Though I can’t promise a fail-proof guide to finding the perfect beta, I can offer some advice garnered mostly from personal opinion and experience. Hopefully this will help you in your search for that elusive critter of the literary world. But in order to teach you how to catch them, I first have to un-teach you, therefore we’ll start this little foray into the field of writing by exploring some misconceptions
1. Beta-readers and editors are the same thing
Not necessarily. Opinions differ on the matter, I’m sure, but for the purpose of this essay we’ll run with my own: A beta-reader can be an editor, but an editor is not a beta-reader.
An editor examines an article or piece of work and skims it for corrections, usually absolute, that deal with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and blatant readability problems. Their job is, in essence, to make the article or story read the way they need it to read by taking into account the rules of literature and any previous experience they have with the market.
A beta-reader is simply that: a test reader. Though their job can entail making punctuation and other technical suggestions for improvement, their main purpose is to read a story either in rough or final form and offer their reactions to the author even though they may be biased, unfounded, and sometimes incorrect. In this lies their greatest advantage; they offer an honest glimpse into the mind of the average Joe skimming over your story.
If you can think of your story as you do your car, the editor is the mechanic, and the beta-reader is the enthusiast down the street.
2. You need experience in literature to be a beta-reader
Not true. In fact, I would argue that the more rules and regulations you know the more it hobbles your ability to effectively beta. The vast percentage of your audience won’t know diddly-poop about English and all the little rules that make it work. Who better to ask how your story’s coming across than one of them? Just don’t consult them for grammar advice....
3. Only outstanding authors can be beta-readers
Again, not true. Most people who read for pleasure don’t or can’t write themselves, but their opinions are just as valid. If they read your story, then they are part of your audience—even the bad!fic authors whom even the best of us tend to look down upon. Just because they can’t write doesn’t mean they can’t notice things, and if you alienate them then you alienate their help as well.
4. You must have a beta-reader for everything you write
No, there’s no law against it. If you are a serious writer attempting to break into the book business you are more than welcome to approach an editor with a piece of work only you have seen and read through. In addition, as a fanfiction author dabbling in the arts, you are free to post as many works as you want with only your own editing to suffice. The quality of your writing, however, will only improve with every set of eyes that go over it. It just depends on how thorough you want to be.
5. If you don’t rip a piece of writing to shreds, you’re not a good beta
Beta-reading (and editing in general) isn’t about cutting other authors down. It’s not about making yourself look smarter by correcting other peoples’ mistakes; it’s not about looking for an outlet for a little self pity. It’s not about guts or glory or any other morale-rousing things that begin with the letter ‘g.’ It’s about learning, plain and simple. However it works best for you is the way it’s supposed to work.
FINDING A BETA-READER
Great minds think alike
I have a saying that I’ve used in many discussions on this subject in the past: “Finding a good beta isn’t about finding someone who knows all the rules, it’s about finding someone who thinks like you.” The essence of the idea is that picking up the first beta you come across may not always be the best mode of choice. If, for example, you pair up with a beta who focuses mostly on spelling and your spelling is perfect, your story will probably come back less “fixed” than you’d hoped. This, in turn, can lead to frustration and that’s just a big mess that nobody wants.
The important thing to remember is that every beta-reader has a Specialty mixed in with several other editing talents. It’s not a self-proclaimed Specialty in most cases—I merely use the word to embody the idea that every writer and reader has a different personality, and that personality dictates what they notice and what they don’t when they read. To get the best experience you first have to find a beta-reader who will concentrate on the things you’re interested in fixing. A good place to start is your real-life or internet friends. I’d then move to your fandom, and only after that would I resort to a generic beta-reading community.
1. Real-life/internet friends
The biggest advantage here is that you know how these people think and vice versa. This will give you a better glimpse into what advice you should take and what you should leave. In addition, the friendship environment (should be) more respectful on both sides of the table and can lead to a better critiquing experience because of it. Friend betas can be found by:
Asking in person: “Would you like to proofread something I’ve written?”
Begging the question: “What have I been doing in my spare time? Oh, working on a story. What? You’d like to see it? Sure, I’ll show it to you.”
Advertising in a livejournal or message board you frequent often: “I’m looking for a couple beta-readers for an (Insert Fandom Here) story. Anyone interested?”
Or making friends with other authors by giving them quality feedback (reviews, comments, emails, IMs, etc) and either offering your services there or establishing yourself as a knowledgeable, competent writer that they will want to come to later. Personally, I think this method works the best. All of the author friends I have right now—and nearly all of my beta-readers—were found by exchanging reviews either on my part or theirs.
Be warned: Friends can also sugarcoat, especially if they feel their opinions will cause offense. You must be comfortable enough in your friendship to be able to say what needs to be said without tiptoeing around each other. If they tell you your plot needs work, you should be able to say “Thank you for pointing that out.” If you tell them you’re not going to take a suggestion, they should be able to say, “That’s fine, just throwing it out there.”
The fandom pool would be my next choice when fishing for a potential beta-reader. For one, there’s an established sense of camaraderie between everyone in sharing the same likes. And for two, your readers can offer a much deeper insight into how your fanfic fits with canon either through the plot, characters, dialogue, or action. Fandom betas can be found by advertising and reviewing as described above. There are also many communities out there that specialize in critiquing only for a particular fandom.
A warning here: Fandoms can also be very volatile and not everyone is open-minded about what they read. Be careful that the writer(s) you choose don’t try to force their agenda on you.
3. Generic beta-reading community
Of the three groups these betas will be the most estranged. Chances are they will be unfamiliar with the fandom you’re working in and only be able to offer the barest of beta-reading services such as help with language, flow, and the more mechanical nuisances of punctuation and spelling. In addition, since these beta-readers are, for the most part, anonymous they can also be braver and meaner because of it. If you find that a beta is going out of his or her way to make you feel inferior it’s probably best to stop going to them.
In general I recommend having at least two or more betas look over each story you write before it’s released to the public. In the best case scenario this gives you a few different opinions to draw from, and in the worst case it gives you a backup if one (or more) of your betas is too busy to get back to you. I’ve heard it said before that you should never change a story on one opinion alone, and I agree, but everyone knows in the world of fanfiction that’s easier said than done. You just have to learn to beef up your self-awareness when it comes to your own writing and honestly admit when something does and doesn’t need to change.
I also think it’s important to set a personal deadline for yourself, just so you’re not postponing the release of a relatively clean story for months on end because you can’t get a beta to respond. Everyone has their limits, and it helps when you fire off the rough draft to have a figure in your mind, something like: If I don’t get this back in three weeks I’ll just go ahead with what I’ve got.
Use and reuse
Sticking with the same beta-readers over a long period of time will help in training them to work well with you. Note that “training” here isn’t used in a derogatory sense, merely to say that the more you work with someone the better they get to know you and vice versa. They’ll become familiar with your mistakes and how you think and will be able to help you steer clear of your trouble areas. Their unique Specialty will enable them catch the mistakes you make over and over again, and eventually the repetition will allow you to correct yourself.
Swiss army knife
Your betas are to you what Batman’s tool belt is to him. They are all at your disposal, but it doesn’t mean you have to use them all at every chance you get. Think this story is fine on spelling? Why not forgo that spelling expert and give her a break? You can ship it out to the grammar nazi and the plot seeker instead. The more people you know in a fandom, the more beta-readers you have at your disposal. Most authors are more than willing to donate a little of their time as, to love writing, they have to love the entire process from the gritty to the glamorous. Even a quick five-second job can unearth useful tips for improvement. Take what you can when you can. Opinions are free, and you never know what will come in handy.
SO NOW I HAVE MY BETA....WHAT NEXT?
You’re both a little nervous, you’ve never done this before, but that’s okay. There are lots of things you can do to make your new beta-reader feel comfortable.
The most important thing you can do for yourself in terms of having a good relationship with your beta-readers and keeping them as a result is to treat them with respect. Remember that they are helping you. They are taking time out of their day without pay (and with the risk of possible injury depending on how “rough” the draft is) to sit down and give you an impression on something you have written. They’re not there to gouge at you or humiliate you or otherwise make you feel worthless. And if you get the sense that those are their true motivations then you need to part ways. The beta-reader is simply going to sit down, go through your story, and tell you what they think.
Be a taker, not a giver
Miss Manners would have my head on a pike at dishing out that piece of advice, but in terms of critiques it’s the best way to get a good, quality experience. Not all of your beta’s suggestions are going to be good. In fact, a great many of them will probably miss the mark—DON’T BE DISMISSIVE. Personally, you could never convince me of a solid reason to even reveal to a beta that you’re not going to take a piece of their advice, but if you absolutely must verbally dismiss a comment, remember to be tactful about it.
What you want to stay away from is scaring them into censoring their own feedback. Beta-readers are just as self-conscious as authors are and don’t like to be ridiculed or harassed for their opinions. My recommendation is to take everything they say with a smile as if you were going to go home that instant and act on every suggestion they gave you. Then, at a later point, you can decide what you will and will not use. Not only will this encourage your betas to be open and honest with you at all times, but it will keep you from talking about the story and influencing what they have to say through debate or discussion. Be honest and humble. Don’t get angry, don’t make excuses, don’t try to explain your mistakes, don’t try to make them see your point of view, because when you have the reader sitting at home with your story none of those will be options.
If you want to talk to them about problems you are having, wait until after they have finished before jumping in. Then you can discuss to your heart’s content. Don’t try to make them go back on what they said, however, or this will lead to defensive behavior and the possible alteration of their opinions in the future. Good questions cover topics like, “You said the third paragraph confused you, where did you get lost?” and “I was trying to make my characters sound angry at that part. Can you tell me where it slipped?” not “Why did you say my writing was flat?” or “How carefully did you read that part?”
Encourage, encourage, encourage
As I said above, beta-readers can be just as fragile as their author counterparts. The more you encourage their feedback and make them feel appreciated for their work, the less afraid they’ll be to share their opinions with you. This usually takes the form of a general personality you project above anything else, but at the very least make sure they know you’re okay with criticism, even if, secretly, you’re not. Overcoming the “hurt feelings” demon is one of the hardest things for writers to do, and sometimes the only way to win is to face the Beast head on. I’m not, of course, speaking about extreme cases where the fear of critique is debilitating. (I’m assuming, in wanting to find a beta-reader in the first place, the audience here is already past that part.) But most betas don’t want to hurt your feelings and will hold themselves back if they sense that they’re doing so.
Submit your story
If it’s written out on paper I’d recommend you type it up in double-spaced font so there’s plenty of room to write between the lines. Otherwise, if it’s going by email, I’d recommend you create a separate file on your computer only for the content you are going to be sending to your beta to look over. This serves a few purposes:
1. It cuts down on length
Editing in general is a taxing, draining process and there’s nothing more daunting for a volunteer beta-reader than to open up a 30-page file and think (or know) they have to wade through every inch of it. They’re human, they get tired, and the farther they get into any length of writing the sparser their commentary is going to be. Don’t cut and edit your story to make it shorter for them by any means, but instead of sending over that 30-page bad boy maybe think about splitting it up into 6-10 page increments and having it read in pieces over time or by two other people.
2. It preserves the copy just the way you sent it
We’re writers. We look over words on a piece of paper or a computer and no matter how much we try to resist we poke and prod and shift and change. If you copy your story directly into an email and then change it later in the master file you have no way to go back and compare the copy the beta received with the copy you changed in the meantime. Maybe they fixed a sentence they didn’t like, but you caught it, too, and altered it in your own way. You want to be able to tell which is better: their suggestion or yours.
The beta’s not going to do much, I can hear you saying, it won’t be that hard to pick out the changes. Wrong. In some cases that may be true, but it’s my experience that it’s not only hard to fish out what was altered (especially if the beta doesn’t use colors), it’s exhausting and is much easier to simply avoid altogether with a quick File -> Save As at the beginning.
3. It’s easier to send electronically
As a beta-reader, I don’t mind writers cutting and pasting their stories into an email, but I’d rather it be in a word file, even if it’s in notepad. For one, I’m just going to copy the text and put it in a file anyway so I can write on it. And two, it ensures that the formatting will stay relatively readable. If you absolutely have to cut and paste to email your story, I’d recommend that you clear it with the beta-reader first (Is it okay if I...?) At least that way they’ll know it’s coming.
4. It will prevent you from saving over the real file once you get the beta back
Because that would suck.
At the top of the file you may want to put the story title, the chapter, your author’s notes (if you know what you’re going to say) and any other information you think would be helpful such as things you’re looking for, what you’re worried about, and any additional thoughts. Keep in mind, however, that any notes you put at the beginning, even in the most innocent of contexts, can alter the beta-reader’s focus and bias their “test run.” For example, an offhanded comment written before the story that says “I don’t like the third paragraph” will almost certainly distract the beta once they reach it as they look for mistakes. If that’s what you want, fine. But realize you’ve just skewed their run through the story since a regular Joe may or may not have noticed that paragraph on their own. Placing your concerns at the end usually fixes this problem.
Sign, send, wait
Real life sucks and everyone has to live in it. If you badger your beta-reader(s) to send back a response you’re going to annoy them, rush them, and possibly alienate them. Hopefully before sending you followed my advice and created a personal deadline so the urge to poke won’t arise. If not, keep your hands at your sides. No poking allowed.
Finally, your beta got back to you! Congratulations! Don’t just stand there...rip it open! Look it over! Once your initial sense of curiosity has been satisfied you can continue reading to see how to go over it again with a much more critical eye.
Seethe in silence
The best thing you can do after getting your critique is, that’s right, nothing. Don’t act on it right away and, for the love of God, don’t respond with a comment, email, or IM unless you are 150% sure nothing negative or defensive is going to come across. Some people can transition flawlessly from the firing squad to the healing process but my guess is most people reading this can’t, myself included. At this point everyone’s reaction is going to be different. Some people will feel sorry for themselves, some will get angry, and some will skip off to the local ice cream parlor to enjoy a big chocolate Sunday. The important thing is to remember that your betas are doing you a favor and, in time, you’ll come to thank them for it.
As I said above, not everything the beta-reader suggests is going to be good. It’s now up to you to decide which suggestions are worthy of becoming permanent additions to your baby. Take the changes slowly, one at a time, and as you go through keep the personality of your beta-reader in mind. What are their Specialties? If they’re an author, what do you and don’t you like about how they write? If they’re a reader, what do you and don’t you like about what they read? All of this will give you a better insight into which changes truly reflect what your general audience is going to see.
Don’t dismiss any changes right away. Look at them, think about them. This is another reason why a separate beta file is a good thing to have; you can alter and fix and change to your heart’s content to see what you like without fooling around with your original copy and accidentally saving over something.
Don’t let your beta-reader push you around, either, or force their agenda or personal style onto you. I’ll touch on this more in the next section, but this piece of work is your brainchild, not theirs. It is up to you and you alone to decide what is best for it, and you don’t owe excuses to anyone. If a change the beta suggested makes sense but doesn’t feel right, there’s probably a reason. Don’t use it. Everything is there for your disposal. Also, keep in mind that just because a beta-reader suggested a change doesn’t mean the original writing was wrong. There are good betas and bad betas and you have to watch out for both of them and weigh their comments accordingly.
Good beta-readers recognize that the story is about you. They know the difference between changing something because it’s incorrect, and changing something simply because it’s not a thing they would do. When reading over a piece of work they examine themselves as much as they examine the text, filtering out suggestions that they know to be petty or irrelevant, and trying as best they can to cater to the author’s individual style. They will often abstain from commenting on things because they know they are personally biased on the matter. Or, if they do comment, they will put forth a suggestion with some kind of disclaimer (ex. “There are a lot of ellipses in your writing, but I don’t like ellipses, so you may want to get a second opinion.”) In short, they’ve been around long enough to know and respect that, in the end, it’s the author’s decision on what to alter and they can only throw in their two cents as the boat passes by.
Bad beta-readers are, shockingly enough, the exact opposite of good beta-readers in almost every way. Though they can be remarkably talented writers themselves and load comment upon comment into a piece of work they’re editing, they fail to recognize that quantity never surpasses quality in any area of writing. They comment on things that are petty or unimportant. They insist on making subtle changes to every sentence because it’s not the way they would have written it. They are unable to leave things alone that are different than what they’re used to, but just as effective. And they sometimes go so far as to try and inject their personal opinions into the story. In short, their interest is not in helping you to become better, but in helping you to write like they do.
WANT TO BE A BETA-READER? GOOD!
Make it known your services are available
There are tons of authors out there just begging for beta-readers to go through their stories. They need people who are supportive, friendly, reliable, and somewhat acquainted with how writing works. Fortunately, in the fanfiction world, writing is usually a slow and staggered process, so unless you put your name in with 600 different authors it’s unlikely you’d be doing beta-reading more than a few times a year. All the authors need from you is to know they have someone to call when they’re having doubts or need to get out some ideas. You can tell them by talking about it on your livejournal or in your FFnet and message board profiles, or simply offering to beta when you review your favorite stories. I doubt you’ll find anyone ungrateful for the help.
Encourage, encourage, encourage
Just as the authors need to respect the work you’re doing for them, you need to respect the work they’re entrusting to you. They may seem tough to criticism on the exterior, but chances are they get a least a little nervous every time they send off one of their babies. Don’t try as hard as you can to rip their stories to shreds just because you think that’s what beta-readers are supposed to do. Encourage them to change and grow as they continue to write and offer them advice that will help them improve versus giving them another item on their checklist to fix.
Be honest, but tactful
As stated a few times during the course of this essay, the idea of critiquing is not to shatter a person’s spirit. Leave that for when they get a job. The purpose is to learn and to help an author become better by letting them know what you see as you read...and there are a thousand ways you can do so without being, if you’ll excuse the language, an insensitive ass about it. You don’t have to sugarcoat, but you don’t have to bring out the editing machete, either. Just tell them what you think.
Stack your comments—that is, do the good thing/bad thing shuffle. Don’t just point out all the stuff that needs to be changed, tell the author what you really liked as well as what you didn’t. If you sense that some feelings are starting to get hurt, maybe pull back and focus on the positives for a while. I find it easy to ask authors before I start what kind of beta-reader they want on a scale of 1 to 5—1 being the wimp and 5 being the every-other-sentence-has-a-problem psycho. Most pick around a 3. After a while the nitpicky approach gets to such a point that it’s doing more harm than good.
At the top of every beta you give you may want to include a little disclaimer that summarizes your philosophy on beta-reading as well as makes you appear less scary to the author by reminding them of their power. Mine looks something like this:
Before I start I’ll give you the same schpiel I give everyone I beta for: This is your creation, your baby. You know how it’s supposed to go and what needs to go in it, and I am the lowly peon who just happens to be getting a sneak preview. That being said, anything and everything I have written below is merely a suggestion. You may read some of them and think they’re great, you may read others and think I’m a complete idiot—both are fine. Ultimately, it’s your call what you think should stay in and what shouldn’t. And don’t be scared by all the red, most of it is just notes and inane commentary.
Be general as well as specific
Sometimes in the cyclone of lackluster critiques we get so caught up in insisting on specifics that we forget how useful general advice can be, too. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “You know, this paragraph was written extremely well” and as a beta you shouldn’t shy away from it. The frustration on the part of the author comes when all of your comments fall along the lines of “I like your sentences” and “You write good.” You can see where those don’t hold much weight in terms of educational value.
WRAPPING IT UP
In conclusion...this was a lot longer than I had originally anticipated, but I hope it was of some help. There are lots of other things I could go over in relation to this topic such as “the many verbal dances of the defensive author” and “inside the mind of a bad beta-reader,” but for now I think we’ll call it a day. I apologize if, at any point above, my language sounds arrogant or condescending. I’ve been told I have a tendency when slipping into essay mode to sound hard-edged, but I swear it’s not my intent. I suspect it just sounds that way because my voice and manner of speaking isn’t there to soften it out.
If you want, you can take some small pleasure at my expense when I tell you that this essay on beta-readers had no beta-reader. I’m the only one that’s looked over it. Hooray for irony!