as well as what they’re doing wrong. So if you’re beta-ing and something makes you laugh, or gives you a lump in your throat, or sounded so exactly like the character that you could practically hear them saying it, then you have to tell the writer that. Let them know that a piece of dialogue made you giggle. Tell them that they have great comic timing, or very lyrical prose. Think how much you like to hear that kind of thing, and make sure you pass that on.

The next point comes straight from a management rule book, but is worth sticking to nonetheless: when giving feedback (whether as a beta or just leaving a comment for someone), you should always try to start and end on a positive note. Tell someone what they did right, tell them what they need to work on and how to work on it, and end with a compliment. The part about telling someone how to fix it is crucial – it’s pointless saying “this plot reveal doesn’t work”. Why doesn’t it work? What does the writer need to change to make it better? Do they need to expand an earlier scene? Do they need to make the central character more sympathetic/angry/loving/mean?

From the writer’s point of view, it’s worth bearing in mind that writers don’t always make the best betas. Some of the best betas out there don’t write much, or indeed at all, but they do read extensively, and they know how to be critical. You may think you want someone who will hover on the sidelines and tell you you’re brilliant, but once you open your writing up to the mockery of the internet, you’ll rapidly find you regret that decision. Because while your best friend may be too nice to point out the blatant Mary Sue you’ve created, or the glaring plot hole in the second chapter, the people out there on the intarwebs won’t be. Even if they don’t comment directly on the story, I can practically guarantee that they’ll be mocking you in the privacy of their own journal, or worse, on somewhere like badfic_quotes or weepingcock. And is that really something you want your name – even if it is just a username – to be associated with?

In short, the beta’s job is to help you, the writer, work harder and look better. No-one, despite what they may tell you, turns out a first draft so perfect that it expresses exactly what they want it to express. A beta can help you find the right word, the right voice, the right place to end or start a story, the right plot point… but they can’t write the story for you, and they shouldn’t try to. Ultimately, it’s about finding someone you can trust; someone who’ll tell when you’re doing it wrong, and who’ll praise you when you’re doing it right. A good beta can make a bad story good, or a good story great – but only if you let them, and only if you learn how to work with them.

Miss_zedem majored in English Language and Linguistics. She currently works in a bookstore and reads voraciously.

Mirrored from Jenna

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