The Art of Fanfic Feedback

Great beta readers are made, not born.

Fotolia.com | © fotofabrika

Fotolia.com | © fotofabrika

Being friends with a fanfic writer isn’t always easy. Pages upon pages of instant messages about that weird idea that just won’t leave them alone, random texts in the middle of the night about the latest plot hole they’ve encountered, and hours spent coaching them through the ever-so-common “oh man, no one’s gonna like this, my writing is crap, I hope I’m reincarnated as a clam” existential crisis that all writers go through.

No, there’s never a dull moment when you’re friends with an author, and there’s nothing like the feeling of happiness and satisfaction when you hear that the long-awaited fic they’ve been working on for months is ready to be published…

…but first they want to hear what you think.

Staring at the Dropbox link, you start to panic. You’re flattered that they want your opinion, but you’re not a reviewer or a beta reader! You’re a fanart kind of person; you don’t know the first thing about writing! The last essay you wrote for English Lit barely got a C! What can you do to help?!

Fret no more, friend. Giving feedback on fanfic is much easier than it sounds.

Grammar

Before I even get into critiquing the actual writing, one of the most immediately helpful things you can do is point out any grammatical or spelling errors. As they’re almost exclusively amateur productions, most fanfics don’t have the luxury of being looked over by a professional editor who is also familiar with the canon. I speak from experience when I say that no matter how many times someone runs spell check, there’s always that stray comma or pronoun mix-up that slips through the cracks—or, in the event of an overzealous spell check, a canon word that is misspelled or misplaced. For instance, contrary to what the computer’s dictionary may tell you, Star Trek’s Starfleet is one word. As far as issues go, things like this are easy to explain and quick to fix.

Similarly, let the author know if there are any passages that are hard to understand. What sounds good in the head doesn’t always work on the page, and sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to realize it. Similarly, let them know if there’s a word being used wrong or if there’s a sentence that sounds off. This is especially important when the author’s first language isn’t the same as the one they’re writing in. Words have cultural connotations that aren’t always apparent to those not exposed to it, and no one wants to commit a lingual faux pas.

That said, make them aware of what they’re doing right. Did a particular sentence strike you as brilliant or did you enjoy the way something was phrased? Let them know, so they know what to keep doing right.

Plot

Writing fanfiction is hard. Writing good fanfiction is even harder. One of the biggest reasons is that unlike original fiction where you are the master of the universe and the only limit is your imagination, you’re working with a pre-established universe with rules and guidelines set by other people. Not just any plot can happen, and it’s bad form to go against the canon. As such, feedback on the execution of the plot can be a big help.

Within the context of fanfiction, one of the most important questions that can be addressed is how plausible is the in-universe story? If something that happens is outright impossible, point it out to the author so that it may be fixed as soon as possible. For example, Hogwarts has an Anti-Apparation Jinx on it, preventing magical teleportation to or from the school, and if someone in a Harry Potter fanfiction successfully Apparates onto school grounds without a reasonable explanation, a plot hole arises that can throw the rest of the story into chaos.

That said, if the whole point of the fic is to explore something impossible within the universe, feedback on how the event in question is addressed is also invaluable. Is the explanation satisfying or too vague? For example, in Mass Effect fanfictions where the main plot is based around two characters of incompatible species conceiving and raising a child, the incompatible part must be addressed in some way. Within the canon of the universe, it’s not something that can be taken for granted, and if not explained, it can reflect poorly on the author. The explanation can either be long or short, but if the impossibility goes unaddressed, it runs the risk of alienating the reader.

Similarly, in shipping fics (or in any fic where a relationship features heavily), feedback can be given on the main relationship. Are there any elements that seem problematic or contrived? Do the characters act in accordance with the way the original work portrays them? A poorly written romance can be a death knell for a story based around one.

Character

In addition to the trials and tribulations that come with already existing universes, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in writing a good fanfiction is accurately portraying already existing characters. Since your friend didn’t create them, he or she can’t know everything about them and can’t just make them act however they want. As characters are the heart and soul of fanfiction, it’s important that they act in accordance with their pre-established personalities.

When considering what to give for feedback, one thing to keep in mind is how well the author seems to know the characters. If someone seems out of character, bring it up. If you take issue with something, others likely will too, and it’s better to nip the issue in the bud at the editing stage than after it’s already online. Not everyone will interpret a character the same way, and by pointing out something that doesn’t make sense to you, it tells the author they need to make their interpretation of the character’s underlying motivations clearer or possibly even reevaluate their entire view.

Tying into that, another good piece of feedback to give is whether or not invented details about the character make sense. As stated previously, we can’t know everything about a character we haven’t created ourselves, so sometimes the author must make assumptions. Personal opinion can color these assumptions for better or for worse, and giving an honest opinion can help realign characters with the canon.

As a special note, when original characters feature heavily in the story, it is good to let the author know your opinion of them. Introducing original characters into a work of fanfiction can be tough, and without careful treatment, they run the risk of being considered a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu. Not all OCs are, of course, but as with all aspects of a fanfiction, they must make sense within the canon. For example, the Galactic Empire of Star Wars is highly prejudiced against aliens, so it wouldn’t make sense for a non-Human to achieve a particularly high position within their ranks—and even if they did, it’s likely that they would face a great deal of scrutiny from all but the most loyal of coworkers and subordinates. Similarly, a cold character like Draco Malfoy wouldn’t immediately open up to a new student, no matter how friendly or good-looking he/she is. Could it happen? Yes, but not without proper plot and character development.

Conclusion

So what should you take away from this? Above all, be honest with the author. Tell them what you think. If you think something is off, let them know. They can’t get better if they don’t know what they’re doing wrong. If you think something’s awesome, let them know that too, so they can keep up the good work.

Now click that link and get reading!

About Emily Ulrich (2 Articles)
A lifelong fanfiction aficionado, Emily Ulrich is an unashamed lover of the bad guys, her fandom of choice being Star Wars. She is a student at Emerson College and plans to study Computer Animation.

1 Comment on The Art of Fanfic Feedback

  1. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // December 5, 2015 at 2:16 pm // Reply

    This is great guidance for beta readers, and for authors (who should always be doing at least one beta reading / editing pass of their stories first)! I love that you highlight some key points about what makes particularly great fanfiction, above and beyond the general elements of great fiction. In fanfiction, consistently playing within canon rules such as established characterizations, plot device limitations, and basic universe logic is highly valued. Cleverly playing within the rules is often the determinant between the 90% of fic that is crap and the 10% that is awesome. Of course an author can choose to bend or violate canon rules—and many great fics do just that in some specific, limited way—but the further an author deviates from canon, the less likely their story will be recognized as effective fanfiction for that canon. Things like characterization are often more open to differing interpretations than things like plot device limitations (e.g., the Hogwarts anti-Apparition spell), but still, veer too far and the fanfic will probably be perceived as a “poor” interpretation.

    I’ve been writing fanfiction for 20+ years, but I’ve only been making use of beta readers for the past two years. My writing has improved SO much because of their consistent, constructive critiques. They’ve made me look like a much better writer than I actually am. 🙂 I never want to go back to writing in a vacuum!

    Everybody tends to focus on the writers. Go you for encouraging the betas!

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