How to beta?

One can say that the main concept of a beta reader is to read a story before it is posted to a mailing list or web page and make suggestions about how that story may be improved. In essence this much is true but there is still much more involved than just that.

So what does a beta reader do and what makes a good beta? Beta readers should have a fair knowledge of the canonical characters and technical data of the TV show/movie or universe in order to help along any inconsistencies in a story.

Her/his job is to help the author to smooth out problems, catch nitpick type errors, basic grammar, spelling and check for overall coherency. They even help with plotting and character invention/development etc. Unfortunately, most authors have a bad tendency of getting so close to their work that they can't see the story for the words. Here, beta readers will help them see the story through new eyes.

Betas normally catch what is missing, meaning, they pick up on details that authors' have missed describing and are taken for granted - but readers outside the author's heads can't see them. Betas often ask additional questions that could make the story even richer, like Why did McQueen look irritated? Why is Cooper afraid of closed-in spaces/water/whatever?

Beta readers also spot slacking paragraphs where an author might has elaborated and fluffed up a scene but which isn't really necessary and the betas tighten up the story.

Beta readers are also able to pick other people's brains for alternate phrasings and other ideas and this is a great asset to any writer. Betas normally are also helpful in bouncing ideas.

After having written all that, I have to conclude that a good critique/beta is a lot of work. You as an author are much more likely to get other people to put that kind of work into your stuff, if you put that kind of work out. That doesn't mean a writer has to take every thing that the beta suggests for granted but another set of eyes are more likely to spot mistakes (either grammar, spelling or plot-wise) than the author.
A good beta is half the success of a story. Betas have an integral part of the writing and authors should be aware of that and eternally grateful to a beta.



So how do you do it?

1) help the writer being critiqued accomplish better whatever s/he's trying to accomplish in this work, and hone his/her craft in general;

2) if you are a writer hone your own writing craft by analyzing what works, and what doesn't work, in another's writing.
What was the author trying to do?
You need to know the form aimed at, and the genre. It is best if you know the rules and traditions of that form or genre. E.g. if you have S:AAB fan-fic which is a romance or a drama.

But you don't have to totally back off of beta-ing a form or genre you aren't familiar with. Personally, I like to have my sci-fi stories beta-read by people who aren't familiar with sci-fi in general and S:AAB in particular.
They catch the points where I'm depending too much on "everybody knows that ..." and hold me to the demanding task of working the background into the story.
The important thing is, don't impose inappropriate rules. You may not know the rules of fantasy - okay. But don't substitute the rules of detective stories, or romance novels, or historical fiction, or even science fiction.

What is most important is to identify the story, or the meaning, or at least the image and the feeling, that the writer was trying to convey.
Back to personal experience, one of the most frustrating beta reports for me to get is one that deals thoroughly with my technique, form and grammar -- and totally misses the POINT. I don't, usually, write just to show off my technique. Even when I do write to tackle an element of technique, I am not satisfied unless the piece also says something I really wanted to say. Most writers are in the business to SAY something, and they really won't be satisfied with a beta report unless you tell them you HEAR them.

Once you identify what the author is trying to say, you can give her/him useful feedback on what worked to get that point across, and what distracted from it.

And that is something you can do, even if you haven't even learned what "technique" or "form" IS yet.

3) Try to hear the author's voice
This is a tricky one, and I don't want anyone getting too hung up on it. If a piece sounds "odd" to you, you can certainly say so, and you can say why. But one of the pleasures of reading, to me, is to hear different voices than I get alone in my room; to feel reality with different sensibilities. So try to make certain why it sounds differently or odd.

4) Humility
I'll give Alexander Pope the credit for this one, but it's also part of my basic religious and overall philosophy.
"My opinion is my opinion -- it is backed up by no authority whatsoever, religious or secular. If you accept any bit of it for any reason except that it makes sense to you -- I'LL BE ANGRY WITH YOU."

Your opinion is important. Your opinion is not the most important thing in the whole universe, and it is certainly not Law. Even if you are quoting Webster's, Encyclopedia Britannica, or Yule's Study of Language, it is still your opinion that what you are quoting is accurate, that your interpretation is correct, that the quote is even relevant. So offer your opinion - just offer it. Don't jump up on a soapbox and leap down the author's throat with your opinion backed up by a ramrod.

And if, by chance, someone does differ with your opinion - try to take that with the same attitude you hope another writer takes your own betas/critiques.
Recognize that it is only their opinion, and see if there is anything in it you can use.

5) Courage/Constructive Criticism
. Okay, it's just your opinion. You acknowledged that. You don't have to keep diffidently repeating it in every line.
Say what you think. If someone is sincerely hoping to publish serious Sci-Fi someday, telling him/her that a story that made you whince all the way through when you weren't yawning is "Wonderful!" is doing her/him just as bad a turn as ranting.
You can be hard without being harsh.
E.g. "I can see what you are trying to say here, and it is an interesting theme. The chapter you started with is very vivid. But you lose the power of that chapter. The total effect is flat. I suggest going back to that first chapter and starting over, without trying to force what you write into a form."

It isn't just as writers that we "edit ourselves silent". We do it as beta readers, too.
We're reading along and go "Ugh!" Then we sit there and try to think, "Now how can I phrase that?" until we run out of time, and move on, hoping another beta reader will cover that point.
Well, to start with, just write what you think. Before you hit "send" you can edit as needed.
One more note on Courage - you may not be able to think of much to say, and you don't think it's very useful. Well, it's useful to me if I get only one line saying, "I strongly identified with Kathy", or "I cried at the end of this story", or "I laughed out loud; can I send this to a friend?" - or even "I was really into this until about three-quarters of the way through; I can't tell you why, but it just went dull" or "I could not believe this fellow was for real, at all."
Even if you are sure that everybody else noticed the same thing - say it anyway. I've had lots of flaws that were caught by someone who only noticed that one thing - while three other people analyzed fifty other things in detail, but missed that one.

6) *Please*, *Please*, *snip*.
For email critiques - Include only the amount of original text that is essential to the point you are making. If you are recommending one correction to the 200th line of a 600-line story, and you quote the entire story to insert your one line, the author is probably going to miss it. A rough rule-of-thumb is: include at least one line of your own comments for each 3 lines of quoted text.

A key for beta reading so that everyone knows what's going on.
( ) = insert/suggestions
[ ] = omit
1.0 = first digit part/
0.1 = second digit chapter

At the end of the beta you write a comment/constructive criticism - what you liked/didn't like and also how you would change weaker points in the story.


Dedicated to my three betas Sherry (Star Wars), Mogs (S:AAB) and Jackie (Farscape)... you gals rock!


DrkNite 1997-2001