Betas and Reviewers: Care and Feeding: 1. 1

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1. 1

There has been a lot of discussion intermittently on the HA list about finding betas, disappearing betas, and getting reviews. Here are some compiled suggestions for the

Care and Feeding of Beta Readers and Reviewers

Finding a beta
Many sites, including HASA, have beta lists. Try to find someone who is interested in the genre and characters that you are writing. Email someone from the list, or post a request for betas on the HA list, or post a request in the Being a Beta Reader discussion in the Resources Forum.

From Dwim: 'to ferret out those who are interested in the same characters or types of stories that you're interested in, I'd say make good use of those member bios. Look at the common posters to HA the yahoo group. Note them well. Go look at their bios to see what they find interesting. If you don't see anyone with your particular fanfic interests, check their recommended list. See anything good there? Click on that author's bio, etc.'
* * *

Great comments can also come from someone who isn't an automatic fan of the subject, characters, or setting; sometimes the comments are even better because that person sees from the 'outside.' For anything but a very short story, however, it is usually easier in the beginning to find a beta who is a fan of your genre.

From Shadow975: 'When you write, tell them what in their profile indicated to you that they might want to read your story, and what type of feedback they mentioned that you're looking for. Approach it like you might a cover letter for your resume - you want them to want to read your story, and you want them to feel confident that they can give you feedback you can use. Post a link to your story and your discussion - and again, put warnings before the link, in case they're quick to click. If you don't hear back from a reader, don't send a second email asking if they got the first. They probably did, or will, and have either been too busy to respond or don't care to. Don't take it personally.'
* * *

Swap betaing with someone. Doing a good beta can be a lot of work. Occasionally people just enjoy betaing, but you are more likely to hook up with a long term beta if you each have something to offer the other.

Start by leaving reviews for authors. If you find someone whose work you like, who obviously needs a beta, offer to exchange services.

How to work with a beta
When you start, be clear on what you want from them. Just a proofread? Comments on characterization, plotting, story structure? Whether it's an interesting story or not?

Ask a question or two about the things that most concern you when you send the story. "Does the scene between x and y convey z?" "Is the pacing OK?" "Can the reader sense tension between A and B?" "I'm not a native English speaker, is this word use correct?" Questions like this will help your beta focus on your areas of concern.

Don't drown your beta. As said above, it takes a lot of time to do a good in-depth beta. Start with small stories or a sample chapter. You can't expect someone to take on a 20 chapter story for you unless they like the material and know they can work with you.

If someone is doing a beta that is more than just a proofread, especially for the first time, let them know what helped you. Just like you want a review on your story to say more than 'I liked it,' your beta reader will be pleased with more than just 'thank you for your comments.' There is a skill and learning curve to editing, and feedback improves this, just as in writing fiction. It can be very rewarding to beta, but less so when you don't know if what you are saying is useful.

Feedback also helps the two of you to understand what the issues on the table are. Some things that may not be correct for British English are for American English, and vice versa. Getting that ground rule down can save a lot of unnecessary work and misunderstanding.

Some writers ask a more experienced or popular writer to evaluate their work and make critical comments; this is different from a line edit type beta. Make it clear that is what you want, and that you are prepared to accept whatever comments are made. Depending on prior experience, this can be a shock. Some discussion lists subscribe to an 'encourage everyone with praise' method, others are brutally honest, working toward a very high level of prose. The comments from your beta reader or forum may be in a different style than what you are accustomed.

Keeping your beta
Be honest with yourself and your beta as to what kind of advice you want and can take. There is a trust that develops only over time. Authors rarely take all of a beta's suggestions. If you've asked for a general beta and are not taking any of the suggestions aside from typos and spelling, then this is not the beta for you, and it is unfair to continue asking them.

Be graceful about your beta deciding they can't do a particular story. It may be RL, or it may be that the story itself is not for them. He or she may be willing to do a different story at another time. Until you have an established relationship with a beta, don't assume that someone who did one story is willing to take on the next. Even with an established beta, RL can keep them out of action.

Unless you know for sure your beta won't mind, get your story in the best shape possible for them. The more a beta has to do, the less they are likely to concentrate on any one aspect. If you want incisive comments on plot or characterization, don't stick them with correcting spelling every other sentence. Run spellcheck before sending the story.

Nothing is more discouraging to a beta than to make grammar, punctuation, and spelling corrections, only to see your fic posted with the same mistakes they've already corrected. It's even worse if you credit them as your beta, but haven't fixed those things. If you know their grammar, punctuation, etc. is good, Make The Changes Before Posting! I know at least one person who refuses to help anyone a second time if they have ignored her advice and posted a fic violating grammar and punctuation rules that are in any textbook. If you have doubts about the corrections, check them out. There are several online sources of information about grammar and punctuation. Some are listed in the URL library part of the Resources section.

AfterEver comments: 'If the beta marked valid errors, there's no excuse for neglecting to incorporate their corrections, and there's no excuse for making the same mistakes again in your next fic. Part of the deal is that the author learns and improves, thanks to the beta (less work for everybody this way!). Don't just continue as is, trusting that the beta will make it all right. Find out why the mistakes your beta finds are actually errors- only once you understand the rules can you avoid breaking them.

'If they say/suggest something you don't agree with, try to respect their opinion, and remember that you did ask for their perspective. Make absolutely certain that you can't get anything helpful out of that piece of insight, whether you like it or not, and if it's useless to you then toss it. But it's inadvisable to tell your beta what part of their opinion you don't value, or that might be the last opinion you get, period. If a beta is making style-points when all you asked for was a proofread, instead of debating why your characterizations are not OOC, kindly inform your beta that a purely technical proofread will suffice in the future.

'The exception to this is if/when the beta makes a faulty correction: a beta should be informed of any factual errors they make, just as the author should be informed of any factual errors they make.'
* * *

Don't ask for detailed commentary on something you already know you won't revise. One person who is generous with her time said:
'If I can't see my advice being put to good use and watch the author improve while the story shapes up, what's MY motivation?'

From AfterEver: 'When requesting a beta-reader's help, it is generally understood that the story is currently a work in progress. If the fic is not still in its tweaking stages, it is only fair to warn the beta-reader beforehand that any corrections or suggestions they make will not actually appear in the story. A beta-reader's angle is all about making changes for the better. An author disinclined to rewrite the material does not in fact need a beta-reader.'
* * *

Getting reviewers to discuss your work
From Dwim:
'Another essential tool in getting feedback is learning how to focus on the specific points of your story that you feel need polishing. Don't just say "I have a fic that's complete--ten chapters. Anyone want to give me some feedback?"

'Try something like: "I've written [title] but this one passage bothers me [insert passage]. I can't figure out what's wrong with it exactly, but here are some thoughts. It's in [location in story--this is so that the reader can read around the passage to see how it attaches to the material on either side]. Could anyone offer suggestions as to what might be bothering me?"

'Or: "I have problems writing [the first kiss, death scenes, sex scenes, endings, Elves, etc.]. I suspect that it's because [supply speculative reasons: mechanics are not my strong point, my vocabulary is weak in this area, I don't have any knowledge of the psychology involved, etc.]. How do other people handle these kinds of scenes/races/emotions? Do you have examples of passages? Here's my latest attempt at this particular kind of scene/dialogue/race. What do people think?"

'Not only does this make the conversation more accessible to your potential commentators, it's a good way to develop a critical attitude towards your own work that goes beyond "I'm not a good writer" or "I try hard." ' If you can identify the specific areas where you need help, that's a big step towards improvement right there.

'There's also a psychological factor at work here: presenting yourself as open to criticism is a good thing; presenting yourself negatively as a writer who lacks confidence in his or her work is not. It will drive others away--who wants to read a fic if the author gives the impression that she has little faith in it? I'm not saying go the other direction and be painfully perky, giving the impression of having no critical edge, but try for that happy medium.'
* * *

If you don't start the conversation about your work, the chances of someone else doing so are relatively low. Some authors, because they are perceived to be known figures in the fandom, will have people start talking about their work without their having to do much more than say "Hi, I've posted such and such, come talk in my forum." Most of the rest of us have to work a little harder and start the discussion ourselves. And once it's begun, you have to tend it--this is a conversation, and if no one responds to a reader's comments, it's likely that that thread will die. So if you don't want it to die, keep talking. Keep questioning.

If you haven't created a discussion for your stories, start one. There are instructions in the tutorial on how to go about it. Don't just create the discussion and leave it; post an intro to the discussion and consider putting links to your stories. Conversely link all your stories to the discussion. Make it easy for people to comment. Start the first topic yourself, and tell potential commentators what you are concerned about.

From Shadow975: 'In your forum, try to use descriptive thread titles. Ie: "Chapter 14 of My Story Title is up" is better than "Hey I posted something - have a look"; "Help needed with sticky dialogue" is better than "I can't figure this out - please help".
* * *

Leave comments in other people's forums. That often induces people to look at your stories and comment in return.

Shadow975 again: 'Give substantive feedback wherever you can. In all likelihood, you'll be giving your most useful feedback to authors who write stories you enjoy; they may well enjoy yours as well, and offering them feedback and comments will encourage them to read and possibly comment on your stories.

' When you give feedback, please always remember to make some of it positive. Assume the author doesn't know you enjoyed the story unless you say so, and give a few reasons why, or examples of things that were good. If you didn't enjoy the story but want to leave feedback anyway, find something in the story that you think does work, and praise that.'
* * *

Dwim's comment: 'If you can get the first batch of readers through your virtual door, you'll have a much easier time dealing with other stories of yours.'
* * *

How to get the most benefit from your reviewers
One great example of working with reviewers is Shadow975. See the discussion of her story 'An End to Innocence,' AETI chapter 19 . Her thread in the same discussion on AETI Chapter 16 is a good example of something not working right for an author and using forum comments to define and fix the problem. It is a lesson on how to get the most out of people who are willing to comment.

When those commenting see the story improving as the process goes on, it is exciting for the reviewer as well. This is the main reward for commenting.

From Avon:
'it will really help if I have some idea of -
Your level of experience as a fanfic writer/writer in general. If you've been writing fanfic for twenty years then I can assume you have some knowledge of how fanfic works. if it is your first ever then some oohing and aaahing might be in order - if it is your 89th story then I can move onto the commas you are missing rather more quickly ;-)'

One point she feels particularly important:
'Whether English is your first language.
This is the number one thing I go looking for in bios and don't find. It helps me know whether you are having typo problems or translation problems, lets me know just how tactful I'm going to have to be about saying "You can't say zzzxxxx in English" and it helps me decide whether problems with the story are "can't be bothered" or "plain can't". For the same reason I'd suggest mentioning any disabilities/inabilities - if I know you have a spelling problem and do try but can't help it then I'll provide much more help.'

Along those same lines she suggests listing your familiarity with Tolkien so it is clear how much the reviewer has to explain on canon matters. It would be very different for someone who's still reading LotR for the first time compared to someone who's devoured HoMe.

Additional things Avon recommends mentioning in your forum intro are your particular weaknesses as a writer. 'eg: new to Tolkien, never know where to put my paragraphs, tend to wander into purple prose then I know what to look for. I know whether I'm likely to be able to help you. I know that you are aware of this weakness and won't resent corrections/suggestions in this area.'

Finally, she suggests you indicate why you are writing: ' are you aiming for HASA publication? do you see yourself as a professional though currently unpaid writer who aims for a professional standard? do you just write fanfic for fun and have no intention of revising anything ever? is it really part of your private universe which you have been living with for twenty years?'

How to tell reviewers this? 'forum intro is good but HASA profile would also work... I don't need to know your sock size or favourite icecream flavour. The more I know about what you want the more likely I am to be able/willing to give it to you.'
* * *

What to do once you get feedback
This is important, since it may determine whether you continue to get feedback.

Shadow975: 'Always respond graciously. It takes time and thought to leave reviews, and whether or not you find the specific comments helpful, express your appreciation of their time and input. Be especially sure to do this when you receive negative feedback - this will reassure reviewers and potential reviewers that you will respond positively to constructive criticism.

'When feedback is given, whether positive or negative, always respond. Always respond. Always respond. Apart from encouraging more feedback, it will also help keep your discussion visible on the Welcome page. Do not, under any circumstances, spam your discussion forum in order to do this; however, when legitimate posts can be made - whether responding to feedback or requesting it - this is a good thing.

'If you disagree with a proposed change or a criticism, take the time to explain why (respectfully, and while acknowledging their point of view) - and try, try, try to find negative feedback that you do agree with, and to acknowledge that you're making changes based on it. This will also help reassure reviewers of your sincerity in asking for feedback.'

'If you feel you're not getting enough reviews, or feedback of the caliber or type you'd like, do not, under any circumstances, complain about it. It's not that you might not have justifiable complaints, only that it's not a useful tactic for getting what you want. Instead, try writing to a few people with whom you've had some positive correspondence, who you think might have useful feedback for you, and very politely asking whether they might have a moment to look at your story and tell you whether X works for them (again with the specific questions). Always link to the story, and if there are any warnings, provide them before the link.'
* * *

Don't argue with betas or reviewers in the 'but I did that!' vein, instead find out why they felt something didn't work. If they said someone was OOC, find out what made them think that instead of arguing as to why it really was in character. Arguing with a reviewer, unless you have an established relationship that accepts that, will likely result in that reviewer ceasing to give you feedback in the future. If it occurs in a public forum, other reviewers may feel the same based on what they see of the exchange. There is a fine but definite line between discussion to understand a reviewer's reactions, which can be very useful, and disagreeing that their reactions are valid or correct. You don't have to take every suggestion, but if you want to get the most out of your reviewers, try to understand what they are saying.

Finally, Thank people!
Sometimes I've given what I consider trivial or off-the-cuff help, expecting nothing, and found myself acknowledged in the author's notes. This is a pleasant surprise, but not necessary (though very, very nice.)

Other times I've done extensive review and commenting, only to get no acknowledgment, either by email, forum or in the story. This seems a bit cold; any form of acknowledgment of my work on their behalf would be sufficient.

Even seeing the changes I've suggested incorporated is a reward. No changes and no thank you make me unlikely to help that person in the future.

Remember, these people are putting in their time and effort for you. It is the quality of the exchange and seeing stories improve that motivates them.

This has all been rather lengthy as it contains many different perspectives on the issue. My thanks to Dwim, AfterEver, Shadow975, Avon, and probably to several others I can't recall who have discussed this issue onlist and in forums. Also thanks to Lady E who suggested that more information on getting a beta might be nice for new members.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Lyllyn

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: Other

Genre: Research Article

Rating: General

Last Updated: 12/31/11

Original Post: 08/02/03

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