origamiflowers: (guitar)
with a violin and a song to sing ([personal profile] origamiflowers) wrote2009-06-02 10:22 pm
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Beta-Reading & the Art of Criticism

At online forums like [livejournal.com profile] fanficrants, beta-readers are treated a bit like objects of worship. Goddesses, perhaps, or Holy Grails. Comma out of place? Should've had a beta. Typo? You needed someone else to look at it. Homonym error? A beta would have caught it, keeping you from looking like the total moron you have now revealed yourself to be. (I poke lovingly, FFR.)

It’s a common piece of fandom wisdom. There are a myriad of communities for it, from the general to the fandom-specific. If you're creating an original character, there are comms where people volunteer to evaluate them and tell you whether or not they're a Mary Sue, which seems like a form of beta-reading to me. And beta-reading seems like a smart, simple concept: get someone else to read your fic before you post and fix any errors they notice.

Unless you have ever tried to find a beta.

Or you've been one.

And realized that it's not exactly springtime in Elysium.

So, I wanted to take some time and reflect on my experiences as a writer and a beta-reader, and offer some observations and maybe even some advice about the problems that often crop up between writers and betas, and what you can do about them. *g* Not that I really warrant it, as I'm neither a great writer nor a great beta-reader (as many will attest), but I like thinking about things. So.

+ Common Problems

I can only think of six at the moment, but if you want to add something, please comment and I'll ETA it into the post. :)

  1. It's hard to find a beta-reader, much less a good one, and even less a good one that's a good fit.
  2. Writers and beta-readers have different expectations about what beta-reading is and how it's done.
  3. Writers and betas don't see eye-to-eye on a particular issue (like a character) or prefer different genres to the point that they don't work well together.
  4. The relationship between the beta and writer may cause problems.
  5. Criticism is a tricksy beast.
  6. Someone sucks. Either the author or the beta (in some cases, both).

To address #2 first, the first bit of advice, which goes for both sides, is to be clear about what a beta-reader is and what they do. The general consensus is that a beta is a lot like a line-editor - they address the problems of the text at the sentence level, including mechanical errors and clarity. But beta-readers can perform other functions as well, if they are so inclined, and may be good at some and bad or mediocre at others ...

+ Defining a Beta-Reader: Types of Criticism

Line-editing: Half of a line-editor's job is catching typos, misused homonyms, spelling errors, and commas out of place (or putting them in) - handling the mechanical side of things. The other half is editing for clarity and a bit of style - "This sentence doesn't make sense the way it's written. Rearranging it to be ___ would help readers understand better." "You've used this adjective three times now; I'd find another or cut it." Etc. This is what people usually mean when they cry "Get a beta!", particularly when they're talking to non-native English speakers who are writing in English. It's "cleaning up" the manuscript, readying it for ease of consumption. Readers (at least the ones with even a scrap of discernment) aren't going to waste their limited reading time on something they have to work to decipher, which is why this function can be so important - first impressions and all.

Canon: This beta focuses on making sure that what you've written lines up with the source material - in terms of timeline, world-building (or world-using, in fanfic), any supernatural/scifi/fantasy stuff that's going on and how it works, characters' backstory, etc. Even in AU fic this is an important function, because it's important to parse what will "stay" and what will "go" in an AU fic, and why.

Plot/continuity: It's important to have continuity within the work itself, which isn't the same as canon continuity. From the small ("Didn't you say her bedroom door was blue before?") to the medium-sized ("Didn't they go down six flights of stairs before? They've only been on two floors so far, and they're out already?") to the rather large ("Doesn't Sylar have telekinesis? Why isn't he using it?"). I tend not to notice plot holes myself, whether reading or writing (I learned from the "best" - Tim Kring FTL), but for many readers they can be glaringly obvious, and make an otherwise enjoyable story look very stupid. In addition, you want to have a plot that makes sense, whether it's an internal (character-based) plot or an external (action-based) plot, so someone who can look at your story arc as a whole and tell you whether it makes sense, whether the parts contribute to the whole the way they should, and (for the brutally frank) whether the story is worth telling, is someone worth having around.

Characterization/character development: If I had to decide whether I was a plot writer or a character writer, I'd pick character writer in a heartbeat. (Mostly because I'm crap at plotting - I prefer stories written in the spaces between the action.) Part of the beauty of fic (I think) is that half the work is done for you - the characters come pre-built, however badly or inconsistently, and you're free to expand on that, explore how they got that way, or fill in gaps people don't see in canon. However, there are limits - I will believe that Dean Winchester shed a single, hidden tear after Sam came back from the dead before clearing his throat and suggesting burgers for dinner, but I probably won't believe that he started sobbing after having amazing healing sex with Sam. Mileage about characterization varies, of course, and it should - people can be unpredictable, after all. But for fic, it's also important that your characters are recognizable, and if they aren't, you're in trouble - in general, I've found that readers want to read about the characters they love, not the bad imitations that wear their faces. (Okay, that's not really true. If only.) In thinking about Ziva's response to a crisis, a beta might ask, "Well, in ___ (similar situation) she did X - why is she doing Y now?" Or "Ziva is very passionate about the people she cares about, but she's also very professional - why the sudden sex and happy fluffy love with Tony?" Being able to point back to specific events is helpful. Similar to plot arcs, some betas are also good at following a character development arc and telling you whether it makes sense psychologically, is built up well enough, and is realistic given the character - another important function.

Structure/pacing/flow: The structure of a story can be simple, or complex. There may only be one story, from one point of view. More often, there are two plots, the A (main) plot and the B (secondary) plot, where the B story reflects on/complements the A story. I recently read a story with three main threads, one in the present day and two in the past, and only two chronological. It's hard work to keep up with what's going on, especially if a story is nonlinear or told non-chronologically. "Flow" means a lot of things, from sentences to paragraphs to entire works. It makes the reading go smoothly, and nothing is jarring that isn't meant to be. Pacing is trickier - some writers rush through a story and don't take the time to flesh it out; others write too long and too much and need to prune, prune, prune anything that doesn't contribute to the main story. The main action can't be over too quickly, but you can't take your sweet time getting there, either, especially if little else is happening. Pacing is a rare skill.

+ Advice for Writers

Be clear about what you want help with. It's not very helpful when the writer is looking for a line-edit, and the beta is thinking about characterization. Or vice-versa, for that matter. Since most betas specialize in line-editing and canonicity, it can be very hard for writers to find help with characterization or structure. Miscommunication only makes it worse.

State specific concerns about your story. Are you worried about a particular character? Are you not sure if something makes sense? Did a particular scene give you problems? Is there a theme you're working with and want to make sure it's done well? These kinds of questions give your beta something to work with, some anchors, while reading, and they'll guarantee that you won't get no feedback whatsoever (which has happened to me).

Don't take criticism personally. I've heard that some writers seem to expect betas to fall all over themselves with praise, and react badly to serious crit. To that I say, stop it. If you're serious about improving, take your beta seriously; if you're not (which is 100% fine!), then don't have one.

Realize that authorial intent is not God. You can explain your reasoning for a choice all you want, but the only thing betas and readers have to work with is what's on the page. Everything in your head does not have to make it onto the page, but there should be enough for readers to work with.

Take criticism gracefully and seriously. Regardless of whether you agree with your beta's criticism, always thank them for their insight. On the flip side, it is pretty bad form to post a story that hasn't implemented any of your beta's suggestions and doesn't address any of the problems they pointed out. What's the point? Be willing to continue discussion with your beta before posting your story, if that's what it takes.

Go through more than one round of feedback, if that's possible. It helps me a lot to go through multiple editing rounds, each round concentrating on something different. I would start with the big stuff (overall story concerns, theme, etc), implement the large-scale changes the story needs, and then move to smaller-order concerns like characterization, and then sentence-level concerns like editing. When I worked in my university's Writing Center, this was how we were told to tutor students on their papers: address big problems first, then move smaller.

+ Advice for Beta-readers

Look at what the writer wants you to look at. If the writer is most interested in finding plot holes in their action/adventure, concentrate on that first. You may make other suggestions in other areas, but address their concerns first. And if a writer is absolutely only ever, ever, ever interested in spelling and grammar help, stick to it.

Don't be afraid of a negative reaction. Say what you think needs to be said. Be frank (but not rude, which tends to make people ignore you anyway). If a writer responds really badly to criticism, you know to steer clear in the future.

Don't beta-read for authors you love. I made this mistake only once. A writer I love and respect sent me a one-shot after I offered, and there were no suggestions I could make, besides a few grammatical errors, because I enjoyed it so much already and was kind of intimidated by them. That's not very helpful to them. (Conversely, getting an author you love to beta for you could potentially be really good for you ... or really bad.)

Don't overdo it. I've failed pretty badly at this before. It's especially detrimental to newbies, who - especially if they're just entering fanficworld - can get overwhelmed by a deluge of criticism. Once, I offered to beta for a Twilight story with an interesting premise. They sent me the first chapter, about 1000 words, and I returned it with four thousand words of criticism and commentary added. The file was five times longer than the initial chapter. She sent me an email back with something like "You really addressed a lot of problems with my writing ... I'm going to retreat for awhile." I shamed some poor girl into not writing altogether, at least for a while. Not good! The worst part is, I thought her story had a lot of potential. Hell, I even liked it. (Note to self: Send her an apology.) Like above, concentrate on the biggest problems you see at first. The story does not have to be perfect, especially if a new writer is just getting started. Growth occurs gradually.

Say what you like as well as what you don't like. Part of improving is learning what does work as well as what doesn't, so if there's an aspect to the plot that's particularly creative, or an interpretation of a character that's especially compelling, or a really well-used metaphor, tell the writer!

Don't turn it into your story. A writer is telling their story; it's a beta's job to help them tell it better, not to get them to tell your story. Sometimes, "telling it better" does mean reworking the premise; saying, "Because every single person in canon gets paired up with a member of the opposite sex, no matter how shallow or unexplored the relationship is, the heteronormative attitude of your story is really overwhelming" is not invalid just because it goes against the story that's been written. Not always, though; beta'ing a story does not give you license to propagate your worldview through someone else's study.

Give reasons for the criticism you give. It's much more helpful to say why something strikes you the wrong way, or how the pacing makes you feel, than to just say "This seems wrong. You should fix it." That way they'll be more equipped to catch similar situations in the future.

Suggest alternatives. If a sentence is badly worded, give an alternative (or two). If a plot point doesn't work, ask some questions and make suggestions about what could be done differently. This is a bit YMMV - you don't want to rewrite anything, and the writer may be interested in coming up with their own ideas, but it does help me, and it probably helps others, even if all it does is spark off other ideas.

+ Beta-Reading Communities and Resources

Some of these communities may be lagging or slow.

on LiveJournal
[livejournal.com profile] fandom_betas - multifandom
[livejournal.com profile] beta_search - multifandom
[livejournal.com profile] find_me_a_beta - multifandom
[livejournal.com profile] hp_betas - Harry Potter
[livejournal.com profile] hp_betas_wanted - Harry Potter
[livejournal.com profile] spn_betas - Supernatural
[livejournal.com profile] heroes_betas - Heroes
[livejournal.com profile] merlin_betas - Merlin
[livejournal.com profile] batfic_betas - Batman
[livejournal.com profile] who_beta - Doctor Who
[livejournal.com profile] housefic_beta - House M.D.
[livejournal.com profile] thequillstation - LOST
[livejournal.com profile] originalbeta - original fiction

on Dreamwidth
[community profile] beta_masterlist - multifandom
[community profile] write_good - a concrit comm
[community profile] crits_of_the_fantastical - fantasy critique
[community profile] spn_betas - Supernatural
[community profile] sg_military_beta - SG1, SGA, SGU military info

If you've had other experiences, disagree with something I said, want to add some advice, or suggest more resources to add to the resource list, please comment below! I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts.

[personal profile] indian_skimmer 2009-06-03 09:28 pm (UTC)(link)
I've done a fair bit of beta-reading, including for non-English speakers. Oddly enough, I don't split into 'types' of criticism in my head, I think of it more as a series of levels and work at a different level depending on what type if crit the author wants.

Things That Are Wrong- either grammatical; canonical (getting ages wrong when they've been clearly stated, sating two people have never met when we've seen them on screen) or factual (you can't drive from London to Edinburgh in two hours. Really,you can't).

Things That Are A Bit Off- stylistic tics (repeating the same word even though it's used correctly every time); exposition and flow problems and flaky internal characterisation.

Things Maybe Only I Would Notice- pet hates of my own (why do so many writers use italics? learn to write a sentence properly and you don't need to fall back on formatting); inadvertent jokes (words with different meaning in Britain) and characterisation that differs from my personal view.

I put characterisation in the final level, because I know everyone has a different perspective and finding a new way of looking at characters is part of what fanfic is all about, no matter how much I'm tempted to put men crying in the first level and convince the world that it's flat out wrong.

I agree with your advice section wholeheartedly though, especially on how to remember that it's still the author's story and not yours, with the slight caveat that even asked for a spelling and grammar beta I would still point out basic factual errors as well.
musicdiamond: (pic#157894)

[personal profile] musicdiamond 2009-06-05 09:10 pm (UTC)(link)
Surfing on over from fandom_betas on lj. I have to say, I've never had a truly bad experience with a beta. The worst problem I've ever had with one was when they didn't get back to me about a relatively short story (by my standards) till a month later. That was frustrating. But other than that, all my beta experiences (both being and getting one) have been pretty solid. That probably has something to do with the fact that even if they don't provide many helpful comment initially (they send it back with like, a comma or two subtracted), I will simply pepper them with questions in email to get their reactions to the story as a whole. Since I'm hopelessly vain, I consider the forced feedback exchange enough to constitute lemonade from my lemons.

That said, as far as beta-ing for other people, I tend to like direction. I will do a line edit if an author wants me to, but honestly, that's not really my specialty. I'm a big picture kind of gal with a side of continuity focus. I also concentrate especially on characterization, since characters are always the most important part to me. However, I'm aware that my natural tendencies are not always what an author wants and it's a lot easier to figure out what to give them if they ask for it up front. If not, I'll gauge how mature their writing seems, how long they've been in fandom, how long/well I know them, and make a judgment call.

If they're a newbie, I focus on the line edit and teasing out whatever spark of wonderful is in the story (and there's always something, even if it's a new spin on a character, or a neat plot trick or something that seems cool at least conceptually). I focus on being supportive and try to offer a few easy to implement suggestions so as not to overwhelm them. When I first started out writing, that's what I needed from my betas and that kind of encouragement led me to continue writing instead of giving up, and the practice made me a better writer over time. I shudder when I read over some of my old fic, but I knew my betas at the time made it the best that I was ready for it to be. And ideally, that's what I think a beta should do since fic writing is a labor of love for all involved.

As far as other people beta-ing me, I try to give people what I want to receive, which inevitably turns out to be long, rambling directions and questions. Usually for a shortish piece, I will ask my one beta to really look hard at my pacing, plot, and characterizations to see if the overall storytelling works. Line edits are really secondary, although mostly the betas provide them anyway.

With a long piece, particularly one that's complex and plotty, I usually will employ several betas and split up the responsibilities. I may even stagger them in time. I'll ask one beta for visceral responses to the story: did you like the characters, what worked for you, how'd you like the ending, where there plot holes, etc (basically, is this story even worth reading, and therefore trying to improve?). I tend to assign this responsibility to someone who's either an inexperienced beta (becoming a good beta sometimes requires practice too!) or is someone I don't know that well. I'll ask a second beta for the heavy-lifting kind of feedback: what do I need to change, where are the characterizations a bit thin, what scenes do I need to write to make this work. I'm always the writer that writes too little instead of too much (concise, one of my betas once called me) so usually I will need to insert at least a few scenes and fill out others. Often, I save the line edit beta for last and have them waiting in the wings until I produce my fully edited last draft since I've probably made substantial changes and added/erased things. They may do double duty with a line edit and their reactions to the story, but that's about it.

It's a long process, but I tend to like beta-ing for authors whose work I enjoy. I also enjoy working with betas in general. It's a nice, collaborative feeling.
novajanna: (Default)

[personal profile] novajanna 2009-06-06 01:19 am (UTC)(link)
I do both - I beta and I write - and I agree with pretty much everything you've said here, especially about communication between people. I've only really had one bad experience with beta-ing for someone - it was a long fic (70,000 words) and I had told them in advance that it might take me a little while to get through as a result. They responded that it was fine, and then it was posted a week later, without informing me that she'd found another beta. That irked me, because I felt like I'd wasted my time and gone out of my way for someone; that is, like you said, an issue in communication.

The only thing I think I'd add to your advice is for writers. Even if you need a beta for line-editing, if you know you have a major problem with, say, tenses, it might be worthwhile to check over the fic and see if you can clean it up a little, not just send them an e-mail saying "I think some of my tenses are a little wrong." The beta can certainly catch any leftovers, but I always find it much more difficult to take in the whole story and issues with phrasing if I'm constantly trying to catch verb confusion and determine what tense the author might have meant it to be.

Thanks for writing this! You make a lot of good points for both betas and writers.

My two cents. Spend them wisely.

[identity profile] cruiscin-lan.livejournal.com 2009-06-06 04:29 pm (UTC)(link)
Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. I just had a few thoughts:

It's hard to find a beta-reader, much less a good one, and even less a good one that's a good fit.
In my corner of the universe (however small it may be) it seems that most people seem to find their betas on their flist. This usually means the authors and betas have something already in common (favorite pairings or characters, or perhaps they already enjoy one anothers' fic) so I've never really encountered this problem. The only thing that I do notice is that some betas have different concerns, i.e. one is more concerned with grammar/spelling while another is worried about characterization, and so on and so forth.

Writers and beta-readers have different expectations about what beta-reading is and how it's done.
My worry about this is (mostly) technical. Whenever I have someone new beta my work, I have to include a caveat on their process, because I don't have Microsoft Word and certain features don't carry over, like comment tracking. Likewise I've beta'ed for writers who've specified how they like comments on their work - in red, in bold, in-text or footnoted, etc.

Writers and betas don't see eye-to-eye on a particular issue (like a character) or prefer different genres to the point that they don't work well together.
I don't understand how and why these betas and authors get hooked up in the first place, then. I have one or two betas that I know I can send anything to, and then a few others who I know to be more specific, and only the twain shall meet if I'm hard-pressed for a deadline or something and can strong-arm a friend into line-checking.

As far as my own experience goes in both being a writer and a beta, I've never come up against anyone or anything that I thought was a problem; again, since I rely on friends, we've always been more than civil to one another, and even harsh criticism is buffered by a general understanding and light-heartedness that comes with friendship. As a writer, I appreciate any and all criticism from a beta, and whether I end up incorporating their suggestions or corrections, I always follow-up with them concerning my reasoning. As a beta, I think I'm a little harsher in terms of grammar and spelling (even stylistically - I'm a huge fan of dashes as opposed to commas for dramatic emphasis) but I like to think that it's balanced out by my personable manner.

I'm assuming from your post that you have considerable writing center experience (either working in one or frequenting one, but my guess is the former). I worked in a university writing center for five years and I think it's carried over into fandom. My approach is generally the same, whether working with fiction or academic papers. There are some little things I do, like reading out loud to catch errors easier or to identify awkward wording, and then there are larger issues that I've learned to address. For example, a fic I beta'ed recently was written for heroes_exchange and while I was the second beta who just needed to "double-check," I was less concerned with line-checking and more concerned with whether the fic incorporated the prompt given. Since it was an exchange fic, it was both on a deadline and a gift for someone, so which was more important - getting it checked and submitted on time, or making sure it was what the other person really wanted? If heroes_exchange was a class and the recipient was the professor, it would probably be more important that the submission matches the assignment, so I tend to use that as a benchmark regarding priorities in beta-reading.

Re: My two cents. Spend them wisely.

[identity profile] cruiscin-lan.livejournal.com 2009-06-08 03:43 am (UTC)(link)
Also, knock me down ten points for using the word "seems" twice in one sentence. Whoops.
michelel72: Suzie (Default)

[personal profile] michelel72 2009-08-05 04:31 pm (UTC)(link)
Greetings. I've only just found this post through [livejournal.com profile] fandom_betas ... and I'm kicking myself for not finding it sooner. At the recent Writercon convention, I moderated a panel on being a better beta, and much of what you cover here would have been great to include. I'm now compiling a post-panel resources list. May I add a link to this entry?