How to beta?
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
. 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
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
*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
( ) = 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!