Beat Me, Whip Me, Beta My Story

(Or, I don't know what a beta reader is, but I want one!)  



Before I go any further, one thing must be absolutely clear: Anybody who volunteers to beta-read any fanfic gets my vote for sainthood, no questions asked. And anybody who's actually good at it should get, not only sainthood, but also a lifetime of really great foot rubs.


No, where the writer-beta reader relationship gets screwed up (and it's recently come to my attention that it gets screwed up more often than you might think), it's usually because the writer has been too cavalier or too nave -- or perhaps just too desperate -- to go into the relationship with a realistic notion of what the arrangement can and/or should accomplish.


Consequently, here is my guide to finding a beta reader you can live with and who actually will do you some good. My first piece of advice is that you should have a conversation with yourself about what you want from your beta and what the relationship should be like before you even consider going out looking for one. There are three overriding principles that I think every fanfic writer should grasp before even attempting to seek a beta reader.


First, never forget this: It's your story. You, not your beta reader, are responsible at all times and in all ways for whether that piece of prose ends up being a laser beam of genius or a piece of cow-flop or anything in between.


I recently heard about a case where a writer, when presented by a reader with evidence of a factual error in one of her stories, responded that she was sorry that the beta reader had missed it. A more contemptible example of irresponsibility and cowardice on the part of a writer is not to be found anywhere.


A beta reader is only obligated to do one thing -- provide you with an honest (and preferably tactful) opinion of your story. It's up to you to take it from there. This means that if you really believe your beta reader is dead wrong, you are obligated to do what you believe is right...and accept the praise or take the fall with grace, no matter how it turns out once the piece is posted.


You should consider carefully whatever your beta suggests -- no matter how painful it may be -- if you don't respect her opinion enough to do that, why are you bothering? But because it's your story, you shouldn't automatically do everything the beta tells you or do it exactly the way the beta suggests. Think it through first. Some of the best critique I've ever received has involved beta readers rightly complaining about a problem but then suggesting a solution that I considered completely barf-worthy, which then forced me to find a way to address the problem that didn't make me want to barf. In other words, faced with the critique, I had to get more creative than I probably would have if left to my own devices. In the end it was A Good Thing -- not necessarily pleasant, but definitely constructive.


The second overriding principle: Beta reading is a skill that not everyone possesses. Unfortunately, the people who are really good at it are fairly rare, and I firmly believe that an incompetent beta reader can and probably will do your story and your ego a lot more damage than not having one at all. I cringe every time I see somebody sending out a call for betas to the general membership of a mailing list or news group. How do you know any of the people who respond to your request have a clue? Do they themselves know how to spell, have a good grasp of grammar, understand what makes a decent plot? Yeah, you might get lucky, but if you don't, then where does that leave you?


You should also bear in mind that just because someone is a great writer, that doesn't necessarily guarantee he/she will be a great beta reader. The skills are in many ways similar, but they're not identical.


And the third: Skill alone is not enough. Suppose your blanket call for a beta reader lands you with somebody who is not only willing to do the work but also very good at it -- however, this individual has a view of the characters or stories that is diametrically opposed to your own? I once knew a writer who was working on an X Files series that depicted Fox Mulder as a moron who wouldn't have gotten through a single day without constant and everlastingly patient intervention at every step from Dana Scully. (Not my view of the character, but some will argue it's a valid interpretation.) This writer ended up with an otherwise-excellent beta reader who had a lot of respect for Mulder's intelligence and insight, and each of them wasted a lot of time trying to persuade the other that she was wrong. Why either of them bothered to debate the point is a mystery to me -- the argument served no purpose. If I had been the writer, I would've thanked the beta reader for her time and gone looking for a new reader; if I had been the reader, I would've suggested to the writer that someone else might do her more good. If either of them had responded that way, both of them would've been better off.


If it becomes clear to you at any point that your beta reader doesn't share your tastes and sensibilities on issues that are integral to the stories you want to tell, it's time for you to politely excuse yourself and find a new beta reader. It's just not constructive to do anything else.


Keep those three things in mind, and you'll be way ahead of the game, but here are a few more tips for making your life in beta-land more rewarding and pleasant.


Don't send unsolicited manuscripts to people you hope will beta them. There's nothing wrong with asking someone, "Would you be willing to beta my story?" But attaching the story before the potential beta has a chance to say yes or no is rude, especially if the story is long and/or you've never corresponded with the person before. I once received, out of the blue, an unsolicited story that was a large enough file to corrupt my e-mailbox from someone who was a complete stranger to me. I bet you can guess what my answer was and in what sort of terms it was rendered. Even if the person agrees to do it, it's starting off the relationship on the wrong foot.


Unless you are a real masochist, don't ask more than one person to beta the same story. This is just begging to have to deal with conflicting and/or contradictory advice. There's nothing wrong with asking for a second opinion after you've received the first, but do you really want to have to face one person telling you to do the opposite of what the other suggests? (I don't know about you, but I can get confused all by myself -- I don't need any help.) And who's writing this story -- you, or a committee? It's not necessarily true that if one beta is a good thing, three will be better. Unless, of course, you happen to have three betas who always tell you that your stuff is perfect, whether it really is or not, and you're only using them to stroke your ego...but that's a different problem. (See immediately below.)


Don't waste your time with sycophants. If your beta reader rarely points out anything wrong in your stuff, he/she is not helping you stretch and grow as a writer. Far be it from me to deprive anybody of the occasional ego-boo, but if you're sending stuff to somebody you know will do nothing but praise it, that's nothing but an ego-boo. It's not really beta-reading at all. While the writer/beta relationship should be tactful, if not necessarily cordial, in essence its purpose is to be adversarial. Aren't you in this relationship at least in part in the hope that your beta will pick holes in the story before you go public with it?


Don't argue or get defensive with your beta reader. The main reason not to do this is that it's just a pointless waste of time, as well as potentially destructive to the relationship. And for God's sake, keep any disagreement the two of you may have private. Taking it public just makes you look like a jerk. If you strongly disagree with what your beta reader just said about your story, seek a second opinion, or just write it your way. (Repeat after me seven times: It's your story, it's your story, it's...) And in a similar vein...


Be respectful of your beta reader's viewpoints. In theory, you have selected this person to read your work because you respect his/her opinion. (Assuming you didn't just throw your request for a beta-read out to a mailing list and settle for whoever responded.) When the result comes back, you don't have to agree with it, but the mere fact that you don't agree doesn't mean the beta doesn't have a right to his/her own interpretation, just as you do. To cite an obvious example, it's pointless and disrespectful for you to send a Highlander slash story to a beta reader who just doesn't see Methos and MacLeod doing that.


Be respectful of your beta reader's time. The odds are excellent that your beta reader doesn't sit in front of her e-mailbox 24/7 waiting with 'bated breath for your next opus. Most likely she's got a job or children or an ailing parent or even a passion for flower arranging -- hell, maybe she just feels like going out to a movie now and then. She's allowed. Chill. I know you're dying for the feedback, but even if she doesn't finish reading your 300K tome today, the sun will still rise in the east in the morning. Trust me.


Don't assume that you will have the same beta reader for life. Like everybody else, a beta reader's life can change, possibly overnight. He/she may just get bored with the fandom in which you're writing. That's allowed, too. It can be distressing to lose a beta you've come to trust and depend on, but accept that there's nothing you can do about it. Be adult about it if your beta tells you he/she just can't keep working on your stuff anymore.


So how do you locate one of these rare and precious creatures? The best beta readers I've had have been people with whom I'd already had several intelligent, insightful, articulate e-mail exchanges about stories, both mine and those of others, which indicated the other individual and I shared essentially the same story and character values and roughly the same views of the series on which the fandom was based. And then, once I was confident there was enough commonality on which to base some kind of respectful, trustworthy (if slightly adversarial) relationship, I e-mailed that person and asked whether he or she was willing to look at something I'd written.


In fairness, that method's not infallible. There have been times when, after sending a few parts of a story to someone, I've realized that the relationship, for one reason or another, wasn't working out. But it's the best method I've found, and when it has worked, the results have been quite marvelous. In general I've been wonderfully lucky to have great betas over the years, and my stories have been vastly enriched and improved for the sorts of thoughtful assistance they provided--from merely pointing out a few typos to poking me in the butt with a sharp piece of reality now and then. Not to mention the beneficial effect of having my ego deflated occasionally (never fun, but often therapeutic).


Not everything I've ever written and posted has had a beta read, but I've never written anything that couldn't have benefited from one, and I have no reason to believe that I ever will. (Including this essay, which has not been beta-read.) If nothing else, quite frankly, I'm not all that good a typist.


And isn't that what it's all about -- making the stories better...whether it's easy to do or not?

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