"If you can read, you can be a beta reader."
That sentence is incorrect. Not grammatically; it has subject/verb agreement and a properly-placed comma, and while the "can be" in the second clause is rather passive, it's not wrong. Besides, the sentence has a nicer rhythm that way than if it read, "If you can read, you can beta read." No; grammatically, that sentence is just fine. Its content, however--that's where my objection lies. Don't get me wrong; I'm a literacy advocate, as I think everyone in fandom must be. And I readily admit that the more you read--the more you expose yourself to well- and poorly-written stories--the more likely you are to recognize the difference between good and bad writing, which is a valuable skill for a beta reader to possess.
But beta reading is more than the simple acknowledgment of what's good or bad writing. In fact, when done properly, beta reading--editing--requires a number of skills quite separate from the ability to comprehend what you're reading. Therefore, the sentence that began this essay is, in my opinion, incorrect, and needs some reworking. And with that, I have beta-read the first sentence of this essay.
Okay, before I get too far ahead of myself, let's go back to the beginning. What is this beta reader of which I speak? In a nutshell: a beta reader is a person who has a good grasp of the English language (or whatever language you're writing in) and the show you're writing for. A conscientious author will enlist a beta reader or two (or three or four or five) to proofread and help edit her stories before posting them to a public forum; she does this to avoid posting pieces riddled with common or silly errors that would embarrass the heck out of her if they went unchecked, and may lead to fewer willing readers. Beta readers can be asked to look for specific things--if you know you have problems knowing where to put commas, for instance, you could put your beta on the lookout for misplaced ones--but if she knows her stuff, she should also be ready to catch things you don't ask for, things you might not even know you have problems with.
Basically, a beta reader is an editor by a different name. And you know what they say: an editor by any other name is still going to tear your beloved, laboured-over literary masterpiece to shreds. And that's okay; after all, if you're interested in putting out quality fiction, that's what you want her to do. It might take some adjustment on your part as an author--because let's face it, objectivity where your own writing's concerned never comes easy, if at all--but if you can understand and accept that your beta reader isn't a yes-man who exists to bolster your notions of yourself as The Best Writer Since Shakespeare, the beta experience can be very rewarding. (Not to mention helpful, which, after all, is the whole point.)
How does a beta reader...beta? Well, there are many different areas of focus to be considered when doing a beta; accordingly, many authors have more than one beta reader, each chosen for her ability to focus on one or more of those areas. (It is possible to find one beta who can look for everything you need, but on the other hand, the more betas you have, the more fresh eyes you have watching your work, the more mistakes are likely to be caught.) I've beta'd fanfiction for a number of authors for close to eight years; I'm going to use my own process as an example, but remember that there's no one right system that works for everybody--I'm just trying to give general guidelines to the process as a whole. So here's what I do:
First, I read the story, straight through. I might make short notations on things that catch my eye--typos, punctuation errors, basic grammar or flow problems--but for the most part, I use this first read-through to read the story. This is when I find out what the story is, what the author's saying by telling it, and how that story fits into the universe of the show it's based on. This also gives me the opportunity to include short, first-glimpse reactions to what I'm reading; I might interject a "*snerk*" if something makes me laugh, or a "Huh?" if I'm confused. Reactionary comments to the first read of a story don't carry a lot of editing weight, but they do allow the author to see how the reader's thinking when she doesn't know where the story's going or how it's going to end.
Second, I go back and flesh out my brief notations. Simple typos or common errors don't usually require an explanation as much as a flag so the author knows where to make corrections. Bigger problems, however, like run-on sentences or passages that don't scan or don't make sense the way they're worded, usually get a flag and a suggestion or two as to how the author could go about rewriting. These first two steps require a basic--but good--grasp of the written language. I don't mean that you have to know what a conjunctive adverb or subjunctive mood is, or that you have to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs; I do mean that you should be able to recognize when something's not written properly, even if you don't know the big words and professional terminology for what's going on. A beta reader doesn't have to be a walking dictionary of linguistics, but she should know the difference between "to," "too," and "two."
Third, I skim through the story again, this time pausing to comment on content issues, if there are any. Do the characterizations make sense? Can we see where the characters are coming from, and have their motivations been made clear? Is there a logical and complete progression from where/how everyone is at the beginning of the story to where/how they are at the end? Does the dialogue fit its speaker? Is there stilted dialogue, or soap-operaish exposition that's a) unnecessary and exciseable or b) necessary but in need of reworking so it's not so noticeable? What about the story itself--are there plot holes, and if so, how obviously do they gape? Is the narrative coherent? Does a scene end too abruptly, or go on too long? What can be trimmed? What can be more fully explored?
You get the idea. It's this stage of the beta process that requires a working, analytical knowledge of the universe the story was written into. Above and beyond having good grammar and narrative structure, serious fanfic needs to work within the established boundaries of its show's canon; therefore, your beta reader needs to know enough about that canon to be able to recognize the possibilities that exist within--and without--its boundaries.
If she has a good grasp on your show, she'll be able to recognize if/when your story strays unacceptably outside the possibilities/boundaries of your show's canon. She can then make informed comments on how your story treats the abovementioned issues (characterization, motivation, the development of plot points), and let you know if your story's flaws come from inconsistencies within your own fic's boundaries (if your round peg fits into the round hole but has a few chunks missing from the wood), or from the entire piece's incompatibility with established canon (if your peg is big and square but the hole is small and round).
This issue can be a contentious one. A quick glance around any fandom will show you that canon can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and your beta reader might not interpret and understand a canonical point the same way you do. (I'm talking mostly about intangibles here. It's hard to argue that Lex objects to civilian ownership of firearms when we've seen him in possession of a gun, but the matter of what his motivations are when he shoots someone with his gun is open to a little more debate.)
If you and your beta do disagree, you don't necessarily have to change your mind and take her interpretation of canon--an interpretation that might be reflected in her comments on your story--as gospel. You should, however, consider her viewpoint; she might be basing it on an aspect of canon you've forgotten about, or something that you can address in your story without overhauling it completely, or something that you hadn't realized does put your story at greater odds with canon than you'd intended. On the other hand, if you consider her point and still arrive at your own conclusion, you'll at least have seen your piece and the show from another perspective, one that you might decide you want to work with later. It's never a bad idea to take a look at things from a perspective outside your own; that's what a good beta reader can help you do.
Finally, when I beta, I end with some general comments: my responses to any particular questions the author had, my overall impressions of the story as a whole, my take on what worked or didn't work for me throughout the piece, etc. I might emphasize comments I made through the body of the story, so the author won't miss the areas I think need attention; I might squee and bounce and demand immediate posting, because the only things needing attention are minor typos. I try to end on an encouraging note, regardless of whether the piece was brilliant or had major problems; there's never anything wrong with letting an author know that it's worth it to do the work necessary to make her piece the best it can be. And besides, after a good beta-ripping, sometimes it's a good idea to make sure the author knows it's nothing personal. *g*
Which brings me to the most important fact of beta reading of all: a beta reader is not a cheerleader. If she likes your story enough to cheerlead, that's fabulous, and a really great pick-me-up if said story drove you insane while you were writing it. In the grand scheme of things, however, your beta is not your ego-fluffer. As I said earlier, she's an editor, which means she will occasionally be evil and harsh and cruel and LAUGH while she RIPS the STILL BEATING HEART from your POOR, DEFENSELESS BABY of a story.
And seriously, that's what she's supposed to do. Her job is to keep you from looking like an idiot by catching all those typos and plot errors and things I mentioned earlier. If you're lucky, you can end up with a beta who combines her editing skills with some honest cheerleading, but the important thing to realize is that cheerleading should always be considered secondary to critique. After all, as the author, you already think your story's the next War and Peace; your beta reader exists to tell you what novel your readers are going to liken it to, and her goal is to keep that comparison as far away from Heart of Darkness as possible. (Sorry, I'm not much of a Conrad fan.)
So, given all of that, I think it's time to rewrite my opening sentence.
"If you can read, understand the basic rules of written English, and think critically about your television show's canonical construction, you can be a beta reader."
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