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.

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