Beta Readers: Finding One is Worse Than Blind Dating
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Beta Readers: Finding One is Worse Than Blind Dating is an essay by Dasha K.
Introduction: "Thanks to the always fascinating discussions on the Scullyfic list, I'd like to take some time to talk about beta reading. Because there are so many issues to discuss in beta reading, I'll be doing a few different essays on the concept."
Shortly after this essay was posted, the author posted a follow-up: The Beta Reader/Writer Relationship: A Process of Negotiation and Etiquette.
Some Topics Discussed
In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, beta reading is the general fan fiction term for an editor/proofreader. The term comes from the world of software testing, where the beta tester checks a program for bugs.
Beta readers are as necessary to most fan fiction writers as food and water are to sustaining human life. I know that I normally wouldn't dare post a story without one. The last time I tried to, after I wrote Resolution 2000 as a gift for Scullyfic after some silly and fun discussion, I found out I'd spelled Millennium wrong throughout the story. See, I can't get by without the help of my beta readers.
But it's a strange Catch-22 for people new to the fan fiction scene: how can you get someone to beta for you if you don't know anyone in the scene? I know I had the same problem when I got started. I'd read the stories by the "big names" of fanfic and check out their gushing thanks to their betas and think, where do I get me one of those? I had no idea, so instead I had to rely on my trusty spell checker and hope I wasn't making any heinous mistakes. Well, it turned out I was, but thank God I was too ignorant to know the difference then.
If you're brand new, there are a few things you can do to snag yourself a beta reader:
I see those pleas on ATXC all the time and my heart really goes out to the people looking for a reader. But I have to urge caution to those people. None of the writers I know ever answer those, not because they're mean people, but because they just don't have the time. If you get some random person from cyberspace helping you out, what do you know about this person? Does she truly know anything about grammar? Can she spell her way out of a paper bag? Is she going to be tactful? Is she able to point out things like pacing, flow of language, characterization, if that's what you're looking for? To me, finding a beta on ATXC is like all the bad parts of blind dating, without any of the good. You might have better luck if you belong to a smaller email list and you can sort of get to know people from their posts there. But a blind query on ATXC might just lead to a "beta reader" who knows even less than you do.
2. Send your story to a writer you really admire.
This would seem to be a great idea. After all, you know this person's work, you know that she seems to be able to spell, wow, you're going to get one great beta reader. I have one word of advice to you: STOP.
I'll be honest with you. Most writers are busy people. They have jobs, families, friends and hobbies in real life. And in the fanfic world many are struggling to balance their writing, catching up on their fic reading, sending feedback, participating on mailing lists, beta reading for others and maybe even maintaining a web site and/or archive. Some writers don't like to beta and feel they have no talent and feeling for it. They feel put in a horrible place when a sweet newbie (whom they've never heard from before in their life) comes knocking, asking for help in beta reading. Part of them wants to help, wants to be a welcoming member of the community. Part of them is terrified, for if you've never posted a story before, God only knows what's going to show up in their inbox. Part of them is actually offended that this person they've never seen before has shown up on their virtual doorstep, looking for favors. And part of them feels guilty, for they know they're going to say no. I've asked around and none of the writers I know ever beta read for people they've never heard of before. And it SUCKS to have to tell the sweet newbie no, to launch into a long explanation of "I'm really busy with work right now and I have 15, 345 people I already regularly beta for and I just can't do it." You just know the newbie is going to get your email at home and say, "Aha, I KNEW I shouldn't have asked that stuck-up fiction diva!"
Do yourself and your favorite writer a favor: don't put yourself and the writer in that uncomfortable position. Nobody will win in that situation.
There is, however, an exception to this, a BIG exception, and I'll go into it in the very last section.
3. Use the resources available to you through the Beta Reader's Circle.
The Beta Reader's Circle is a great concept: volunteer beta readers are matched with writers who need editing. I know writers who have formed long-term friendships and beta relationships through the BRC. You're generally going to find a higher level of beta through BRC than by blind querying at ATXC. The only problem is that I've heard that because of a lack of volunteer editors, it can take a while to find a match through BRC. It's worth a shot, though. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
4. Have a friend/family member who is not an X-File freak edit your story.
Not all of us feel comfortable sharing our XF fan fiction with the real live people in our lives, but if you do and have a friend who knows her way around the English language, have her take a look at it! You may not get that indispensable kind of advice that an experienced fanfic person will give you on formatting, classification, characterization, etc., but it's certainly better than nothing.
Yes, networking. And this is where I get into my big exception part here. In most areas of life, networking and friendships are what gets things done. It gives us tips on stocks, gets us jobs, tells us when our favorite store is having a 2-for-1 sale on shoes. And fan fiction is no exception. You want a really good beta reader? Okay, get yourself out there. Join some discussion lists and thrill everyone with your humor and intelligent discussion. Send writers a lot of feedback. Not just "Wow, that rawwked" feedback, but insightful and interesting feedback. Often, a friendship or two will blossom out of those things. Feedback suddenly turns into discussion of dance music and the best place to get Indian food in Chicago.
If you find an email relationship with a writer blossoming into a friendship of sorts, then I think it's perfectly acceptable to ask, "Hey, I have this story and I was wondering if you could take a look for me." It's not entirely out of the blue for the writer. She knows you a little now, knows your mind and your personality and can better judge whether the two of your would fit in a beta relationship. And despite how busy the writer is, she will almost always have time for a friend, where she had no time for a virtual stranger. (There are always exceptions to this, though. I just had to tell a very nice writer no, after I'd committed to reading for her, because my life has become so crazy and stressful that I just don't have the mental energy for reading a long story.)
But don't feel offended if the writer in question does say no, or says that at the moment she's overwhelmed with stuff to do and just can't take on another person to beta for. It's not you, it's her. I swear.This may take some time. I probably wrote six or seven stories before I felt I knew anyone well enough to ask for some beta help. But once I did, I ended up finding some wonderful people who were indispensable in teaching me about grammar, about pacing, about writing in general, and I'll be grateful to them to the end of my days.