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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 about.

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 vise versa.

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 story work.

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 you're writing.

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 work.

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 them.