The Beta Reader/Writer Relationship: A Process of Negotiation and Etiquette

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Title: The Beta Reader/Writer Relationship: A Process of Negotiation and Etiquette
Creator: Dasha K
Date(s): 2000
Medium: online
Fandom: The X-Files
External Links: The Beta Reader/Writer Relationship: A Process of Negotiation and Etiquette
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The Beta Reader/Writer Relationship: A Process of Negotiation and Etiquette is an essay by Dasha K.

It was linked at the X-Files website Working Stiffs where it was given the title: "How can I be a good beta reader? How can I be good to my beta reader?"

It was posted around the same time as Beta Readers: Finding One is Worse Than Blind Dating.

Some Topics Discussed


A few days ago I posted a musing about finding a beta reader called Beta Readers- Finding One is Worse Than Blind Dating. Now I'd like to go into more detail about what should happen once you, the writer, find a beta reader.

Granted, everyone is different and has a unique experience with their own beta reader. I can only report on what I've learned in two years of fanfic writing and beta reading. Just to "share my references," I've beta read for more than 30 different writers and have had my work betaed by about 15 or so. Some experiences have been great. I've been having my stories edited by Plausible Deniability and Gwen, two very talented writers, for more than a year. I honestly don't think I would ever post a story that I wrote (and cared a lot about) without consulting them. And occasionally, when I feel particularly insecure about a story, I seek the opinions and editing of others, too. Most of my experiences having my work betaed and betaing for others have been positive, but there have been a few instances where it's been on the negative side.

The first thing to remember, as a writer, when you embark upon a beta relationship, is that you need to ask for what you want. What kind of help are you looking for? Are you basically looking for advice on grammar and spelling? Are you concerned about the characterization? Do you worry that your language doesn't flow? If all you want is a proofread and your beta comes back with a ton of comments about how she doesn't think that Scully would act that way in a situation, you might find yourself getting cranky with your beta reader. If you want a "deep massage" beta (kudos to whomever on Scullyfic first came up with that one) and your reader just mentions that you need to quit spelling all right as "alright", you might be disappointed in the reading you got.

Discuss these things with your future beta. Tell her what you need to work on and what you expect her to do for you.

In return, your beta should be able to tell you what she can do for you. If she's really not strong on grammar, she should suggest you seek out someone else for that kind of advice. I always tell people I'm editing for that I'm known as "The World's Slowest Beta." I am. It's shameful. But the thing is that real life and my own writing have to come ahead of my beta commitments. If I'm hot on writing my own story, it's very hard for me to work on someone else's. But I do get to it within a few days.

If your beta reader only comes back with positive comments, you might want to re-think working with that person. Everyone's story has something that can be worked upon. You have to ask yourself, "Do I want my story to be the best it can be?"

It can be hard to be presented with constructive criticism. I remember working with a writer on one of her first stories. She is a journalist and was used to taking critique in that field but had never had her fiction worked on. She said it was very hard for her to take the constructive comments, even though I wasn't mean or harsh in any way. I feel for her. I cringe sometimes when I read what my betas have to say. Often it's just because I can't believe I made so many idiotic little mistakes and sometimes it's because I've realized that I have to completely revamp a story to make it better.

But, and I cannot stress this enough, the criticism should be constructive, with no other motivation than to make your story wonderful. If you reader is harsh without teaching you anything, you aren't going to improve your story. I remember one beta reader who told me, "Your ending doesn't do anything for me." She didn't say why, or how the ending left her unsatisfied. When I asked her to clarify she said, "Oh, I don't know, maybe it's just the mood I'm in tonight." That wasn't helpful at all. How could I improve the ending if I didn't know what was wrong with it? A beta reader whose criticism is not constructive is not someone you should be working with. (Or as Plausible Deniability would helpfully point out to me: "With whom you should be working.")

You don't have to use every comment from your beta readers. I just about always go with my beta readers' grammar, word usage and punctuation advice. They know much more about that stuff than I do. However, when it comes to characterization and plot issues, sometimes I do have to respectfully disagree. Since my beta readers are incredibly wise people, I do listen to them most of the time, but sometimes I have to go with my gut instincts about what's right for my story. I had one early beta reader (whom I never did work with again) tell me that he thought that Nightclub Jitters was a terrible story, that Mulder was pathetic in it and that I should probably delete it and start all over again. Thank God I consulted two writers who begged to disagree with my beta reader or I never would have posted what turned out to be one of my favorite of my own stories. A note to writers, though: if you don't listen to your beta readers at all, then perhaps you need to think about why you're bothering having your story edited.

It can be hard to have your story beta read. It's like sending your own child out in the cold world to be objectively evaluated. Just relax and whisper to yourself, "I want to post a good story, I want to post a good story..."

You, as the writer, have some responsibilities to your beta reader, too.

One thing never to forget is to thank your beta reader. This recently happened to me and I'm still pissed off.

There are two forms of thanking your beta and you should probably do both of them. First of all, as soon as you get and read your beta's comments, make sure you send off a nice note thanking her for taking the time to work with you on your story. It also lets your beta know that you did get her comments. In this wacky world of email, who knows if the writer received them or not? And when you post your story, don't forget to thank her in your story notes. Not thanking your beta is the easiest way to ensure the writer will never work with you again.

Make sure that you ask the writer first and not just send the story off without anything heading it up. I think it's perfectly all right to plead prettily for beta services and have the story below it in the email, but recently a writer sent me a story with nothing accompanying it and I was sorely tempted to send it back with a note that said: "And just what am I supposed to do with this?" Another writer sent me a second draft with no request to look it over for her. Now, I generally don't inflict more than one draft on my readers, but some people do. You should probably discuss, before your beta even begins a story for you, whether or not you think you'll want multiple readings. Sometimes that's more of a time commitment than your beta can handle.

You might want to find out how a beta reader feels about working on a huge story all in one block. Others may feel differently, but I get so overwhelmed by having to read a 100 K+ story all at once that I sometimes put off reading it for days at a stretch. I'd often much prefer to read the story as the writer is writing it, in small installments. However, I'm aware that a lot of writers don't like their story to be looked over until it's entirely complete.

Make sure you and the writer have the same time frame in mind. Like I said before, I'm a pretty slow beta reader. If someone hands over a novel length story to me, I'm going to take a week or more to give it a proper beta reading. I'll be up front about that with the writer. If you, as the writer, need something in a hurry, tell the writer. And if time isn't an issue, share that, too.

Not to sound like Dr. Ruth, but the path to beta reading happiness is through communication. If you don't tell your beta what you need, you won't get it. And if you don't treat your beta well with the respect and appreciation she deserves, you won't continue that relationship.