I've recently taken on some new fiction archiving challenges, and part of that task involves finding new Beta Readers. A Beta reader is not someone who just wants to read new fic before anyone else, they are an editor. These brave souls have made it their mission to help writers throughout the fandom slaughter Mary Sues, make their written work look nothing like a painting, and make even the most unlikely of pairings seem the most natural thing in the world. What? Huh? You may be asking. I have no idea what that means or how to do it, but I really want to be a/use a Beta Reader. Well, consider this a How To Beta Guide. I present the Beta's Bible.
***Note: If you are unsure what the terms in this essay such as Beta, canon, fanon, etc. I suggest reading Fanfic Terms for Newbies.***
Step One: Be clear on what your writer is looking for.
If you are a writer sending a piece of fiction to a beta reader be clear in your message what you are asking them to look for. If you are unsure your characters are speaking in voices that are true to canon ask your beta's opinion. If you aren't sure your timeline works ask your beta to help you check canon against the real world. If you aren't sure if your love scenes are steamy ask your beta to give you a tummy tingle rating. If the writer doesn't ask specific questions it makes the beta's job that much more difficult when knowing what to look for.
Step Two: Be clear on how Beta and Writer will convey changes to the text.
The clearest way I have found of editing text is to use both asterisks, strikethrough text, and bold print to mark where changes have been made, comments inserted. Here is an example:
Original Text: Angel stood beside Spike so that he sould see what held his intrest so hard.
Edited Text: Angel stood beside Spike so that he could see what held his interest. ***This flows better with fewer words***
By making changes that are not only easy to see, but easy to edit out with a couple of keystrokes the beta can communicate with the writer not only the changes made, but also why they were made.
Step Three: Spell & Grammar Check .
While it seems this would be the last thing a writer does before sending a story to a beta reader many don't. It should therefore be the first thing a beta does. Many times I will run a story through a spellchecker before I even read the story, and if I find a more than reasonable amount of mistakes I will usually send it back to the writer unbeta'd and ask them to take a second look before resending it. This may seem a bit harsh but I believe that if a writer does not care about his or her own stories enough to give it a second glance they should not attempt to publish it. The only exception to this would be if a writer specifically informed me that they did not have a spell check function on their computer, which I find hard to believe, but I know does sometimes happen.
Step Four: Make sure the story doesn't look like wall art.
Many writers don't realize that while their style may seem ingenious and original to them few readers want to wear a decoder ring while reading fiction. If a story is full of enough asterisks and semicolons to be confused for modern art there should be some editing done. Here is an example:
***OH MY GOD*** Angel thought. This is getting hot; way hot; really hot. ((He fanned himself)) ***Whew!*** he thought as the steam rolled off his brow.
Of course this is a slightly exaggerated example, but it is not far off from many pieces I have seen. There are few excuses in the English language for not using simple quote marks to note speech or thoughts. Italics and capital letters are almost never justified and are just hard on the eyes. Other punctuation marks need to be kept in check, and that is where the beta reader can often play a pivotal part. Don't be afraid to put periods in where the author may have gotten carried away. Also don't be afraid to send a piece of work back to an author suggesting they remove << and (( symbols or others used to denote perspective or voice. An important piece of information to remember when editing and writing is that if you are constantly having to come up with identifiers, or adding `Angel said', `Spike said' to every sentence your character's voice may not be coming through clear enough.
Step Five: If it walks like a Mary Sue and talks like a Mary Sue kill it.
A Mary Sue is the bane of fandom. Mary Sue is the original character with an odd name and super skills that befriends the canon characters and is perfect in every way, or so annoying that she must be killed. While Mary Sue can be male this is usually not the case. There are writers who are very skilled at bringing believable, even likeable original characters into a story as background or a necessary part of a story. There are also writers who will pull every trick of fanon in the book to make an original character related to a canon character, by mystical or improbable means, and then have that character martyred or placed into the story just to attack other canon characters. The beta reader's job when it comes to Mary Sues is not to placate the writer, but to bring their characters back to reality. The beta should urge their writer to not make original characters perfect or catty, but to make them feel essential to the ensemble of the story, not dominant. The beta must not be afraid to be honest with their writer as well. If you are rolling your eyes while beta reading every other reader will do the same, it is your job to save the rest of the world from that fate. It should be your mission in every story you read, save the world from eye rolling. Remember that.
Step Six: Get rid of the 'Yeah Right' Factor.
Many writers are propagators of what I like to call "Yeah Right" fiction. These are stories that involve male pregnancy, characters spontaneously changing gender, all problems being solved by portals or spells that even the most untrained layman could perform. People, we need to put a stop to this. I know it's hard when you just really think the evil vampires should have a cuddly baby to show them the errors of their ways. I know it's hard when you have never had anal sex to write a male slash scene, but for the love of all things that make readers go vomit in the night do not turn a man into a woman just so you are more comfortable writing the sex scenes! It is the beta reader's job to tell the writer that the story is making them say "Yeah Right" out loud. If Xander picks up a book and banishes a thousand year old demon and then turns to Willow and says "I don't know what all the fuss was about?" drop a building on his head, because it's just not happening. If Spike starts craving pickles and cherry garcia rinse your own mouth out with soap for writing it and then send some chocolate to your beta reader so they can wash the taste of this vileness out of their mouth. Seem harsh? It should be. This stuff must end. It just must. I have to go cry now.
Step Seven: If they Bash, bash back.
Much in the same way that "Yeah Right" fic damages the reader's palate for fic of all kinds, character bashing fic brings the writer down to an even lower place. Character bashing is immature and I won't tolerate it at any of my sites, even in jest, and neither should anyone else. You don't have to like a character but bashing fic is the lowest of the low and 99% of the time the most unreadable of the unreadable and I expect those listed as betas to rid the world of badfic, not encourage it. There is a difference from omitting a character from your writing because you do not write him or her well and going out of your way to kill, torture, or just insult a character you aren't fond of. We all have characters that grate our skin, as I'm sure canon writer's do, but a true sign of weakness in a writer is to not even attempt to make an unliked character fit into a story. Making Buffy a bitch or Riley a doof or Giles a fop might be funny to you, but to your readers it may not be, and if you alienate your reader from the getgo they won't be back for more. It shows more skill, not to mention class, when a writer tackles a character that may not have been their favorite and comes out with a scene, or entire story, that gives an appreciation of that character warts and all. It is the beta's job to know the difference between good spirited humor and a BWP (bashing without plot).
Step Eight: Ask for the back story.
If a beta receives a story with a note that read something like "Angel is human, Spike was never a vampire" just say no. Stories like this have nothing to do with fandom, they are original fiction using the same name and possibly likeness as characters from the Whedonverse, but they are not the characters readers know and love. It is unfair for writers to cheat the reader out of the back story and it is cruel for beta readers to encourage this sort of writing. If a writer wants Angel human make him shanshu or mix his blood with that of a mohra demon, and don't do it in three sentences. For a drastic character change of this magnitude it must feel earned or the reader will feel like they have been burned. Beta readers are there to help flesh out the details that writers may have laid out clearly in their mind but haven't taken the time to share in the story. Ask questions, make suggestions, and get the writer back on track, that's the power of the beta.
The challenge here is making sure that the back story doesn't become three pages of exposition before any action starts. Most readers of fan fiction have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the show and don't need to be told that Buffy was called to be a vampire slayer and had a tragic love with Angel who sired Drusilla who turned Spike who had a passionate affair with Spike before he went to the store to get a six pack of beer and watch Passions reruns on soapnet. This is the difference between back story that matters and exposition that doesn't. If there is a point that makes your story AU but isn't integral to the story just put a short note in the header, For Example: "This story takes place after everyone's memory of Connor was erased, that is why there is no mention of him" or "This is what would have happened if Cordelia's spell to get rid of the Host's mojo in season four wouldn't have worked". A simple line or two can make your reader catch on without a lengthy exposition.
Step Nine: Send the story back with suggestions.
If a writer receives a story back with a comment that says "Perfect" or anything like it, get another beta. If there are no suggestions, no matter how good of a writer you think you are fire that beta and send an email to the site where you got their name and let them know. The job of a beta is to help make it better, and every story can be better. Whether it is something as simple as "you missed a period" or "I thought Angel was wearing a red shirt when he left" there is always a suggestion to be made, a question to be raised, a way to flesh out a character or edit dialog that has become word salad (ie random quotes from different episodes used just because the writer was too lazy to come up with something original). If you are unclear as a beta what suggestions you should make just take notes on your thoughts as you read. If you think a passage works well, has good imagery, or the characters are right on tell the writer, but if you question anything as being true to canon or character make a note or suggest the writer read one of the many character essays available on the web.
Step Ten: Rewrite and resend.
It is always a good idea for writers to send their edited copy back to their beta. I personally love reading some of the explanations of why a writer interprets a character's actions a certain way, or why they put them in a certain place in time, or even why they chose one word over another. I find that the best writer/beta relationships are those that have open lines of communication. Your writer should not feel threatened by your comments, but they should know that you will be honest and even brutal if necessary. Once writer and beta are satisfied that the story has been edited as best they can then submit it to archives and get it read. Please, I'm begging you, do the edit, share your experience, communicate with your beta so that the next time you send a story you have good relationship and know what the other is looking for and what can be gained. Then send your beta a goody box. Everyone loves a goody box.