The Vengeful Polyglot

You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours: A Guide to Effective Beta-ing and Beta-Author Relationships

Posted on: June 25, 2011

For the Authors: The Finding, Care, and Feeding of Betas

So, let’s say you’re an author, and you’ve just finished the first, polished draft of one of your new fanfics. You’ve fixed all the little red squiggles under words from spell-check, your story seems relatively grammatically-correct, and you think you’ve wrapped up what you meant to do with the plot very nicely. Now it’s time to go post it on whatever site hosts your fics, right?

Not just yet. There’s one tiny step missing, and it’s a vital one. Vital to helping you improve your craft over time, as well as showing that you respect your readers enough to show them a wonderful final product. You need to find a beta.

“Why do I need a beta?” you might ask. “I worked hard on this.” You might even feel sort of offended that you would need someone else to look over your work in order to make it fit for publishing. But it’s not to offend you that I strongly, strongly suggest that all authors have one, or possibly many, betas. There are plenty of wonderful reasons to find a beta. Not only will they point out little nitpicky detail-problems about your fic that you might have missed, but they’ll help you to improve things like flow, characterization, and dialogue until they are much more effective.

What is the magic that allows beta to do these wondrous things to your fanfics? It usually has little to nothing to do with you, as a writer, being “bad” at writing, or the beta being superior to you. It’s just that, having written everything in the fic yourself, you’re too “close” to look at it objectively. You can’t see the forest for the trees. And that’s where wonderful, wise betas come in. They give your story a nice dose of perspective, and help to make it shine. In other words, they’re editors who want to help make your fic as good as it can be. That’s pretty neat of them, isn’t it?

Finding a beta can be tricky; however, in fandom, they usually aren’t in short demand. A lot of writers beta each others’ fics within the community of each fandom, or even pan-fandom. Beta-ing, it’s something you can do with your friends! You can ask writers in your community if they will beta for you, or your friends, or even (if you’re not a terribly closeted fan) your family. It more or less has to be someone whose writing skills you trust and who isn’t you. Sometimes it’s harder than that, if you’re new to a fandom or are too shy to simply go up to a writer you admire and ask for their help (I know that often times I was). There are some communities dedicated to helping people find betas on sites such as LiveJournal, for example, so those are sometimes a good place to start.

Because betas are all different, individual people with their own strengths and weaknesses, they are understandably better at helping certain aspects of writing than others (which is one of the reasons I recommend running your fic past more than one before posting it). Always ask your beta what they are good at, and most of them will let you know without asking. Try to make sure the beta you find is compatible with what you know you are less strong at as a writer – don’t find a beta who is nuts about grammar if you are a grammar-Nazi yourself; there won’t be as significant a benefit to your fic as if you were to choose someone whose strengths complemented yours instead of just overlapped them.

There are a couple of things you should know about asking someone to be your beta, common courtesies you should extend to them, if you will. First off, what you provide to your beta. When someone agrees to beta for you, they are doing you a favor. Don’t treat that lightly, and don’t make them waste their time. I know that not all writers go through the process of looking through all of the things I listed before they consider their role finished, but let me just say that it’s my strong suggestion that you do – if you turn a fanfic into a beta having not done those most cursory of checks for grammar, plot holes, and spelling, they may tell you to have another look before they’ll touch it with a 10-foot pole. Think of it as you would turning in a rough draft on a paper for school; it doesn’t have to be the most polished thing you’ve ever written, but keep it clear of glaring errors to the best of your ability.

When asking a person to beta for you, it’s also considerate to let them know just what you would like them to be beta-ing. Any warnings about your story, any “squicks” it contains, its pairings, its rating, all that jazz should be told to your beta; they’re each people just like you, with preferences about what they like and what they can’t stand. There are some things some betas which won’t touch, and you should always make sure you’re both in agreement about the fic before you proceed – it’s unnecessarily awkward to have her get halfway through the story to the character death and have her go, “I can’t do this, why didn’t you warn me? You’ll have to find someone else.” Of course, they might be more polite than that, but it’s still unnecessary and easy to avoid with proper communication.

Secondly, don’t simply hand over the fic to your beta and scamper off to do something else – communicate with them about what you would like them to do. Even assuming you have picked a beta whose skills perfectly complement what you know to be your weaknesses, it is still helpful for you to give them some direction. Let them get to know you (if they don’t already), and what you like in an editor. Tell them things like how honest/brutal you’re okay with them being, and elements you’d like them to take a look at in particular, such as characterization or grammar. Betas work best when they know what they’re looking for, and you’ll be happier with the product if you’re specific.

Once the beta has your fic, don’t bug them every hour asking if it’s done. They have their own lives to live, and sometimes real life comes before fandom. However, if it’s not back to you in a reasonable amount of time, or by a previously agreed on time, it’s not rude to inquire as to how it’s going. Be as flexible as you can be, though if you think it’s taking far too long you may want to start looking elsewhere. There’s no law against having two people beta the same fic at approximately the same time – if you can’t stand waiting, ask for someone who is free right then, or is notoriously quick, to give it a look-over and get back to you.

When you get the edited version of your fic back from your beta, always be sure to thank them. They put a lot of hard work to making your fic stronger, don’t let the communication end there, especially if you think they did a good job and you would like them to beta for you in the future. Being polite goes a long way, especially since beta-ing is a sort of thankless job. Let them know which suggestions you’re taking, which you aren’t, and why. They’re learning, as well, and it’s always good for everyone to give feedback. That’s how we all grow.

You may have seen other authors do this before, but always try to remember to thank your beta in the author’s notes in your story. Acknowledgement is always appreciated, unless the beta specifically asks you not to. Being kind to your beta is the best way to have them stick around and be willing to beta for you in the future. Try to be considerate as much as you can! Even if the exchange didn’t work for you for whatever reason, try to be polite. Drama is never a good thing to have in fandom (there’s enough as it is), and even if this beta wasn’t for you, she might know someone more suited to you she could connect you to.

A lot of author-beta interaction has a lot to do with being honest, and not just with the beta – with yourself, about what your strengths and weaknesses are in terms of writing, or in terms, sometimes, of your personality. Some people are good at organizing paragraphs in a pleasing and logical manner, and some are not. Some people are good at taking criticism, and some are not. We’re all different people, and we all have flaws. Try to be understanding of your own faults and those in others, and try to be understanding if someone has a strength that you do not – don’t be jealous or defensive, if you can help it, and appreciate that they are using their strength to try and help you! If something isn’t working for you, be honest – but polite. Don’t be rude, or accusatory. If all else fails, you may have made a new friend, if not a beta, and you can look elsewhere for writing help.

 

That Voodoo That You Do: Helping Good Writers Get Better Through Your Beta-ing

So someone has come up to you asking that you beta read their fic for them. Perhaps a friend, perhaps a peer, perhaps someone you’ve never heard of before, it doesn’t really matter. What do you do now?

Well, one of the first things you should do in order to decide if you will agree to beta their fic is find out what their fic is about. Ask them what they are looking for a beta to look at in the story and for the relevant details of their story, such as rating, pairing, and warnings. In return, give them a list of your strengths as a writer – things you know how to look for and fix in a story, like grammar, plot flow, etcetera – and list of story elements you cannot stand, such as certain pairings, plot elements which might disturb some readers, genres, or whatever you really don’t think you can look at objectively. These corresponding lists should help the two of you, collaboratively, to decide whether you are a good match to beta for their fic.

If so, jot down the list of elements they would like you to look at in particular and save it for later on. It can be a helpful reference to glance at while editing; it can keep you on target for what they want you to look at so you deliver exactly what they’d like. Of course, these aren’t the limit to what you should look for – if they use a homophone incorrectly, don’t look past it simply because they didn’t ask you to look for that specifically. It can serve as a good general guide, though.

Before you start to edit, it’s a good idea to get down a rough time-frame of how long it’s going to take you to review the fic. Authors are usually anxious to get their work out there, and it’s sometimes helpful to have a deadline to work toward. If, in the middle of working, you run into an issue in real life which requires your urgent attention and won’t let you finish on time, be sure to tell your author as soon as possible. You have your own life, and they understand that, however you have set a time-frame and most people expect you to act responsibly if something comes up. Being punctual and reliable is a good way to build a professional relationship with an author.

When you do start going through and editing, always make your changes and suggestions bold and noticeable – change the font color, set them off with brackets, etcetera. If you have Word, the “Track Changes” option is a great way to show exactly what you changed and an easy way for them accept or reject those changes later. Word also has a great “commenting” system, which is often helpful as well. Do resist the urge to change things around and send the document back to them edited, but in plaintext and without any description of what you changed – your role is to edit, yes, but you are giving suggestions, which the author will take or leave. You have to give them that option.

Another trap that a lot of betas fall into is the habit of rewriting the fic for the author. Changing the order of words in a sentence around is all right, changing some of the phrasing is okay, and even suggesting different organizations for a paragraph is probably fine. Be careful of going overboard, though. In the end, it’s up to the author to make any drastic changes. Avoid rewriting their story for them. I try to avoid changing actual text as much as I can when the problem is stylistic – I’ll change small things, but for bigger changes it’s usually better to leave a pointed, specific comment that they can act on later. That way, they learn how to fix the problem themselves in a way that suits their own personal style, and not yours. If need be, you can ask them to fool around with it and if they’re still not comfortable with it they can have you take a look at it again. That’s usually a happy medium, I have found.

As for the actual wording of the comments, however it’s a bit more complex. The editing is usually easy, but being polite is sometimes hard. It’s important to be balanced as a beta. Don’t make it all bad. Every story will have its bad points and its good points – both are equally valuable to point out to the author. Getting back a story that’s all blunt criticism is hard to deal with for anyone, and writers have rather fragile egos to begin with. Always be sure to point out what the writer is doing well right alongside what you think they should do better. Of course they need to know what they can do better, but it’s also useful to know what you do well already.

When you are pointing out flaws, try to keep the author’s personality in mind. It’s easier if you have known them for a while before beta-ing their work. Can they handle harsh criticism, and do they prefer you to be blunt? Or would they like you to be very polite and nice while suggesting changes? Neither way is “right,” it’s simply a personal thing. Try to be cognizant of how they feel about it and beta accordingly. Being polite is always highly valued in interactions between author and beta because both parties are trying hard and putting something on the line. Be honest, because the whole collaboration requires a lot of trust, but do try to be conscientious.

When you are going through and editing, read through the entire story more than once – usually it’s helpful to know the whole thing before starting to change things. On your second go through, start checking for surface errors (such as punctuation and grammar issues), and signs which point to errors they specifically asked you to look for. When reading, it is sometimes a good idea to jot down how you feel about different parts of it on the fly in comments; put yourself into the position of a reader and mark parts which seem “off” right after you read them. You can always go back and try to figure out exactly why they seemed odd and suggest ways of fixing them, but it’s important to be able to recognize what a casual reader would instinctively notice as out of place or questionable.

If you do notice that the story has been given to you in negligent condition (for instance, not spell-checked, having obviously glaring errors with names or punctuation, etcetera), make sure you bring it up to them. That sort of behavior is not acceptable, generally speaking. You can let it slide if it’s the first time they’ve done so, or they are clearly very inexperienced, however do politely explain that they should look over the work before giving it to you. You are under no obligation to work with someone who is rude or inconsiderate toward you. However, if they have errors which they are particularly bad at finding, it may be that they are simply weak in that area and not trying to be rude or negligent. If they have made an effort to do a good job and be kind, be kind in return – they might have tried really hard, and just because they have a weakness that is different from one of yours doesn’t mean they haven’t put effort in. It’s a fine line to distinguish, but if you work with a person more than once, it should be relatively easy to weed out the people who are worth your time and those who you would prefer to not work with in the future.

When you return the work to the author, you can ask them which changes they are going to keep and which they are not (usually they will tell you themselves, though if you’re curious it’s usually not considered rude to ask). It can be helpful for both of you to go through the edits together – that way, you both learn from each other and get feedback on how well the other person thinks you have done. It’s a good way to grow as a beta. If there have been any snags with the interaction between the two of you, it’s a good time to bring them up. Both of you will likely be more willing to discuss problems as the work has already been finished – you’re not bringing up something in the middle of a stressful and anxious time. Be honest, but considerate. If you liked beta-ing for that person, say so. Long-term beta/author relationships can be great, and even if it’s not to be for this author, you may have still made a nice friend in whatever fandom you are in.

Though it’s not necessary, I generally like to comment on fics I beta’d once they have been posted up – it’s a nice way to show support if the interaction went well, and gives a good impression in the community. It’s always good to be nice and helpful, and it can help you make connections for the future.

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Blog by a programmer cum linguist cum writer cum total geek. One who pretentiously uses "cum" in place of any other logical connectives. Direct questions to the Ask Lauren page!

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