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The Question of Beta Readers

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

The Question of Beta Readers

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Because I think too much about such things, the other day I found myself pondering beta readers. Before I go any further, I would like to invite those of you who are willing to give me some thoughts in a poll:

Poll #1068195 The Question of Beta Readers

Which best describes your role as and use of beta readers?

I am a beta reader, but I do not use a beta reader.
I am not a beta reader, but I use a beta reader.
I am a beta reader, and I use a beta reader.
I am not a beta reader, and I do not use a beta reader.
WTF is a beta reader??

How many stories do you beta read in a year?

Absolutely none.
Three or less.
Between four and ten.
Year? I beta-read at least one story per week.

If you are a beta reader, what is your feeling on crediting beta readers?

I feel that I deserve it, and so I expect to be credited as a beta.
I like to be credited, but I don't expect it.
It doesn't matter. If the author wants to credit me, that is his/her choice.
I don't want to be credited.
It depends on the author and the situation.

When using a beta reader, do you credit the person?

Absolutely! S/he deserves at least this.
Sometimes. It depends on the beta, the story, and the situation.
Never. I don't think it's necessary.

Before I begin, I am going to offer a gentle reminder that just because I say that I do things a certain way doesn't mean that I am also thumbing my nose at people who like to do things differently. This is just my preference and opinion. I understand where other people are coming from in choosing differently than I.

Disclaimer done. :)

I found myself thinking about beta reading the other day, or more specifically, the conventions that guide crediting beta readers for their help with a story. I find this interesting because, again, the world of fan fiction is very much at odds with the world of original fiction. Since I was "raised" in the original fiction world, came into fan fiction after having original stuff published, and recently, started counting myself among both crowds, then I find myself comparing the social differences and conventions between these two worlds.

In the fan fiction world, I see a strong convention toward always crediting those who beta-read one's stories. In fact, I've seen beta readers make grumpy comments along the lines of, "If you use my services, then I expect my due credit." And most writers I know who always use beta readers also always credit them. (Of course, I am aware of the fundamental flaw in this judgment: Of course people who credit their betas are going to appear, to me, as the people who "always use betas." People who use betas and don't credit will likely register as people who don't use betas. So I expect that this will skew my perceptions a bit, hence the poll.)

But this is curious because, when I write original fiction, it is understood that the people who help me get the story into shape will not be credited.

Why the difference? One community expects credit while the other eschews it entirely. (Well, save the novelists who get a page or two of acknowledgment. But in short fiction, aside from a dedication here and there, I've never seen anyone credited.)

I have a couple of theories.

One is that the fan fiction community is just that: a community. And so rather than viewing something as an "editing service," we tend to view beta-reading as a favor performed by a friend or writer whose opinion we respect and who we want to share in our success. These people have worked hard to earn our respect. They don't just get a title--"EDITOR"--that makes them an automatic authority.

Even at the level of critiques by peers rather than editors, I find a much closer community with my Silmfic peers than my o-fic peers. I realize that this is my own personal experience more than anything: I belong to a tiny fandom (Silmarillion) and a huge o-fic workshop group (Critters). For some, it could likely be reversed. I'd be interested in the perceptions of someone who belongs to a huge fandom (e.g., Harry Potter) and a small o-fic workshop group. Are the beta-credit conventions the same?

And this also fails to account for the help I am given with my o-fic by friends whom I also respect as writers. Many of my Tolkien fanfic peers help me with my o-fic. Yet while I wouldn't hesitate to credit these people as betas for my fanfic, then I accept their help on my original stuff, knowing that I'll probably never be able to publicly acknowledge them.

So perhaps it is the very practical matter that publications simply won't allow the sort of nods that fanfic writers give to their betas. For some of my stories, I've had around two dozen people offer opinions at various points along the way that shape the revisions that I make. What magazine wants such a list at the start of a piece?

But even beyond that, the attitudes between o-fic and fanfic are different. For o-fic we strive to present a piece that is not only flawless but that the reader will assume took that shape without any effort on our part. We don't want readers to know about the months of multiple revisions, the many times through workshop, the growling and the hair-pulling, and we certainly don't want anyone to ever know about that awful first draft.

But fanfic writers generally (in my experience) make no mistake in presenting themselves as students of writing, always learning. It's the same idea that being "published" in fandom (as in putting a final draft on an archive) does not make one immune to critiques or bar further revisions on the way that being "published" in o-fic tends to do. No matter how many times I "finish" AMC, for example, I will always go back and tinker and make tiny changes. Because publishing fanfic is far more informal and fluid than publishing o-fic.

So fanfic writers, of course, care more about crediting the people who help them to grow as writers, and these are more often than not beta readers and reviewers. Because fanfic writers value demonstrating growth over perfection. O-fic writers value perfection over letting an audience know what it took--growth--to get there.

Of course, I know that there is a self-publishing o-fic community out there, i.e. FictionPress, that I know little about. How do things work there? Do writers use betas? Do they credit them? Do they make endless niggling changes to their stories the way that fanfic writers do?

Personally, I beta-read far more stories for other authors than I have beta-read. I write so much that it seems an unfair burden to ask any single person to be my beta reader. That would be a full-time job unto itself. I can count on one hand the number of fanfic stories I've gotten beta feedback on.

I always credit my beta readers.

Yet I don't expect credit in turn. In fact, I'm almost embarrassed to receive it because it goes against the way that I've always perceived those who offer feedback and critique on a story: as invisible and unsung heroes. It seems wrong, to me, to ask credit for simply sharing my opinions on a person's story. Yet I understand why people do and why beta readers expect this. It's just not something I've personally been able to get behind to the degree of putting my foot down and insisting on being listed as a beta reader.

Any other thoughts on this? Why we expect credit as fanfic betas? Are we presumptuous for doing so? Or am I off entirely in my perceptions of this convention in fandom and the reasons behind it?
  • You didn't have a category that I fit into, so I picked the one that was closest. I Beta read stories and use a Beta reader for a select few of my stories. (Others just are what they are and that's that.) I also occasionally work with a writers’ group and I do not credit people who read the story and only say--that's great or I hate this, or point out a single typo. On the one's that are truly Beta-read, I like to credit for the entire story and not chapter-by-chapter (this has worked because I have two loyal friends who have read every chapter of the one story cycle that means the most to me and has been Beta read). I credit anyone else also who makes a significant contribution to any single chapter.

    On non-fanfic writing: I guess it's a whole different story in the world of fiction. I have only written fanfic fiction, but have published lots of articles as a journalist. I have always thanked anyone who contributed to those (unless they were a straightforward wire-service kind of article). Any feature article gets acknowledgments from me and I have never had a publisher complain. I also note that I have others’ articles and frequently even gotten money for my trouble and no credit. Once, however, I was thanked for helping in a non-fiction book but in a dedication along with the husband, mother, kids and dog with no mention that the help I gave was technical and literary and not just amorphous support. I'm still mad about that.

    I've always been thanked for a Beta read in fanfiction. It's the only reward--I guess that's why I appreciate it.
  • I think one big difference between fanfic and origfic is that fandoms tend to be relatively small and close-knit, and so any betas being thanked are likely to be known to the readers as well as to the author, while in RL authors tend to mention a list of random names of people the readers are unlikely to meet. So, in fandom, the acknowledgments are both more interesting to readers, and more useful to the beta for building a social reputation. I suspect that, if a book had been written with the help of someone famous, no editor would mind advertising this fact--and that the famous person might be quite happy with the publicity.

    There is also another factor at work: thanking beta writers is a slightly subtler way of saying, "yes, I use betas," a statement that attracts a certain subgroup of readers.
    • You just put into really great words what I was trying to express with the idea of fandom circles being more interested in community than o-fic circles. Unfortunately, I did much verbal flailing. :^P But I think this is an excellent point that you make.

      There is also another factor at work: thanking beta writers is a slightly subtler way of saying, "yes, I use betas," a statement that attracts a certain subgroup of readers.

      Perhaps because I've had so few stories beta'ed, this point completely slipped my mind, though several have now mentioned it. Another good point! :)
  • I prefer to be called a Delta Reader, thanks. ;P (Just kidding.)

    and we certainly don't want anyone to ever know about that awful first draft

    What first draft? *whistles innocently*

    On a slightly more serious note, being the so-far single person to be absolutely beta-less, I suppose I try to circumvent this "problem" (and less the issue of credit and more the issue of me feeling guilty asking someone else to edit my junk) by attempting to conscript reviewers into being one-time mini betas. Not that it always works (nor do I mind when it does not!). But that's my deep, dark secret. Shh. Don't tell.
    • I prefer to be called a Delta Reader, thanks.

      Does that mean that you make a lot of changes?

      Δ Δ Δ

      I suppose I try to circumvent this "problem" (and less the issue of credit and more the issue of me feeling guilty asking someone else to edit my junk) by attempting to conscript reviewers into being one-time mini betas.

      Hey, that's exactly what I did for AMC! Juno and Jenni--kind brave souls--did the first handful of chapters, but the rest of the revisions were based on reviewer comments.

      Of course, who would want to beta an entire 350K-word novel? That was part of my reason for doing it that way. (Really! :^P)
  • Warning: I am currently under the influence of a strong rum and Coke (drunk fairly quickly), a couple of episodes of SVU, and my Principles of Teaching Writing class, in which dumb luck saved my ass. Anything I say should be taken with a large grain of salt.

    I think that one of the reasons that people credit beta readers in fan fiction is because the fan ficton community expects people to use beta readers. If you credit one, then that's proof that you used one, and therefore, you can reasonably expect immunity from the critique: "Get a beta!"

    I'm one of the minority who thinks that a beta reader isn't always an absolute requirement. But then, I'm also one of the minority who writes out stories in full, then lets them sit for a while, then posts them one chapter a week. Plenty of time for my own revisions.
    • I agree with this--both points, I mean. With so many people saying "Get a beta!" in reviews and "How to Write Decent Fanfic" articles, not to mention people around the community advertising their beta services (everywhere from forums designed for that to their own FF.net profiles), a lot of people get the idea, "There's no excuse for not having a beta!" I imagine it can be a bit annoying to be told, "Get a beta!" (I hate being told things like that, anyway...) Especially if you've already used one.

      Plus given the nature of fanfic, maybe "good writers" are thought to be in the habit of giving credit for what they use anyway? *shrug*

      And I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks of betas as not absolutely necessary if you don't want one. I kind of have a hard time seeing myself as using betas before posting if I ever get into writing and posting fanfic. It's not like I can't make changes the story later by myself, or using peoples' reviews, or anything.
    • (no subject) - dawn_felagund - Expand
  • Sometimes I use a beta-reader, and sometimes I don't - it depends on the story and the situation (how much time do I have, how long is the story, how important is the story, what do I want to do with the story ...). The same goes for my o-fic. Generally I simply post my short stories and work in whatever concrit comes way. Getting my novels into shape is another matter and requires a LOT of help. As you know. ;-)

    I think the customs concerning beta-reading are due to the sense of community in fandom.

    Though my personal experience is limited to two fandoms, I see very much the same traditions regarding beta-reading in both of them. HP fandom may be huge, but the small corner of it in which I am active (exclusively the good 'ship of Severus Snape & Hermione Granger) is just about as tightly knit as LOTR or maybe even Silm fandom. After just a few weeks I'm fairly familiar with the "big" names in that corner of fandom along with the archives and who's writing the big stories right now.

    It's interesting to note, maybe, that the specialized archives in that section of fandom do not offer open posting. Instead they do something I haven't encountered in LOTR fandom on quite the same level before: they actually proof-read your story before you're allowed to post it, sometimes asking for quite finicky changes (HASA only ever got back to me about more general things, e.g. when the formatting got messed up due to technical problems or something like that).

    Personally, I feel very bad if I don't thank the persons who have helped me with my stories, no matter if they are fanfic or o-fic.

    Everyone is so very busy all the time. Time is one of the most precious gifts you can give to someone. And beta-reading takes a lot of time and effort, no matter if it's o-fic or fanfic.

    Honour where honour is due! All hail the patient beta-readers, nitpickers and britpickers!

    (And though I do feel that way, I doubt I would ever approach someone I betaed for and insist that they include my name somewhere. I'd probably still feel that they ought to do so and maybe - depending on how much work I put into their story - I wouldn't agree to help them again. But I don't believe in making a fuss, especially not about fanfic.)
    • I think the customs concerning beta-reading are due to the sense of community in fandom.

      I don't know if you read tehta's comment somewhere above yours, but she puts into better words than I did about community and beta-reading. *seconds that* ;)

      Instead they do something I haven't encountered in LOTR fandom on quite the same level before: they actually proof-read your story before you're allowed to post it, sometimes asking for quite finicky changes (HASA only ever got back to me about more general things, e.g. when the formatting got messed up due to technical problems or something like that).

      This is really interesting. Does this work well? Or does it cause drama?

      On the one hand, it has merit for the same reason that a literary magazine asking for changes is acceptable: They're letting a writer publish in their space, that they pay for. Just like I always say that I pay the bills on SWG, so I write the rules. :) (Though I do try to be fair.)

      On the other hand, part of me balks at the idea of being held to any one person or group of persons' ideas of the "rules," either in terms of canon or writing. So I don't know how comfortable I'd be with that idea, as a fanfic writer. But that's my choice not to post on such sites, right? ;)

      And though I do feel that way, I doubt I would ever approach someone I betaed for and insist that they include my name somewhere. I'd probably still feel that they ought to do so and maybe - depending on how much work I put into their story - I wouldn't agree to help them again.

      I don't know that I'd go that far not for being credited. Again, this is just a personal choice; I understand why people expect credit. But I would consider not helping if I wasn't thanked, at least personally, for my time and effort. That would just be rude, imho.

      But I don't believe in making a fuss, especially not about fanfic.

      Hear hear! *raises glass* We certainly see eye to eye on that one. :)
  • Sorry, again, but now without spelling mistakes...

    Heh the poll results are fun to see. A year ago or something like that, I wrote an 'essay' piece on this matter, what a beta is about and what to expect (from both sides and all of that jazz). It is a wikific, which means it is open for everyone to edit and add to it, although I did wrote the basic outline, but I can't tell who changed what and where. In that sense, I am hesitant to call it mine. Congratulations! It is a beta!. Anyhow, I wonder about crediting in the original fic, I mean I so often crack open a book and have to get past a page (or two) where the author gives his or her eternal thanks to whomever helped, including the editor. So, I wonder if the non-crediting position is globally applied or if it varies from short works to novels. I think you are right about short works, but longer works come with credits. At least that is what I mostly see happening. Also from the commercial non-fic angle I've been in: it would be weird to have your article come with thanks to those who edited it because a) a journal/magazine has an editing staff that is responsible for the final output, b) the responsibility and intellectual property rights are at stake because one would cross a line. If you credit someone for helping... it is a moot point that in the scientific world, people who even helped with conducting research and thusly contributing to an article is listed as a co-author. An editor is a line editor mostly and plays a less significant role in all of this.

    Now as for ff, this world is different because writers are still learning the skill to master writing (mostly) and depending on what a writer expects from a beta (see the essay), either the beta plays the role of a mentor or does the simple line editing and nothing more.

    I am a writer that needs the grammar editing the most because, well, even though I have a good grasp of grammar now, dunglish tends to slip in or my wonderful beta ticks me on the finger to say: Rhaps, what the heck do you mean there, to me as an native speaker it doesn't make sense... but in German it does. It only takes that slap on my fingers before I come back with that corrected. I do however have a few unbetad pieces out there that amazingly enough for me, were received well. Heh.

    Anyway, as for using a beta: it depends on how much you ask and use from your beta. If you have someone going over your piece and you end up with things you can't use at all and you don't use it at all: why credit? I would tell the beta that btw and seek out a different one. If you know a beta worked hard and long, held you hand or guided you through the rough spots in a story, I credit. I think however that before you send your file to a beta, you first have to communicate what you both expect from the other. I mean if you know your canon knowledge is solid, say that so to the beta, it saves the beta also a lot of work. The more precise you are about what you expect of a beta-read, the more will be more pleasurable. By the way the past year I've done more beta-work than I have written stories (I have very active authors LOL), but hopefully that will balance out soon. :)
  • Heh. I'll comment on this from a completely different perspective.

    So, I'm a "published author" but in one of the driest deserts imaginable: peer-reviewed scientific literature. In our tradition, folks who read over a manuscript and make suggestions and corrections are given credit in the "acknowledgments" section of the paper. This short section typically appears at the end of a peer-reviewed article. Those acknowledged usually are not the formal reviewers (they're anonymous) of a submitted article.

    For example, I read my sr. staff's publications that are ready for submission to a journal, make corrections for grammar or punctuation, make sure the interpretation of data & results make sense, etc. In turn, they acknowledge my time, effort and intellectual input. In the scientific arena, such acknowledgment is a courtesy, but sort of an expected one. So, I suppose that is analogous to the recognition of a beta reader.

    With scientists, I error on the side of over-recognition. Hell hath no fury like researcher whose work (or even time & intellectual energy) is not cited, credited or acknowledged. Not that there are any big egos in my world.

    As a scientist, yes, I expect to be recognized even if it's reading over a manuscript - it's part of my professional P.R. to be known in our community. Now in the hypothetical situation that anyone would be foolish enough to request ficcish beta-reading from me (I am not exactly the world's most critical reader or nitpicker of technicalities in creative writing), then, no, I'd have no expectations of acknowledgment. I mean, it's not as if "pandemonium_213" is gonna end up on a science citations database! But just like my professional milieu, I can't imagine not acknowledging others who have suffered through my hackery. :^)

    With regard to original literature in fiction, my impression is that forewards and acknowledgments sections in a novel tend to recognize pivotal contributions and support from others, yes?

    And not exactly off topic, I thorought enjoyed your latest verdant</a> original fiction offering. Detailed comments will be forthcoming on that.

  • I suppose you're right about the original fic conventions...I find it rather odd. If I was publishing a book I'd written, I'd want credits to all the editors involved inside the front cover, perhaps on the title page!

    I don't so much feel I "deserve" credit when I'm doing beta reading as regard it as a courtesy, something people do for each other to show that they are appreciative of the work the beta did (and also as some sort of assurance that they actually read any of the beta comments!).

    I wonder if part of the difference between fanfic and original fic is that a large amount of fanfiction is published without a beta, and by putting a beta credit, it's sort of some stamp that their work should be at least readable! How much original fic - Anne Rice not withstanding - is published completely as the author submitted it, without an editor ever laying a finger on it?

    I'd better stop rambling now...too much to do this evening and not enough time!
  • Well, I use a beta reader because I speak Ponglish *winks at Rhaps* and I don't want to invent some awkward, quasi-English grammar and make people go like: wtf she's talking about. ;) Also, I use a beta reader because sometimes their comments are the only feedback I get.

    I'm a beta reader because I'm fairly good as far as canon is concerned. I'm a qualified editor and proof-reader so being a beta is not very far from what I'm doing for a living and it helps me improve my skills. :)
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