So you want to be a fanfiction beta reader? It’s a tough job, but if you take the right approach, beta reading can be immensely rewarding. Positive aspects include getting editing experience, discovering new authors (before they are famous), and giving back to your fandom community. But most betas will report it’s the relationships they build with their writers that makes beta reading worthwhile. Cultivating these relationships, like any other, takes open and honest communication — mutual respect, a willingness to listen, and compromise are the hallmarks of effective reader-writer bonds.
Whether you’re new to the game or just looking for some tips on how to be a more effective beta, here are some guidelines you should follow when beta reading a fanfiction:
During the editing process, keep an open line of communication between you and your writer. Before the edit, ask what type of feedback they are looking for and approach your beta read accordingly. If your writer is looking for help with pacing or characterization, don’t spend time fiddling with Oxford commas. On the flip side, a fundamental understanding of grammar and punctuation is essential for a writer looking for a nitty-gritty copyedit.
Good communication also applies to the administrative side of beta editing. Does the author want a page of general comments chapter-by-chapter? Or do they want you to “track changes” in Microsoft Word? What sort of schedule are they following? Do they need to meet Big Bang deadlines? Be realistic and upfront with writers about how much time you need to edit their work. Make a timeline and stick to the plan. Don’t forget to build in wiggle room for life’s unexpected hurdles.
So what if you don’t have editing experience? Don’t sweat it. Even if it’s your first time beta reading, you will provide invaluable feedback for your writer simply by being a fresh set of eyes. In most cases, writers have spent weeks, months, even years with their stories. Herein lies your greatest asset as a beta reader: you are an outsider looking in.
Read It Twice
When reading a new fanfiction, let yourself get lost in the story the first time through. Ignore the instinct to edit as you go. Reading the work in its entirety will give you a bigger picture of what the author is trying to achieve. At the end of your first read-through, jot down anything that jumped out at you, good or bad. Did a certain scene linger in your mind? Was the dialog too funny for the tone of the story? Did you guess who the murderer was in the second chapter? These are the macro-level edits — the larger structural issues your writer will need to know about. Save the micro-level edits for the second read-through: fix those rogue commas, karate chop long sentences, eliminate pesky adverbs.
When beta reading, it’s important to begin with an open mind. This isn’t your story. It isn’t canon either. And issues can arise when your personal headcanons do not align with the author’s. Be receptive to how the author chooses to interpret the characters, especially along the lines of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and ability. Discuss any triggers or squicks you have before you agree to beta. I repeat, it’s not your story. Your job as a beta reader is not to impose your vision. It is to help the author realize theirs.
If something in the text is unclear, highlight it and ask the writer to clarify their intentions. If a character starts acting cagey out of the blue, politely ask, “Did something happen to make them nervous?” Asking questions instead of “fixing” parts helps your writer dig deeper and strive to make their intentions clear in the text.
Cut the Bullshit
While politeness and tact are essential qualities when it comes to critiquing someone’s work, it is equally important to be honest and upfront. Your job as a beta is to be candid about what works in the text. Writers have no use for false praise. That said, don’t be too harsh. A good rule of thumb is to “sandwich” criticism in positive feedback. For example, “This is a really funny exchange. Adding a few more ‘he saids’ might make it more clear who is speaking, but the dialogue is very true to character.”
There’s a big difference between being helpful and being hurtful. In emails especially, it is very easy to misinterpret a comment as judgemental or condescending. Try to keep things positive. Instead of giving negative absolutes (“This section is boring”), aim to provide ways forward (“These two paragraphs could be combined/condensed”). Of course, this is easier said than done. But it’s important to strike the right balance between being constructive and being critical. Keep your comments respectful and succinct. When in doubt, check in with your author to see if your feedback is working.
Do a Test Run
When establishing a new relationship with a writer, it might be a good idea to start the beta read by giving feedback on a single chapter. That way, the author can let you know if the critiques are too nit-picky. (Or not nit-picky enough!)
Respect the Author’s Autonomy
Although the writer has entrusted you to help “kill their babies,” they are not obligated to follow your suggestions. Once you’ve turned over your edits, your job is done. Although common courtesy dictates writers should acknowledge beta readers in the story notes, not everyone will do so. Swallow your pride, chalk it up as a learning experience, and move on.
Ah, the most important part! Beta reading should be fun. Much like crafting a story, there is a quiet dignity in being part of the writing process. Many beta/writer duos go on to collaborate on future projects. Maybe your writer will read your story someday. So go forth and beta! It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Do you have advice on how to be a good fanfiction beta reader?
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