Beta

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Synonyms: editor, beta reader, proofreader
See also: Machete Beta, Brit-pick, Fanzine Editor
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A beta is the fannish term for a fan who looks over fanworks for errors or places they could be improved before the creator posts the fanwork for public consumption. "Beta" is both a noun ("a beta") and a verb ("to beta"). This leads to the awkward but necessary constructs, "betaed", "betaing", and the antonym (for a fanwork unchecked by anyone else), "unbetaed".

The word "beta" comes from the world of software design, in which an unfinished version of the software (the beta version) is released to a limited audience outside of the programming team. The metaphor was applied to fanfiction, fanart[1], vids and podfic; a story, piece of art, vid or podfic is tested by outsiders to see if it's working, and if not, what might need to be altered.

The term "beta" was used as early as 1995 in its fannish form, and betas were once seen as essential in the fanworks creation process. However, with time, technological advances, the democratization of fandom and changing fannish norms, their use seems to have declined.

Origins

The fannish use of the term may begin in the anime community in 1995. It was also used fannishly around September or October of 1995 in the Sliders fan fiction community on alt.tv.sliders. [2]

Pronunciation

The word "beta" is pronounced differently in American and British English.[3]

Some British fans have started to use the American pronunciation when referring to fanfic betas.[citation needed]

Scope, Process, and Distribution of Work

The betaing process tends to happen, strictly speaking, before a fanwork is completed or posted, unlike concrit and other feedback that comes after publication. Betaing also usually happens privately or at least in an informal setting, often but not always one-on-one.

Beta services can range from simple proofreading and compatibility testing to editorial feedback to nearly collaborating with the original creator on the fanwork.

To avoid conflict, creators often explain what they want from the experience — for example, an artist might only want feedback about colors and shading, or a writer who's seeking feedback on a rough draft might ask their beta not to do any sentence level betaing.

Many creators will have a usual beta or betas, especially if they've been creating in the same fandom for a long time, and it's common for fans who are friends to be each other's betas.

Betaing vs Editing

In the professional writing industry, beta readers have a defined role which clearly differs from the job of professional editors:

A beta reader is giving you what might be the first impression of your book by someone other than yourself. [...] Just keep in mind that beta readers are not editors or proofreaders. It’s not the beta’s job to find spelling and grammatical mistakes, and they likely aren’t trained to catch them all anyway. They should be focused on the bigger picture, which is why of the three groups, they should be involved earliest in the process.
Joel Friedlander, "Beta Readers vs Editors vs ARCs," 2018[4]

Pre-internet fandom reflected this structure, especially for those who published fanfic and fanart in zines. The zine editor(s) worked with the writer, often quite intensively, to ensure that a fanwork was a good as it could be before it was committed to paper.

This zine writer, used to working with editors, appears to be asking for something closer to a beta:

I would love to swap stories with other writers just to get feedback on 'does this story work, or is it full of stupid mistakes.' So if there are any of you who would like to get into critiquing or mutual 'workshopping,' let me know. After all, once the story is written, it sits around for months until it finally comes out in a zine. So why not use that time to make the story as perfect as you can get it?
Unknown writer in the Cousins (Robin of Sherwood letterzine), 1992

As fiction moved to the screen and away from zines, there was much complaint about how fanworks declined in quality, specifically because of the loss of this editing process:

I think computers are a mixed blessing in fandom. They make it easier for isolated types like me to participate, but - gah! - they also contribute to the proliferation of ill-conceived, poorly executed, unbetaed and unedited fic, thus making the good stuff that much harder to find.
Betty Ragan, 2002[5]

(Note the distinction between "unedited" and "unbetaed" there!)

the freedom to create fiction that goes directly from the keyboard to public distribution, often without benefit of anyone's second thoughts, is also a very large minus. Again, good things can and do happen in the arena of online fan fiction, but my perception is that the vast majority of story posters seem to be without adequate writing skills or the urge to acquire them, or access to or interest in proficient editing ("beta-reading" as it is in modern fan vernacular).
klangley56, 2007[6]

A lot of discussion also emerged in fandom about the differences between betas and editors, with some people saying there was no fundamental difference, other than a difference in terminology denoting non-professional status:

A Beta in my book is an editor, with full editorial responsibilities.
Icarus, pre-2011 (date unknown)[7]
A Beta Reader is usually a non-professional proof-reader, your initial reader and editor.
hlwar, 2014[8]

Others saw in a beta something more than an editor:

A "beta" is a fan who edits another fan's fanfic, checking for the usual editorial issues like grammar and flow, while usually also providing emotional support and friendship to the author.
Olivia Riley, 2015[9]

Distribution

Creators may provide their beta with a copy of their work to review and beta in a number of ways.

Email

Creators attach their fanworks to an email and the beta emails back with their comments either in an email or directly added to the file.

Instant Messaging

If the instant messaging program allows (for example, on Discord or Skype) creators attach their work to an IM, and then have the beta send their comments back on the file. However, IMs also allow for quick, informal conversation, so the creator and beta may discuss the work in detail via IM, especially if the beta is providing larger-scale edits on plot, characterization, or structure. The work may also be hosting somewhere private and linked to the beta rather than uploaded directly.

Betaing in group chats and Discord servers may also be a group activity, where one creator uploads or links their work and the other fans in the chat beta it as a group.

Google Docs and Other Private Hosting

Google docs are frequently used for betaing because edits to them can be watched in real-time and using them requires no file downloading. Additionally, several people can edit the same document at once, which can make the betaing process much easier for creators who have multiple betas, as they don't have to merge several documents or wait for a file to be emailed around.

Other private or unpublicized hosting venues include:

  • drafts of tumblr posts, which can only be accessed if the author of the post gives out the link
  • unlisted imgur uploads and other photo hosting sites

Examples Wanted: Editors are encouraged to add more examples or a wider variety of examples.

Betaing by Medium

Fanfiction

In fanfiction, a beta, or "beta reader," is someone who looks over a story before the author posts it publicly, checking it for some combination of spelling, grammar, cohesiveness, flow, plot holes, characterization, etc. The lightest form of beta-reading (betaing) is basically a quick check for spelling and grammar errors. From there, the beta process may run through a full spectrum of editorial assistance, all the way up to helping restructure a story or suggesting major rewrites.[10] (There's a pre-beta level that consists mainly of cheerleading, as well. This is sometimes referred to as "alpha," but the term has not been widely adopted.) A more critical approach to editing is referred to by some as Machete Beta.

fanart beta by xenakis for an image by Yue KX, art is for the Merlin story On the Knob Training

Fanart

Like fanfiction and other fanworks, betaing for artwork happens while the piece is still in progress, such as at the thumbnail, sketch. or lineart phase. Betas for fanart may simply provide suggestions via text only, describing what they think can be improved, or they may (as you can see to the right) draw directly on top of the art they're betaing.

Common areas fanartists ask for help in include anatomy, color, shading, and perspective.

Vidding

In vidding, the beta process can range from giving a general impression of a vid (to let the vidder know if the message was communicated successfully), to going through the vid almost frame-by-frame looking for technical issues, to helping restructure the vid or suggesting major changes in approach or clip choice.

Podfic

In podfic, beta roles can include giving advice and/or reassurance on word pronunciation, accent(s), character voices and other performance choices, use of SFX, music integration, pacing, sound quality, etc.

Multivoice podfic editors are likely to request betas to check that sound levels are cohesive throughout.

A common beta request is for someone to give a 'finished' podfic a seal of approval, as listening to a podfic from start to finish can be a time-consuming process, and as some podficcers prefer to limit how much they listen to themselves for various reasons.

Types of Betas

Betas come in various styles and flavours, depending on personal style and writer needs. Some are more akin to cheerleaders, providing reassurance and encouragement as well as advice, while others call themselves "Machete Betas" (a return to the earlier "editor" role?)

Common beta duties can include:

Canon

A canon beta is recruited specifically to check that the fanwork does not contradict the details of the fandom's events.

SPAG

A spag beta is specifically tasked with spotting and correcting language errors, such as spelling mistakes, typos, punctuation and syntax issues.

This type of beta is commonly requested by -- but not limited to -- fans who are not writing in their first language.

*-Pick

It's easy for fanwork creators to make basic mistakes about cultures other than their own. This was a particular problem in Harry Potter fandom, because Americans and others don't know much about British culture. This led, in 2003 or so, to the concept of Brit-pick (rhymes with "nitpick") to deal with issues such as which is the first floor and what "bum" means.

This step of the process is often separate from straight-up betaing, and has its own set of communities and resources.[11]

The term has evolved to include "picking" for other cultures/countries, and even specialized skills and activities in general:

*-picker. You can call in an expert on anything, really. If you have violins in your story, call in a violin expert! Cricket? The inner workings of the BBC? Find a picker for that! It never hurts to call in someone with specialist knowledge.
ivyblossom, Sept 9, 2012

In 2012, in a list of 12 "types of beta reading" for fanfic writers, Ivyblossom also included others such as "dropped words beta," "research beta," "character beta" and "smut beta".[12]

Finding a Beta

See also List of Beta Resources.

In many fandoms and fan communities, special infrastructure exists to help authors and artists find betas. Archives sometimes maintain lists of beta readers.[13][14] Some mailing lists also have lists of betas.

Some fandoms also maintain lists of resources or betas with special areas of expertise. For instance, in a fandom based on a medical drama, a fan who works in the medical field might volunteer to beta the story for medical plausibility, or in a fandom based on a Western, fans with expertise on horses or guns might make themselves available as a "horse beta" or "gun beta" to review just those aspects of the story for accuracy. (On Senad or maybe Senfic there was such a directory?). On Livejournal, many communities exist for this purpose, some multifandom and others fandom-specific.[15][16][17] There are also non-English beta communities.[18]

In March 2008, Fanfiction.net announced the release of a "beta reader registration and directory lookup service" for the site.[19] The feature made it possible to browse a directory of registered beta readers, organized by fandom, and to review their beta profile, a separate profile containing information on strengths, weaknesses, preferences, etc. Prior to this, and even after the feature was launched, many users would use the Fanfiction.net forums to create threads and communities soliciting a beta reader, or connecting beta readers with authors.[20][21][22]

Some Twitter accounts exist to help fans connect with betas, such as Podfic Beta[23], @ficbetahelper[24], @beta_find[25] or @nctvficbeta[26].

Fannish Reddit communities and Discord servers might also offer posts and channels specifically dedicated to finding someone to beta fanworks[27].

Betas and Betaing in Fandom Culture

This article or section needs expansion.

Some cites of people talking about not being able to tell their friends the truth when they beta might go here. Some expansion of types of betas and how well they really work—or is it just having a friend run a spelling and grammar check on your story.

Betaing as Quality Control

For a time, Media Fandom in particular had a deeply rooted tradition of all fanfiction being betaed. Many fic fests, challenges, archives and posting communities made it a requirement of participation.

See for example the 2004 meta essay by maeglinyedi: 'Elite' archives?, in which beta requirements for posting to an archive was praised by many commenters as a sign of quality:

I was one of the founding editors at theforce.net's fanfiction archive, which has a fairly rigorous procedure for getting in (every story must be beta'd by two people, then goes through a reading by the staff before being accepted). I like that kind of set-up. It's strict, and not much junk gets through, but the rules are perfectly clear and applied evenly.
fernwithy, 2004[28]

Inception Big Bang was one of many challenges mandating the use of betas. It facilitated this process by opening sign-ups to fans offering their beta services:

Do I need a beta reader for my story?

Yes you do. If you are in need of one, there will be a beta sign-up post made once the author sign-ups begin. If you already have one, that is also fine.

Inception Big Bang FAQ, 2011[29]

One notable exception to the beta requirement was commentfic, which was understood to be written and posted in a more informal manner.

The move of many fans from older, centrally-controlled spaces to user-controlled individual Livejournals, personal websites, Tumblr and AO3 led to a break from this thinking and un-betaed works being posted more frequently.

Although some fans still expressed a willingness and desire to find a beta, or a better beta if they were unhappy with their past experiences, they had more trouble finding them; even in active fandoms, beta-finding communities were often very dead spaces. Finding someone who could beta well, and had the time to do it, could be a frustrating process, leading many to give up entirely.

As of 2021, it is likely that most fanfiction posted on AO3 had not been betaed. Out of 743 votes on a poll in r/FanFiction that same year, 538 people said they did not havea beta; only 137 said they did.[30]

Many fans who post a story that has not been betaed will note that in the header, either with a simple statement or with a disclaimer such as:

Not Betaed: All errors are mine and mine alone.
Susan Monica, "The Autopsy," pre-2010[31]

"All remaining mistakes are my own" is a popular phrasing.

On AO3, tags such as Not Beta Read and variations, such as No Beta We Die Like Men, are used to that purpose.

On the other hand, many other fans commonly post unbetaed stories without drawing attention to that fact, and many readers likely never notice.

There are fandoms where self-editing is common and posting unbetaed will rarely raise an eyebrow. This is true in many journal-based RPF fandoms and is especially true for short fiction in those fandoms and in general. For example, a writer who usually posts unbetaed might use one for a big bang story.

Does Betaed = Better?

Many old-school fans certainly thought so. Their allegiance to the idea that a beta is always necessary was often very strong, and they believed that an unbetaed story was inherently more likely to have typos, grammar errors and technical writing mistakes as well as canon errors. They considered fans who refuse to use betas to be arrogant or lazy. For example:

A beta, in essence, is an editor. In 'real life,' professional authors don't get published without one. That should be your first clue.

A real life writer, who gets paid to write for a living, needs a beta to look over his work before his book ever goes to press.

What makes you think YOU are so special as to not need one?

christinekh, 2007[32]

Some fans hold fast to the rule that no beta equals an automatic backbutton.

In many minds, unbetaed automatically means the story is an unedited first draft. In some cases, it is true that fans might post stories in that manner in order to meet deadlines and then edit later.

However, many writers self-edit and only post what they perceive to be a polished finished product.

A 2021 discussion on r/Fanfiction illustrated the declining importance of betaing fic for many fans:

[u/Scientist-Round]: [...] I've never had a beta reader for my fics. I've never listed those fics as "Not Beta Read" or "No Beta We Die Like Men". Is that an issue for people? Does it really matter? Should I do that for my longer fic if I can't find one?
[u/serralinda73]: [...] Anyway, having a beta doesn't mean it's properly edited or that the author listened to the beta's advice, lol.

[u/merylisk]: My fics aren't beta read and I never use the tags. I'm pretty careful about proofreading and editing my own work though, and in my experience something being beta-read or not isn't really a reliable indication of quality.

[Abie775]: Some of the best fics I've read are unbetad, and many poorly-written, error-ridden fics have been beta-read. It doesn't really help me judge the potential quality of a fic, so it's just a tag that adds clutter, imo.

"How Important is it to Say your Fic isn't Beta Read?" discussion on r/FanFiction, Summer 2021[33]

Still, a common refrain on places like fanficrants when complaints are made about problems in stories is, shouldn't the beta have caught that? This then usually devolves into yet another discussion of the difficulty in finding a beta, with attendant horror stories of bad beta experiences from both sides of the process.

In a more serious vein, when stories draw attention for problematic content around race or misogyny or homophobia, often the story's beta comes under scrutiny as well.

See for example reaction to the J2 Haiti Fic:

While I think she made a monumental fuck up (or twelve), I do want to say that I'm pleased that fandom responded (although not mods or betas? Weird...)
elionwy comment, June 2010[34]

Even though there is no way to tell how much of a beta's advice a writer made use of, they often bear the criticism for the mistakes in a final posted version.

Why No Beta?

While there are many fans who never or rarely use betas, formal meta about why they do what they do is rare.

It was often a difficult issue to talk about publicly for fans who were bucking this deeply held cultural tradition.[35] Complaining about bad experiences with past betas could seem like finger-pointing at particular individuals, and drawing attention to your habit of posting unbetaed could draw unwelcome critical scrutiny.

Reasons cited in the comments to the 2021 r/FanFiction "Do you have a beta?" poll & discussion, and "Authors with no beta, why?"[36] posts included:

  • Having help but not considering helpers (friends, a significant other, a writing group) a "real beta"
  • Having a beta who became unavailable: too busy or seemed to have lost interest
  • Beta being too slow (sometimes because of external or self-imposed deadlines)/wanting to work and post at one's own pace
  • Bad previous experiences
  • Anxiety about interacting with other fans: perceived age difference, potential Purity in Fandom drama, inability to connect with fans in a new fandom
  • Fanfic is too personal/a solo activity/wanting to control every aspect of the work
  • Not wanting anyone to see one's unfinished work/being embarrassed by one's own stories
  • Not being able to handle cricitism/not being ready for critique yet
  • Sufficient confidence in proofreading software
  • Sufficient confidence in one's own writing, experience or proof-reading abilities (sometimes because of being a pro writer, editor, or someone else's beta)
  • Revising is too time- or energy-consuming
  • Not caring about the "quality" of one's fannish output
  • Technical challenges (not knowing how to share the fic)
  • Feeling like a beta should be paid and not being able to afford it

Other takes include the idea that, fandom being an unpaid hobby, it does not matter if fanworks are imperfect, and fans should not have to make more of an effort than they are comfortable with. For example, this Tumblr post by ao3commentoftheday, answering an anonymous ask about anxiety caused by the betaing process:

[...] If you don’t need that kind of help or if asking for it hurts more than it helps, then please don’t feel like you have to do it.

My problem with betas isn’t anxiety, it’s impatience. Once I’ve written something, I just want to post it right away. If I have to wait more than maybe 10 minutes, I start to go a little bit nuts. That makes getting a beta almost impossible. I’ve made the conscious decision that I’m okay with typos and spelling mistakes and maybe not being canon compliant because I’m just having fun writing stories about interesting characters.

Write in whatever way works for you, anon. Getting a story out of your head and onto the page is hard enough. Don’t do things that are going to make it harder for you.

ao3commentoftheday, Sept 2020[37]

Additionally, according to Rachael Sabotini:

writers who are of high-status have a hard time finding betas and editors who will give them critical feedback because of the inequality that exists between the status of the writer and the status of the beta.[38]

Thanking the Beta

It is customary to thank the beta in the fanwork header. Here are some examples:

Thanks to Stargazer for being a very encouraging beta reader, and to Starfox for allowing me on her wonderful page. You are both very helpful and made this very enjoyable!
Sue Pokorny, "Treasure Hunt," pre-2010[39]
This story would never have been posted if it weren't for Karin the fearless and mighty Beta Queen. Thanks bunches and great big hugs for your patience, encouragement, and kind but honest advice. I really do appreciate all the time and effort you put into this. And uhm, sorry about forgetting all those commas.
Tab, "Between Life and Death", pre-2010[40]
My very grateful thanks go to Sue Pokorny who kindly offered to beta this effort. Her suggestions were constructive and helpful and although I may have confused her with my Englishness, she never once complained
Rae, "Stay in the Truck," pre-2010[41]
Thank you to my amazing beta LariaGwyn who, to put it simply, makes me better. Any remaining mistakes are my own.
kellifer_fic, "By Moon And Stars," 2013[42]
My thanks always to @gettingaphdinlarry, my beta, who challenges me, questions me, and helps me write things I never thought I could. It takes a village to write good fic and I am beyond grateful to have found mine.
mc_writer, "Vegas and Everything After", 2018[43]

Betas can benefit from "Status by Association" according to Rachael Sabatini:

So, too, are fans elevated by their association with other high-status fans. Particularly in chat rooms, fans mention quite casually who they are betaing for and what in-progress pieces they've seen. They may even 'unofficially' share the work of the high-status fan, thereby increasing their own status.[44]

Meta/Further Reading

References

  1. ^ Art beta community on LJ (accessed 17 November 2008)
  2. ^ One early use of the term from January 1997: "I know how frustrating it is when authors leave us hanging and I try never to post anything "in progress" but try to wait until after a story is completed and then read by several trusted "beta-testers."" -- alt.startrek.creative › P/C stories
  3. ^ Beta on Wikipedia.]]
  4. ^ Beta Readers vs Editors vs ARCs by Joel Friedlander, 2018, accessed Oct 2, 2021
  5. ^ Betty Ragan, Gen Fic Crit Mailing List, March 24, 2002
  6. ^ Re: One step beyond.... LJ comment on kradical's post, April 10, 2007
  7. ^ Primer on Basic Writing Skills - Beta by Icarus, (date unknown, Accessed 13 May 2011).
  8. ^ Beta Readers: What They Are and How to Find One by hlwar, LJ, June 22, 2004
  9. ^ "Archive of Our Own and the Gift Culture of Fanfiction", MA Thesis by Olivia Riley, 2015
  10. ^ OokamiKasumi. "MY Beta-Reader's Questionnaire". Posted 3 November 2008. (accessed 17 November 2008)
  11. ^ Britpickery LJ Community (accessed 17 November 2008)
  12. ^ Types of Beta Reading by ivyblossom, posted to Tumblr Sept 9, 2012
  13. ^ Beta Readers directory on ff.net (accessed 17 November 2008)
  14. ^ Beta Readers list of the Cascade Library Sentinel archive (accessed 17 November 2008)
  15. ^ Find Me a Beta (accessed 17 November 2008)
  16. ^ HP Beta-Readers Community (accessed 17 November 2008)
  17. ^ Stargate Atlantis Beta Readers (accessed 17 November 2008)
  18. ^ Betaleser (accessed 17 November 2008)
  19. ^ Snapshot of Fanfiction.net on July 31, 2008 via Archive.org (Accessed 17 July 2017).
  20. ^ Beta reader wanted volunteers, via Fanfiction.net forums (Accessed 17 July 2017).
  21. ^ BETA Reader Needed, via Fanfiction.net forums (Accessed 17 July 2017).
  22. ^ Beta Readers Central, via Fanfiction.net forums (Accessed 17 July 2017).
  23. ^ @podficbeta on Twitter, created October 2016
  24. ^ @ficbetahelper on Twitter, created Nov 2016
  25. ^ @beta_find on Twitter, created January 2020
  26. ^ @nctvficbeta on Twitter, created August 2020
  27. ^ Beta Bartering [Find or Offer Fic Betaing - December 6] post on r/FanFiction], 2018
  28. ^ fernwithy comment, LJ, March 28, 2004
  29. ^ Frequently Asked Questions at inception-bang.livejournal.com, 2011
  30. ^ Do you have a beta? discussion on r/FanFiction, summer 2021
  31. ^ "The Autopsy" by Susan Monica (accessed 16 November 2010) (archived version)
  32. ^ I keep seeing these little notes on fanfic… Not beta'd Not beta'd… by christinekh, LJ, April 20, 2007
  33. ^ "How Important is it to Say your Fic isn't Beta Read?" on r/FanFiction, summer 2021
  34. ^ elionwy comment on july-july-july's Livejournal post, June 2010
  35. ^ For example, "I don't use a beta for reasons that are true for me. I'm not going to ever tell other people what to do on this issue, and I wish I could get the same courtesy back." from Beta, Beta, Beta section of The Story So Far post by facetofcathy, 27 April 2009. (Accessed 13 May 2011).
  36. ^ https://www.reddit.com/r/FanFiction/comments/n0mbqh/authors_with_no_beta_why/ "Authors with no beta, why?"] on r/FanFiction, summer 2021]
  37. ^ ao3commentoftheday Tumblr reply, Sept 2020
  38. ^ [https://trickster.org/symposium/symp41.htm The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status Within the Fan Community] by Rachael Sabotini, 1999
  39. ^ "Treasure Hunt" by Sue Pokorny (accessed 16 November 2010) (archived link)
  40. ^ "Between Life and Death" by Tab (accessed 16 November 2010) (archive link)
  41. ^ "Stay in the Truck" by Rae (accessed 16 November 2010) (archived link)
  42. ^ By Moon And Stars by kellifer_fic, 2013
  43. ^ Vegas and Everything After by mc_writer, 2018
  44. ^ [https://trickster.org/symposium/symp41.htm The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status Within the Fan Community] by Rachael Sabotini, 1999