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Gungan to the left


Beta Readers

By : Nitid

Why you need a beta reader, how to get one, and how to take and give criticism.

For Authors:
Why do I need a beta reader?
Where can I find a beta reader?
How to take your beta reader's advice
Resources for the writer

For Beta Readers:
How to give diplomatic critiques
Resources for the beta reader



Why do I need a beta reader?

A beta reader is your editor, proofreader and sounding board for ideas. But I have spellcheck and grammar check, you say. The answer is that a good beta reader can point out if your plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, tell you if you're using a fanfic cliche, look at technical details like overusing the words "ginger-haired" and confusing "it's" with "its". A beta reader can also be your cheerleading section, and provide encouragement when you have writer's block. Writers with beta readers will almost always turn out better stories.

Where can I find a beta reader?

First, decide what kind of help you want. List your concerns. Do you just want your spelling and grammar checked? Or do you want something more in depth, some comments on plot and character interactions? Are you looking for help on how well the point of view works and whether the scenes are descriptive enough? With this in mind, let's proceed:

  • Check the TFN list of volunteer beta readers. Note the different specialties and reading preferences. One strategy is to get several beta readers. Some people are really good at grammar and sentence structure. Other people are better with character interactions and Star Wars knowledge.

  • Send feedback to other writers. Otherwise known as networking. I'm not talking about the one liners like "Wow, that was great! Write more!" but detailed feedback that discusses the characters and their motivations, or brings up interesting points. Once you're writing email back and forth with a writer, you can both judge whether you two will be compatible. Once you've established a relationship, you can ask if they would be interested in beta reading for you.

  • Be a beta reader. To get some, you gotta give some. Not only will it make you appreciate beta readers when you get your own, but identifying problems in other people's writing will make you more sensitive to them in your own fanfic. Go to the TFN Fanfic Archive beta readers list and sign up.

  • Have a friend or family member read your story. You probably won't get the insightful commentary you would from a Star Wars fan, but it's better than not having it proofread at all.

  • If you can't get anyone to help, you have to self-edit. For dialogue, be sure to read it out loud and see if sounds natural. Would the character really say this? To catch mechanical errors your spellchecker might miss, like the difference between "breath" and "breathe" or "piqued" and "peeked", an old trick is to read your story backwards, from the end. Don't focus on the content, but look at sentence structure. Most of all, be honest with yourself. Maybe the crux of the whole problem is that your story doesn't interest anyone else but you. Check your story against this Mary Sue Litmus Test. A lot of new writers seem to need to write Mary Sue stories, but most beta readers won't touch them. Don't despair! Write your Mary Sue and get it out of your system. You can always start another story and seek out a new beta reader then.

Tell your potential beta reader about your expectations
Once you've found a likely beta reader or two, let them know what kind of critique you're looking for. Then ask them about their time commitments. Are they a slow beta reader or fast one? Do they mind looking at a story more than once? Sometimes a story will go through multiple edits, or your story may be the first in a long series, and your beta reader may not have the time or the energy.

How to take your beta reader's advice

Listen to your beta reader
Once you've found a beta reader, the next step is to listen. Don't take things personally and remember that the beta reader is there to help you improve. You may not agree with all your beta reader's suggestions, but remember, you asked for their honest opinion. Some of the advice may be helpful, like the grammar and punctuation, and some of it may be less helpful. Your beta reader might think that Obi-Wan would never abandon Qui-Gon in such and such a situation, and you might disagree. That's fine, go with your instincts. Who says you can't agree to disagree? Be polite, and wait a few days before you're tempted to write a nasty flame to the person who ripped your story to shreds. You might come back to the story a few days later and see that your beta reader was absolutely right. If you have two beta readers saying the same thing, that's a warning sign.

Ask for clarification
Sometimes a beta reader might give a general statement like, "Luke would never do that" or "The ending didn't do much for me" and not go any further. Instead of rising up in a righteous wrath, listen. Ask your beta reader to explain and be more specific. Where exactly in the story is Luke acting out of character? Is it his dialogue or his actions? Why does the ending not work? A good beta reader will not only explain, but also give suggestions on what you can do to improve.

Ask yourself, "Am I getting constructive criticism?"
Maybe you're only getting praise. While that's great for your ego, it's not helping you improve. No story is perfect, and if you want to write better, you need constructive criticism. The converse is also true. If you're getting harsh statements with no evidence to back them up, then it's time to look elsewhere for a new beta reader.

Thank your beta reader
Beta reading is a time consuming process. If you want your beta reader to stick around for you on the next story, show your appreciation. Thank your beta reader for taking the time to read and comment. You should also acknowledge their contribution in the author notes of your story when you release it.

Resources for the Writer

How to cope with critiquing by Rich Hamper.
Bentley's Bedlam: Beta Reading shows a beta read Buffy fanfic, with 10 different beta readers, from the shortest comments to the longest.
Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com to improve your vocabulary, as well as the A Word A Day mailing list.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. is a classic must have.
Guide to Grammar and Style by Jack Lynch is widely linked and useful.
Inkspot is the best portal for writing links.



How to give diplomatic critiques

The sandwich or oreo technique
The key to being a good beta reader is to maintain an attitude of friendly helpfulness. You are there to help the writer, and politely tell them what worked, or didn't work for you as the reader. Personally, I find the best way to critique a story is to use the 'sandwich' or 'oreo' technique. Praise, then critique, then praise again. Don't critique the author, critique the story.

The one sentence summary
Another way to do a critique is to write a one sentence summary of what the fanfic is about. Sometimes this can lead to unexpected and useful discussions because the author will say, hey, wait that isn't the important part of the story. Next, let the author know what was effective in their story, what wasn't so effective and make a suggestion for improvement.

Be specific as possible
Anybody can have an opinion on a fanfic, but not everyone can say why they hold those particular opinions. If you got bored with the story, or Amidala's speech in this fanfic annoys you, say it, but also explain why. At what point did you get bored? When do the characters start to go out of character? Why does that lightsaber duel seem pointless to you? Is there enough suspense to keep you reading at that point? Explaining how the writing makes you feel about a character is one of the greatest things you can do for the author. Here's a passage taken from a real Star Wars fanfic, and modified slightly:

Anakin sat, dumbfounded, until realization slapped him upside the head. Okay, until Obi-Wan slapped him upside the head, same thing.

"Ow, what was that for?"

Obi-Wan grinned. "Look, we're way past this discussion, my boy-"

Less helpful beta reader response:
I think you have Anakin down pat in this, but I'm not sure about Obi-Wan. This points out a problem with the characterization, but isn't specific enough about what's causing the problem.

More helpful beta reader response:
I like the fact they get along so well, but I feel like they're not Jedi. Obi-Wan especially, sounds like some kid in high school joking with his best friend. I have two issues with this.
1) Do Jedi really hit their padawans, even in humor? Slapping someone upside the head doesn't seem very dignified or respectful.
2) It's jarring to see 20th century colloquialisms like "..we're way past this discussion" and "..upside the head" in the Star Wars universe.

The author may disagree with you. But at least he/she knows why you feel that Obi-Wan is out of character. The second beta reader raises the issue of how a Master would correct a Padawan, especially someone so powerful, and not Jedi Temple trained like Anakin. This kind of detailed comment can spark a discussion about balancing humor with Jedi discipline, and eventually result in insights about the characters and their relationship. Contrast this with the first beta reader, whose flat response isn't likely to generate much discussion.

Suggest a solution
Beta reading isn't just about bashing a story, it's also about providing ideas on how to improve.
You read some dialogue that says:

"Master, how long did you wait to rescue us? Who else has come?" Qui-Gon asked.

"Three months. Only me and Mace Windu came from the Council," said Yoda.


Less helpful beta reader response:
Yoda sounds out of character. A general comment, not specifying where, how and why. No solution suggested.

More helpful beta reader response:
Yoda doesn't answer questions in a straightforward way. Yoda would take his time, and he's more likely to lead the questioner to the answer by asking questions of his own. The word 'me' doesn't sound right. How about changing that line to something more like: "Think you do, that immobile am I? Mace Windu from the Council, is the only other."

Now you don't have to suggest a solution every single time, or else you'd be the one writing the story. You don't want to be 'taking over'. Use your judgement. Say the author has written about a Leia-in-danger scene where she escapes by using the ventilation duct. This nags you. Ventilation ducts are a cliche. Why would they be that big? In our world ventilation ducts have to be big enough for human maintenance workers, but in the Star Wars universe, it's more logical that tiny robots would be doing the work. You don't have to come up with an alternate escape plan for Leia. By simply asking the question "Are there any other ways for Leia to escape the situation?" can inspire some creative brainstorming where you both come up with a solution that neither of you would have thought of on your own.

Beta reading by chat
Of course, the situation above is more likely to be productive when you and the author are chatting real-time, using programs like IRC, ICQ, AIM and many others. Sometimes you can get more accomplished in an hour over chat than 10 emails going back and forth asking, "What about this?" Of course, whether you pursue beta reading by chat, in addition to email, is up to you. Most beta reading seems to be still done through just email.

What to look for
Here's a mini checklist to the types of things you should be looking for as a beta reader. There are many more, but this is a good place to start.

Opening. Does the first sentence get your interest and make you want to read further?
Conflict. Are there too many or not enough conflicts?
Plot. Was the main plot clear and believable? Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep the reader's attention? Was there a plot/subplot left unresolved? Is the plot too predictable?
Setting. Are the descriptions of scenes too wordy or do they transport you into the Star Wars universe?
Characterization. Was the characterization accurate and consistent? Could the story have been improved by adding more details about their preferences, their relations to other people, habits, beliefs, etc? Are there enough sensory descriptions so that the reader can easily sense what is happening to the main character?
Dialogue. Was the dialogue in character? Is there too much dialogue? Not enough? Could you sense the conflict, attitudes, and intentions of each character in their dialogue without the author telling you of these directly?
Point of View. Did the story change between first person and third person POV too much? Does the maturity of the narrative voice suit the story?
Show vs. Tell. Did you get a chance to interpret what the characters were feeling or did the author just tell you directly? Was there too many instances of words like "very", "much", "really", "great", or "nice" when a more detailed description would have been more colorful?
Grammar & Spelling. Were there any typos? Did the author use too many exclamation points? Does the author know the difference between "their" and "they're"?

If you use a checklist, you'll probably see a lot of things that need attention. Don't try to point everything out in your first beta read, it just isn't possible, and you'll probably scare the author away. Focus on the main problems first, and don't forget to give praise where it's due.

Editing Tips
A tip for those who have MS Word and antivirus software. Get the fanfic from the author in *.doc format. Find the Tools menu, go down to the option called Track Changes and then select Highlight Changes. Check off the box that indicates Track Changes While Editing. Now go ahead and edit. When the author receives the edited Word file from you, they can go to the same menu, Tools > Track Changes > Accept or Reject Changes and approve or reject each fix you made. A cool and simple feature that will make your life, and the author's life easier. Just be careful of viruses.

Alternatives. If your email client allows styled text, another way to distinguish between yours and the author's text is to use a different font. And for those who have only plain text email readers, you can always put your edits in curly brackets, or if they've used brackets in the story to indicate mental speech, caps. Just make sure that the author knows it's for the sake of clarity and you're not shouting at them.


In Summary...
1. Intersperse your criticism with praise.
2. Be specific.
3. Use your judgement and suggest solutions.
4. Do a checklist if necessary, to look for the main problems.

Resources for the beta reader

The Mannerly Art of Critique by Peg Robinson from the alt.startrek.creative newsgroup. A long read, but some excellent points.
How to Critique Fiction by Victory Crayne
It's Not What You Say But How You Say It by Andrew Burt
Bentley's Bedlam: Beta Reading shows a beta read Buffy fanfic, with 10 different beta readers. You can clearly see that some beta readers are more helpful than others.
The World Clock Meeting Planner and Local Times Around the World are handy tools when you're setting up meeting times for chat.


Article Rating

Current Rating is 8.08 in 24 total ratings.

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Author: pokey1984
Date posted: 4/24/2004 12:24:10 AM
pokey1984's Comments:

This article give a lot of good tips. I like that you've given instruction on both accepting a Beta readers advice and on giving said advice.

I have two questions though:

What do you do if you are asked to beta a story that is practically incomprehensible. No plot, undeveloped characters, no descriptions, in essence, a story so bad you feel it's a lost cause. How do you say 'don't quit your day job' without crushing the autors hopes and dreams?

I also wonder what story your excerpts came from. For all I know you posted the best part of the story but you snagged me with that handfull of lines(the Obi-wan/Anakin bit just made me giggle). I figure if I am that interested in a story and all I read were a few admittedly flawed lines I am likely to enjoy the rest of it.

Author: Anon
Date posted: 7/14/2004 8:51:33 AM
Anon's Comments:

Very helpful article. I especially like the suggestion about the Sandwich/oreo technique. When I beta-read, I always feel guilty when I write negative things to an author that's actually really good, when it's my job to find the negative things.

[i]What do you do if you are asked to beta a story that is practically incomprehensible.[/i]

Hehe, I know what you mean. I usually pick the biggest problem w/ the fic and try and explain why I don't like that, and then ignore the rest. Even if it doesn't get them archived, it'll at least give them somewhere to go for improvement. It's really amazing how fast the really devoted authors improve.

A question of my own: What do you say to an author who's writing style irks you? Where do you draw the line between helpful stuff and personal opinion?


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Comments to Nitid or post it in the Jedi Council Fanfic Forum.
Uploaded: Thursday, March 01, 2001







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