I'm helping out our lovely mod paleogymnast with some of the What Happens Next posts, to guide people through Big Bang edits and posting woes toward the glorious end result. Some of you thought that a post about a good beta/writer relationship would be helpful.
Let’s start with the basics. A beta reader is an editor whose responsibility it is to check the story for any problems: grammar and punctuation, typos, repeated words, awkward sentences, unclear plot points, factual error, poor characterization, and whatever else might come up. Yes, you need to find one for the Big Bang.
Big Bang doesn’t require you to have a good beta match, just that you have a beta, and you will likely work with several people before you find a perfect fit. That’s okay. But in the end, everyone is happier with a good beta/writer match, so I will provide some tips below on how to make this interaction better.
First and foremost – and this goes to both writers and betas – be nice and be respectful of each other’s time. Discuss the time window in advance, then plan accordingly.
Beta/writer relationship is fertile ground for frustration and horror stories. Feel free to open up a discussion in the comments or contribute if you have something to add.
1. Find a beta in your own niche of fandom. Genres like slave fics, a/b/o and mpreg have their own special place in the fandom and their own rules, so it would be in your best interest to get a beta familiar with that subculture. I’m a case fic gen and wincest writer. Would I also be a good beta for J2 AU? Sure. But give me a slave fic, and the result will be two pissed off people and a perfectly good slave fic ruined.
2. Tell your beta what to look out for. Do you have a tendency to fall in love with one word and repeat it like a broken record? Do you have a plot twist and you can’t decide if it’s set up well? Are you trying to make sure your character in h/c fic isn’t a woobie? Are you worried that your OC is a little cardboard? Tell your beta all these things that need more attention. There will be other weaknesses you’re unaware of that a good beta will point out to you. That’s great. But it helps to know what to look for. If you say “I need help with everything!” the beta might just overlook a worrisome moment while checking everything.
3. Beta comments are suggestions, not rules. They are one person’s opinion. By no means should you follow every single one of them. But if you’re choosing to ignore a comment, know why you’re disagreeing. You don’t owe your beta an explanation for why you’re going against her advice, but you do owe that explanation to yourself. Somebody pointed out a potential issue for you: think about that issue before you decide to fix it or leave it. Don’t just leave it because you don’t like the comment. Don’t fix it because the beta said so.
4. Facts: check them. Wikipedia is awesome and easy to use. I’m not talking about cases when, say, you’re writing an h/c with Jensen recovering from a spinal cord injury and you need a medical expert. No, what I mean is please check what year the Vietnam War started. I once beta’ed a fic where there was an ancient Greek spell written inside an Egyptian pyramid, having to do with the Christian concept of souls, translated by a modern archeologist into Ancient Greek and explained to the Winchesters by a Medieval Studies professor. I’m not a historian or an anthropologist but that one pinged even on my radar. Something like that is not an oversight – it’s laziness. It’s okay to not know something. It’s not okay to pull it out of your butt when two minutes on Wiki would’ve cleared up the question. A beta is there to point out things you overlooked, not to write your fic or do your research for you.
5. Not every beta is good with both grammar and plot. Beware of betas who make no comments on your plot or give you a non-specific “That’s nice!” and leave it at that. That person probably didn’t give your fic much thought or lacks the attention to do that, and you might want to run the fic by somebody else. This is especially important if you have a complicated plot with twists. Some people are completely oblivious readers; others will guess a twist coming from miles away. If you have a complicated plot, I recommend having two people check it, just in case one of them falls with either of those polar extremes. You don’t want to make your plot twist extra obscure because your beta is sharp-eyed, and then no one else would get it.
6. Here is a common scenario that made me and plenty of others eventually swear off beta-reading for strangers. A writer tells me she needs flow and plot beta. Oh, and some help with grammar of course, though she’s good at checking her own. Cool beans. I open the document, and within three paragraphs it becomes apparent that the author has NO CLUE how to: write a simple sentence, break a paragraph, place a comma, punctuate a dialogue, choose dialogue tags, use parentheses, tell the difference between simple past and past progressive verb tenses, write a complete sentence, use adverbs and adjectives, or in general express her thoughts in a way comprehensible to an English-speaking earthling. I mean NO CLUE. I mean, not only would this person commit every single crime in creative writing that the most basic essay on the topic warns against – where the characters, for instance, hiss, ponder, defy, quip and do everything but speak in dialogue. No, the author actually wouldn’t know how to write a complete sentence in English language. Kick it up one more notch and call it translation.
So when something like that falls on my desk, seventy pages long and needing every second sentence rearranged, punctuated and broken down, I have no brain cells left to even begin looking at the plot. Moreover, after ten pages of trying to get an unfixable horrid mess into some presentable shape, your beta will be so pissed that she will hate your plot on principle. Word has a spell check. It also underlines iffy sentences in green. Word is not always correct but it does a pretty decent job, and nothing pisses me off more as a beta than to sit there and redo Word’s work. There is fine-tuning in grammar editing, and then there is excavation.
I realize that this sounds bitchy, and I wouldn’t bring it up if it wasn’t such a common scenario. Sure, some of us are here to have fun and don’t want to learn creative writing. Hey, that’s totally cool! But realize that Big Bang is a writing challenge, which requires some degree of proficiency in written expression.
7. Find a beta that is tough on you. It’s difficult to receive criticism but this is how you get better. Find someone who won’t abuse you for fun but will honestly point out the bad things as well as the good ones. If you have a particularly hard time with criticism, you might want to tell your beta so. But in any case, be open and prepared to receive criticism. Don’t worry: the readers’ comments on your finished story will totally make up for it.
8. Finally, find somebody that you like who likes you back. The best beta will also be your friend. It’s okay to stop working with an otherwise great beta because she is a bitch to you, or cares more about lecturing than about your fic, or tries to change your fic into something else, etc. I stopped working with a fantastic beta because she’s seen my worst work and called me out on it, and now I can’t look her in the eye anymore. Unless you’re both having fun, it’s not going to be a good relationship.
1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’ve read ten fics by ten different people, and in every single one it was smooth sailing and no plot-related issues came up, chances are you’re not great in that particular area. You’re not doing anyone any favors by “passing” a fic full of plot holes. The first BB I wrote, one of my betas was all “Nice!” and “Great job!” and “I love it!” That was the most useless beta reading in my life.
2. Read in your subgenre or on neutral territory. Don’t volunteer to beta trope fic if you’re not into them. You won’t get them and you will ruin them for people who enjoy trope fics.
3. Be honest but be kind. Point out good things as well as bad ones and always remember that this is someone’s baby you’re dealing with.
4. Honor your commitments. Don’t drop off the face of the Earth without a word and leave the writer wondering if they should start looking for another beta. Even if you have a large window of time to work on edits, don’t let the silence stretch. You author is anxiously waiting to hear back about her fic. Are you silent because you’re busy or because you hated the fic so much that you ran off into the woods?
5. If you find that you hate the fic, whether or not it’s actually bad, please just quit and tell the author nicely that you’re not a good fit. Because you’re not. You’re not going to do a good editing job on a fic that makes you gnash your teeth over every page. I’ve edited fics that were good, but for one reason or another, I hated everything about them and wanted them to be something else entirely. Thankfully, the authors had the good sense to recognize that and ignore me.
6. Sometimes you get a fic that is completely unsalvageable. But if you’re going to give up on grammar and just edit plot, for instance, tell your author that, in a polite way. I’ve gotten fics before where the author told me the grammar was checked and they just need plot comments. And then I’d open the document and wonder what language the person who cleared the grammar spoke, because it wasn’t English. Don’t “pass” something you didn’t actually work on, just to spare the author’s feelings. Diplomacy is the key, not deception.
SOME USEFUL BOOKS:
It Was the Best of Sentence, It Was the Worst of Sentences by June Casagrande. This book is short and written in an easy, accessible style. It does not overload you with grammar terms like some others do. It does an excellent job of explaining what makes an effective sentence, and it also gives you examples of bad sentences and explains why they're bad.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Ranni Browne and Dave King. This one teaches you how to polish your writing and do the same job on your own work that a good beta would do.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. This one is more of an appreciation book than a grammar one but I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to improve their writing. It doesn't talk about grammar or syntax. It picks beautiful passages out of great books and examines what makes them so beautiful.