How To Be (And Use) A Beta
by Angel Negra
There are plenty of essays out there on why a writer should use a
beta. But very few people focus on how to actually beta a story or
how a writer should use a beta. So, this is what we're going to talk
First of all, how to beta a fic.
Ask anyone what a beta does and for about 90% of them, check
spelling and grammar will be the first thing they list. Heck, for
most, it's the only thing they list. And it's true, the biggest handicap
a writer has is the inability to notice spelling and grammar
mistakes in their own work. Writers see it as they intended to write
it, not how they actually typed it up. Having a fresh pair of eyes go
over your work always helps, especially if you're not writing in your
native tongue. This also applies for Brits trying to write American or
What a lot of people don't know is that spelling and grammar isn't
all a beta is good for. A beta can be even worse at spelling than
the writer and still be a good beta. How that's possible is easy.
Betas can check for plot flow, canon, in-characterness.
Sometimes a writer gets so caught up in a backstory or
conversation that they rattle off on a tangent and lost the thread of
the story. Or they get so eager to get to the good part of the story
that they accidentally skip a few key steps along the way. A beta,
who is slightly more removed from the story, can see these more
easily. Simple suggestions, like cutting the backstory down to the
relevant part or pointing out that nobody will understand how the
character got from point A to C, can be invaluable to making the
Canon is another big thing. The writer may have come into the
series as Season 3, so a beta who's been watching the show
since the pilot will go a long way to helping keep character
reactions and motives believable.
The same with in-characterness. It's a simple thing to say that
Xander wouldn't burst into tears like that, but if such and such
happened, it could happen.
Every story ever written has it's faults. Especially the first drafts. It's
ok to find something wrong with the story you're betaing. What isn't
ok is saying such and such is wrong, but not saying why. You can't
just tell a writer that the plotline of Kennedy suddenly sleeping with
Spike and dissing Willow doesn't work. You also need to explain
the reasoning behind it, like Kennedy's a lesbian and the writer
never took the time to address this.
The most important thing about being a beta is to be nice. That
doesn't mean ignoring that the writer spells Xander as Zander so
her feelings don't get hurt. It means saying that you noticed that all
canon references list Xander spelled with an 'X', instead of it's with
an 'X' you moron.
This is not about getting the fics first, or getting listed in the
Author's Notes. Those are the perks. Being a beta is about helping
an author write a better story.
And now, how to use a beta.
Using a beta can be hard. No one wants to hear anything bad
about their work, even if it is true, and betas are going to tell you if
something isn't working.
If using a beta from a site, firstly read the likes/dislikes (if listed)
carefully; it avoids problems like sending a Spike/Angel fic to a
Buffy/Angel lover. Secondly, always send an email asking if that
person can beta the story. Sometimes real life intrudes on betas
too, and they just don't have the time that week.
If using a mailing list to find a beta, first make sure it's not against
list rules to ask. Then, list the generals of the story. Slash, het,
pairing, its time frame. This helps avoid the problem of getting
someone who might want to beta, but not the pairing/time line
Always be up front about what you're willing to take in terms of beta
work. Just spelling/grammar check, constructive criticism, canon
facts, etc. This helps the beta know what to look for or ignore.
It's recommended to use more than one beta. This helps because
different people notice different things. One beta might notice that
Willow is doing something out of character, because Willow is her
favorite character, while another beta, who notices an out of
character line by Xander, doesn't. This is also a good idea
because sometimes you a get a beta who's writing style is so
different from your own that trying to beta your story just doesn't
Having a dialogue with your beta is always good. It's not like in
high school english where what teacher says goes. If you don't
understand your beta's explanation for something, ask. If you feel
that following a certain suggestion would ruin what you're trying to
achieve with the story, then don't. But talk to your beta, try and
understand why your beta thought this part was a problem. You
might end up changing something else entirely that fixes the
problem and improves the story.
Last but not least, always thank your beta. You wrote this fic as a
labour of love, because you felt you had to write it. Your beta didn't
have to help, didn't have to put in their free time or effort. Thank