Forum: Being a Beta Reader

Discussing: How do you beta?

How do you beta?

I do a moderate amount of betaing and I'm curious about other people go about it.

I find that it is much more enjoyable to beta a story that's engrossing, but in some ways more difficult. I get caught up in the story and read along happily, until I realize I've forgotten to check for problems. Sometimes I have to read those types of stories many more times. OTOH, when the subject leaves me cold the problems will jump out at me.

What are your greatest problems with betaing?
The most fun parts?

Do you use a Dictionary? Grammar sites? Do you know it cold without these aids?

Lyllyn

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

(I do a moderate amount of betaing and I'm curious about [how?] other people go about it.)

Well, proofing something that's fun for me to read is more fun overall, but I've found that I can beta just about anything with --I think-- equal accuracy (allowing that some areas of canon I might be more or less familiar with than others, though I usually fact-check by habit regardless).

As for aids, I always have a dictionary and relevant source materials at hand (judging by the dust, however, I might not use them as often as I think), and I always run a spellchecker over the story (discrepancies between British/American/Canadian spelling I don't even register unless asked to make that differentiation).
As for faulty grammar and such, I will usually spot it automatically, unless the correct way would be news to me too; as for arguable things such as phrasing or style, what I say and how depends on what the author asked of me (and how).

Concerning some errors or uncertainties, I prefer not to offer a solution, but rather to raise a question. I will correct spelling and not just say "this is misspelled", but in the case of --for example-- possible mischaracterizations, I would be more likely to say "Not sure that Beren would be eating a steak here", and leave it up to the author to learn why not for his or herself.
If I was doing a quickie beta (more like plain 'commentary' but assuming the story is in-progress), I might say "The POV keeps changing -- is that intentional?" or "The punctuation during quoted dialogue is incorrect", and since these are textbook aspects, I would trust the author to look into it with nothing further.
The difference between handing over a fillet on a platter or teaching one to fish, I suppose: I want any author I helped once to be able to feed themselves while I'm gone, but that won't happen unless everyone's hands get dirty.

-AE, hoo bedaz bedder then chee rites!!1 ONIST!!1

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

-AE, hoo bedaz bedder then chee rites!!1 ONIST!!1

How odd. I feel the same way, but about me, not you. I think you do both quite well!

Interesting about the punctuation - I feel I've become a broken record about that to some extent. I now have the URLs of two websites handy to paste into reviews, two sites that discuss puctuation in dialogue. Though I do usually correct it in the story at least once as an illustration.

The other interesting thing - I never think of running spellcheck and I probably should. It chokes on so many of the names, does it catch enough to be worthwhile?

Lyllym

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

I read the story first to catch the flow and plot line, Then I go back and run a spell check. You can always add words to the spell checker [at least on a Mac].

As I read, I am writing commentary about what is good as well as items that raise questions. After I finish the edit, I write a final paragraphy of comments/suggestions/questions to ponder. The questions are those I think the reader might have. I tell the author not to send me answers to these questions as they are things I think the author might want to mull over.

RiverOtter

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Lyllyn said,
The other interesting thing - I never think of running spellcheck and I probably should. It chokes on so many of the names, does it catch enough to be worthwhile?

Eh, chances are maybe 50/50 that the checker will find things I didn't, but I run it anyway. Especially if a story is longer, I don't trust myself with catching every simple typo (their vs. thier, for example), when a spellchecker will find them for sure.
Another handy thing, as RiverOtter mentioned, is that I can 'teach' Word things like Caradhras, and then it'll only highlight that word if it's ever misspelled -- which is another thing I don't trust myself with: noticing if a word like Calenardhon is correct or not.

RiverOtter said,
After I finish the edit, I write a final paragraphy of comments/suggestions/questions to ponder. The questions are those I think the reader might have. I tell the author not to send me answers to these questions as they are things I think the author might want to mull over.

As an author, I feel such questions are tremendously helpful, and try to leave whatever I can along those lines when I beta (assuming it's not just a proofread I'm doing). An author makes the beta's job much easier by asking specific questions, of course, but sometimes an author doesn't know an area might need attention unless a beta raises the question. "Did you mean to swap genders here? You know in canon Glorfindel is male, right?"

-AE

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Regarding what type of stuff is most fun to beta:

I love to beta good writing, because the chances of learning something are pretty high, and because good writing is just fun to look at, no matter what the subject. (Even good writing is rarely perfect on a first draft. Sometimes glimpsing other people's scaffolding can be very educational.)



What are your greatest problems with betaing?

Writing down my general comments. I get very worried about upsetting or, worse, just subtly discouraging the author. I have these pet peeves, like POV shifts and excessive adverb usage, and people do not always react well to the statements I might make on these subjects.

Yet another reason to beta only good writing, I suppose.

The most fun parts?

Getting a good rapport with another writer, and turning a specific point into a discussion of a general writing issue. Or into a round of pointless jokes, either way is good.

Do you use a Dictionary? Grammar sites? Do you know it cold without these aids?

I use aids if I think they are needed, but proof-reading is such a small part of beta for me. I think there are at least two other parts: story content (canon gripes, characterization, etc) and writing craft comments. The third is my favourite. Or maybe the interaction of the second and the third? I love thinking about how the style interacts with the content.

Argh. The above is probably pretty vague and blathery, but I do not want to bore everyone with my shallow thoughts.

Tehta,

who is also quite certain that she betas better than she writes. And who is very open to detailed-beta exchanges on future work.

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Do you use a Dictionary? Grammar sites? Do you know it cold without these aids?

I use aids if I think they are needed, but proof-reading is such a small part of beta for me.


Me, too. Which is why I *always* put things into Word and run spell/grammar check on what I'm beta-ing. It's so nice to have potential problems in the nit picky areas highlighted - quite literally in two different colors. They can be dealt with and dismissed quickly, rather than having to do a mind-numbing word by word check myself when I know I'll get tired/bored/engrossed and miss obvious things.

I think there are at least two other parts: story content (canon gripes, characterization, etc) and writing craft comments. The third is my favourite. Or maybe the interaction of the second and the third? I love thinking about how the style interacts with the content.

This is the fun part! that and finding motivational/plot/background story holes to point out and suggest a few ways around them or areas for authors to think about. It's even better when the author can think of a way that's *much* better than anything I thought of.

Gwynnyd

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Sadly I do less and less beta-ing these days (a certain set of awards seems to have taken over my [fan?] life), but I used to enjoy it a lot.

I tend to prefer editing stories at a fairly high level; I'm pretty good at spotting typos &c -- I used to work in an editorial office -- but years of proofing for work has put me off doing it for fun. The most fun parts are when you know that your suggestion(s) have significantly improved the story.

I always read things at least twice through, usually several days apart; the first time simply as a reader, the second time with the red pen out. I mean a literal red pen -- I always beta on paper. I think the most important thing to do as a beta is to work out where the author is on the learning curve, so that you can target your comments appropriately. This has probably caused me the most problems in my beta-ing life...

I think the second most important thing to do is to try and work out what the author was attempting, how far they succeeded, and how they might get closer to their aim. (I've noticed a lot of time when people beta on lists, they seem to be predominantly saying 'the story would be better this way', when what they mean is 'I'd write it like this'.)

I always have a dictionary open (the online OED is great for historical settings), but I rarely check grammar texts.

Tavia

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Firerose, your post really made me think.

I think the most important thing to do as a beta is to work out where the author is on the learning curve.

This is a very important point, but one I have not considered all that much. I think sometimes I blather on about things I find interesting rather than the things the author would find useful. I will definitely keep this in mind for future beta experiences...

Btw, it would be very interested to see what different people think the learning curve looks like, and what are the major landmarks encountered along the way. Anybody?

Obviously it would start with basic grammar, spelling, and word misuse, and then... sloppy pacing? Or maybe really bad POV goofs (like the endless external descriptions of the protagonist that Mary Sues love)?

I feel like there is a major step somewhere along the line where you learn that sometimes you have to discard sentences you love for the good of the overall story.

I've noticed a lot of time when people beta on lists, they seem to be predominantly saying 'the story would be better this way', when what they mean is 'I'd write it like this'.

I tend to say 'I'd write it like this' when what I mean is 'The story would be so much better this way.' Does this mean I'm weird? Or just passive-agressive?

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

I think the most important thing to do as a beta is to work out where the author is on the learning curve, so that you can target your comments appropriately. This has probably caused me the most problems in my beta-ing life...

Btw, it would be very interested to see what different people think the learning curve looks like, and what are the major landmarks encountered along the way. Anybody?

Obviously it would start with basic grammar, spelling, and word misuse, and then... sloppy pacing? Or maybe really bad POV goofs (like the endless external descriptions of the protagonist that Mary Sues love)?

I feel like there is a major step somewhere along the line where you learn that sometimes you have to discard sentences you love for the good of the overall story.


I am very interested in this also. It isn't always linear though - great ideas, poor basics exist along with great basics and a blah story. But how to describe the curve once the author is past the basic mechanics?

I'll go along with you, Tehta, and say a big breakpoint is when the author gets serious about writing a story that others will find interesting. Most people do write for themselves to some extent, but the author who considers the reader should be less likely to produce a storythat is unbalanced, poorly paced, etc. (Or have endless descriptions of the protagonist even if the POV is correct.)

Lyllyn

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

I've noticed a lot of time when people beta on lists, they seem to be predominantly saying 'the story would be better this way', when what they mean is 'I'd write it like this'.

This is a brilliant point, Tavia - and it certainly clarifies in my own mind why I'm a poor beta-reader.

I have various thoughts about 'the learning curve', but in terms of learning how to work well with editors, I think there are two points on the curve, one following on from the other: first, learning to accept editorial advice and, second, learning to recognize when to refuse editorial advice.

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

I have various thoughts about 'the learning curve', but in terms of learning how to work well with editors, I think there are two points on the curve, one following on from the other: first, learning to accept editorial advice and, second, learning to recognize when to refuse editorial advice.

Very true. The question then, is how to tell one from the other aside from "gut feeling"? (or obvious errors in grammar, word use, etc.)

Lyllyn

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

As I advertise in my bio, I can be a "pushy" beta, but before I get "pushy" I want to know what the author's goal is. I try to run emotional logic on what the author is trying to accomplish, and make my suggestions in the context of what I understand to be the goals. So I make qualifications such as "if you mean ABC, then my reaction is DEF" or "If this scene doesn't have an important payoff down the line, I think you should trim it because GHI is distracting."

When I'm asked to beta (and before I accept) I'll ask the minimum questions: what is your goal? and: If you are insecure about something, what is it? So I don't answer questions I'm not asked.

And I'm not very good about catching typos or grammar or style ... so I'm always embarassed at some of the whoppers my beta readers find in my stories.

On the other hand, this can be an advantage to some ways. I will get enticed by intriguing plot ideas in stories that have stylistic problems and I don't notice because I'm rather blind to that. I'm a nit about plot plot holes, and pacing -- and I'll focus on that: if you do JKL or MNO then the two scenes won't contradict.

On the other other hand, something that's got a great style but isn't saying anything interesting gets me impatient. OK: this, this and this happened. Where's this going? What's your point?

That's how I try to beta. As for the "where on the learning curve?" question, I tend to get that answered in the process of negotiating "what kind of betaing would you like, and can Julie do that?"

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Tehta asked:
... it would be very interested to see what different people think the learning curve looks like, and what are the major landmarks encountered along the way.

Good question. I suspect it's more complex than just a curve with landmarks -- I think of it more like a surface with peaks and troughs, so that there are many different routes to each goal, as well as many different valid goals.

Thus said, one of the landmarks that most interests me would be the ability to select a writing style that's appropriate to the piece -- many extremely competent fanwriters tend to write in much the same way across all their fiction. Another one might be acquiring an awareness of the structure of the piece.

Another landmark might be awareness of mutability -- realising that there is the potential for change in non-trivial ways. Many writers I've encountered (myself amongst them) are prone to wail, 'but I can't change that, it just is like that '.

 

 

Re: How do you beta?

Good question. I suspect it's more complex than just a curve with landmarks -- I think of it more like a surface with peaks and troughs, so that there are many different routes to each goal, as well as many different valid goals.

Good metaphor, I think. Some of those troughs seem pretty deep, deep enough for people to get stuck in for a looong time, if not forever. And the goals do differ: some people want to write fast-moving fanfic melodramas, some people want to write those restrained, epiphany-driven New Yorker stories.

Regarding style: while a writer should know how to choose the right style for each piece, I think finding one's own voice, or maybe vocal range, is also very important. Playing to one's own strengths, rather than simply mimicking Tolkien, or JK Rowling, or Fanon Writers We Admire.

Realising that there is the potential for change in non-trivial ways.

Definitely agree. This goes along with what I tried to say earlier about not being afraid of major rewrites, and I think it is a major waypoint. At least, realizing that it was possible was a major epiphany for me.

I think many of the minor landmarks would
involve learning about the different things we may want to watch out for in our writing, like excessive adverb use, POV goofs, or dialogue attributions/beats that are either too sparse or too verbose.

 

 

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