In a previous post, I very briefly wrote about the job of a beta. Essentially, this is the writer’s “second” – as in the second pair of eyes to look over the chapter before it’s posted for grammatical errors, continuity issues, and to ensure the story maintains its flow.
Since I am not so great with the actual fanfic writing myself but really enjoy the creative process of being involved in the whole Twi-fic world, I recently started beta-ing. Just a few chapters here and there and some stuff that hasn’t been posted yet. I love it! It’s really fun for me – like a complex math puzzle, but without the numbers so that it actually makes sense to me. The process fascinates me and I want to get further into it and gain more experience and understanding.
I personally think all authors could benefit from having such a person around to enhance their stories. Although I know nothing of the publishing world, I assume a beta is like the equivalent of a book editor but for the “amateur” level of fanfiction writing (which we all know crosses over more and more often now). Betas are available – why not use them? I’ve read a lot of stories where easily-fixed mistakes make me cringe. If plot, characterization, etc. are your strong points and you are maybe not as strong in the technicalities of writing, why not have another person help you out? Even if you are a “grammar nazi”, we all make mistakes from time to time and sometimes it takes another person to catch them.
The relationship between author and beta needs to be clearly defined. Different authors may want different things so the role of the beta is not always the same. In general, a beta finds and points out errors for the author to fix during rewrites. But a beta can be much more than that. Some authors have a beta and a pre-reader (or several of each). At first I didn’t understand this distinction and had to ask on twitter what the difference was. (Usually, at the top of a chapter, the author gives the prerequisite disclaimer of “no copyright infringement intended” and thanks their betas and pre-readers. I kept seeing that over and over and was confused.) It was explained to me that a beta handles the technical aspects whereas the pre-reader is there to help with continuity, plot ideas, and characterization. In some cases, a beta does both.
I asked friends of mine, Brina, a pre-reader, and Deena, an author, what they thought about the writer-beta relationship. They both agreed that the expectations need to be established in the beginning - what the author is looking for and what the beta is able to do.
Brina said, “When picking a beta you have to decide, do you want someone to fix grammar and typos or do you want someone who will do that plus make your story better, to give you ideas, to inspire to make you a better writer. They are there to catch the stuff you can’t and sometimes they are there to stop you from losing your way.”
At this point, I am not confident enough in my own abilities and lack the experience to be able to give criticism on story development. I made sure that they authors I read for knew this. I am going in with the intention of fixing punctuation, typos, and basic grammar rules alone. If something does occur to me, such as an error in continuity, I will point it out but I don’t specifically look for them.
It was agreed that honestly is the most important factor in the author-beta relationship. Deena said, “[You don’t want] someone who praises everything you do without giving any kind of feedback at all. You need the truth, not someone who says everything is great because they think that's what you want to hear.”
Another point my friends made was trust. The author needs to be able to trust her beta. Not only that she will be honest but that she will maintain confidentiality. As a beta, you are reading sometimes highly sought after stories before anyone else gets a chance to. Many times, they are submissions for contest for which you must be a vault and not even let anyone else know you are involved. Another aspect to that confidentiality is not bashing your author. It seems like common sense, but I have heard of this happening. A while back things were said on twitter by someone who was acting as the beta for a fairly popular story and she claimed the author would be nothing without her and took credit for the story’s brilliance. Boo to her! She sucks. (And is no longer attached to that story.)
I also think a beta needs to be aware of the difference between when something isn’t working and when something is simply a stylistic choice you may not agree with. It’s the author’s creative endeavour, not yours. You aren’t there to have the story written the way you would write it. You are there to help the author write the best story she can write. There’s no harm in making your opinions known and offering suggestions, just like anyone else who will be reading the story will inevitably do in reviews anyway, but it’s the author’s story and her choice to do what she wants with it.