This document was written by Siubhan with some help from Joan the English Chick. It explains why everyone, even fanfic authors who are already good, should use a beta reader.
"I don't use betas."
Well then, perhaps you should. Beta readers can be invaluable, whether your story is short and silly or long and involved. A good beta can tell you when your characters are acting out-of-character, when your plot has holes, and when your verbiage is off. Most of the really good fanfic authors on the Web do use betas, and their work is much improved for it.
But you say you've read your story over a couple of times, so you don't need a beta? Well, you've still probably missed quite a few things that a beta could pick up on. You might not notice that you've grossly overused the word "scintillating," for example. Or the plot that you have so lovingly laid out in your head may not have been successfully transferred to the computer. For instance, you may realize that Spock has figured out where Kirk hides his sex toys, thus making it possible for him to secretly replace them with replicas of his own half-Vulcan schlong, but you may not have conveyed that successfully in your story to the uninformed reader who does not have the advantage of telepathy and cannot read your thoughts. You might also think it's perfectly in character for Han Solo to gather Leia in his arms and say, "My dearest flower, let me ravish you beneath the hyperdrive whilst the droids play romantic music for our tryst." Your beta might (wisely) disagree. Finally, your overall plot may just not be believable, and your beta reader might have suggestions on how to make it work more plausibly.
How does one go about getting a beta reader? Find a good fanfic author who has similar tastes to yours, a thorough command of the English language, and experience in your fanfic genre, and then ask her if she'd be willing. Don't ask a writer who writes very different stories than your own. For instance, I generally write either gritty slash or really silly stuff. I am the wrong person to ask to beta a romantic story about Angel and Buffy that ends with marriage and babies.
There are also lots of mailing lists and Web sites devoted to hooking up betas and authors. We have several websites on our links page that either do this as their main purpose, or have a section for it. You can also go to www.egroups.com and do a search on the word "beta." When we did this, it turned up tons of email lists for beta-reading! The same is true if you go to your favorite search engine and search on the words "beta" and "fanfic" (and the name of your genre of choice helps too). So poke around on the Internet and see if you can find a list or website for your genre (or a non-genre-specific one), then look for a beta-reader with similar tastes to yours. If you're not sure what that beta's tastes in fanfic are, send her a plot synopsis of your masterpiece and ask if this sounds like something she'd like to read.
Okay, you've found a beta reader. Now what? Listen to her. If she sends you a list of things that she thinks needs work, don't dismiss all her suggestions. There's a reason why she pointed this stuff out to you. Even if you don't agree with everything she says, you should think about each and every point, especially if prefaced with "This doesn't make sense." If you just dismiss every comment off-hand, then you're just wasting your beta's time. I cannot express just how frustrating that is.
Do you think your beta is being mean to you? Try to take a step back and not take what she says personally. Yes, this is your "baby" she's ripping to shreds, but if you take her suggestions, your story will be much stronger. True, there are some betas out there who are genuinely mean, and if you run into one, don't use her again. But if you find yourself becoming over-emotional when reading your beta's commentary, step away from the computer, cool off, and then go back and read the commentary again when you're feeling calm. Remember: your beta is only trying to help. Never ever write an angry letter to a good beta. You may come to your senses later and realize that not only were her comments dead-on, but that she was good enough that you wanted to use her again. Guess what? You yelled at her. She'll never beta for you again.
Still not convinced you need a beta? Well, do what you will. But stories that have gone through beta testing generally are tighter, cleaner, and better than stories that only have one pair of eyes going over them. By using a beta reader (or more than one), you do yourself, your story, and your readers a favor. If you're going to put the effort into writing, why not do it right?
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