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Title: Primer On Basic Writing Skills
Author name: Icarus
Author email: email@example.com
Definition of 'a Beta Reader': online term for a peer, not a pro (usually) who edits your story.
All right. There are those who have the mistaken impression that Beta-review is a quick scan for glaring grammatical errors before you slap your work up onto a website. This is a waste of your Beta's time and talents. UnBeta'd work should never mean uncorrected work. You should have proofed everything yourself, and not left the dirty scrubbing for your Beta (I've Beta'd for people who didn't even spellcheck).
A Beta in my book is an editor, with full editorial responsibilities.
A good Beta should be able to check:
1- Grammar, punctuation and spelling.
2- Consistency and continuity.
3- Pacing, plot holes, characterisation and phrasing.
All changes should be indicated in a different color or bold or some such so the author can see what they needed to correct (when the correction is done in Word not on a printed copy). They shouldn't just be wiped out in the document. This teaches the author their consistent mistakes for starters. And catches mistakes the Beta may have made (for example, changing British spellings to American).
How should corrections be handled?
1 - Grammar, punctuation and spelling should be simply corrected.
2 - Inconsistencies (first Ron has blue eyes, next he has brown) and continuity issues (Fred walked through the door, then he opened it) should be pointed out, but the correction should be left to the author.
3 - Corrections to the pacing, amending plot holes, fixing characterisation and especially changes to phrasing should be left to the author. It works best to phrase these as a question, to draw out the author's vision and creativity rather than trying to create your own work. You may produce an outstanding turn of phrase, but it won't reflect the author's intent.
Since a Beta reader is not responsible for publishing the story, they should not rewrite. This is the only difference between a Beta and an Editor.
The conversation that should take place between a Beta and their Writer before any editing takes place:
What do you want me to check?
When do you expect this done?
What do you think needs work?
Treating your Beta well.
This is important.
First: give credit for the work they've done in your Author comments. Someone volunteered to slog through your writing, not the easiest of tasks, on their own free time. Say thank you. Sincerely. Even if a Beta doesn't work out, credit them for their efforts.
Second: don't get mad if they point out errors. This is their job. Yes, yes, I realise your story is close to your heart, and a good Beta is sensitive and polite. But you've asked for this (see the conversation that should have taken place..). I can't tell you how often people are defensive. I am guilty as charged.
Third: respond. When someone has Beta'd your work, send back the final corrected version, preferably with your comments. If you don't use a change, explain why. Don't be shy. It will shed light onto your writing style. If a Beta asks a question, answer it.
Fourth: where appropriate, take their advice. If there isn't a darned good reason not to, it's probably best to listen. Writers are myopic where their own writing is concerned.
Betas should choose carefully whom they edit:
1 - Edit only stories that you like. If you hate Alternate Universe, and a friend asks you to Beta an AU for them - don't do it. (Personal experience.) You can't be fair, no matter how well-written it is, no matter how hard you try.
2 - Send back unspellchecked documents and tell the author to do that part. Trust me, it's best to break people of that habit.
3 - Teach the people you Beta for. Most people have no idea how to utilize a Beta, and need to be told what is expected of them as a writer.
4 - Don't Beta for people who ignore your advice. There's nothing worse than to have spent all that time going through a document, been credited for the Beta review, only to discover they didn't even use your spelling corrections. Don't laugh. It's happened to me.
Making good use of Betas will improve your writing immensely. Treating your Beta well will help guarantee that good Betas continue to make the take the time to edit for other people. And taking care who you Beta for will keep you from uselessly spinning your wheels.
A great Beta/Writer relationship can last over many stories, and grow more interesting and insightful as a story develops between the two of you and in your hands. I've had that happen with several Betas now, and I count myself lucky.