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When Writer and Beta Collide (and Why They Should)
by Miriam Heddy

When I hear of a case of a beta and a writer at odds (and how often isn't there a conflict when beta and writer butt heads over a piece of fic) it emphasizes something that we often don't talk about vis a vis the beta/writer relationship--and that is that ideally, there should be a relationship there.

I've had two major, long-term betas in my fanfic writing life. And in both cases, the betas beta me because they  like my writing enough to want to see it get better. And, over time, one of the interesting things that happens is that I, as the writer, get to understand better my betas' kinks and their personal obsessions (like counting the number of words in my Victorian-era sentence cum paragraphs).

This kind of understanding comes from sending stories, or parts of stories, back and forth, and it takes longer, admittedly, than the quick "I send this to you for beta, you send it back, I make changes (or not) and post" system.

I beta for Francesca pretty regularly, and have been for--what, two years? In that time, she's come to know what I'm likely to object to in any story (purple prose, gratuitous high drama, running through the woods <g>), my own kinks (Jim cleaning, Jim complaining about dirt, guy bickering, small sensory and symbolic details) and what I'm a particularly good reader for (sensory details, POV, interiority) and what I'm *not* as good at (spotting typos). Knowing me and my beta style, Francesca can more easily decide to follow my suggestions or dismiss them (and she usually tells me when she is doing either, and why).

So there are many benefits of building a beta/writer relationship, especially given that a beta is a single, small focus group of one, a critic who gets to see your performance before you risk heading out on stage in front of the critics who will have less sympathy and investment in your work. But it takes time, and investment on both sides, and a helluva alot of honesty and trust.

The downside of this "beta as friend" way of thinking is that, unless you're completely honest about your own deficits and strengths as a beta or writer, you risk (as seems to happen a lot in Sentinel fan partnerships) choosing a beta who won't stand up to you, or one whose skills (or lack of) so closely match your own that you end up finding validation from the beta herself. Betas and writers should, like all buddy teams, be balanced and different enough to have a somewhat exciting (and sometimes annoying) relationship. If you and your beta find yourself spending more time patting each other on the back than mocking each others' idiosyncrasies, you may be in the wrong relationship <g>.

What I'm getting at, I think, is that betaing isn't about validation, or perhaps shouldn't be. It's about honest and caring evaluation. And, as is the case with all criticism, it means nothing unless you consider, understand, and respect the source.

Yet, like writers, betas are only human and so want a certain amount of validation themselves. In some ways, despite the "thank you"s your writer may give in the story notes and in person, betaing often feels like a thankless job, one in which you feel either invisible (with the story's readers assuming it was simply the writer's genius they read) or too visible (when the story, as posted, has what you consider to be small or large errors in judgment, after it's been through your hands).

Sometimes, I think the only way to get the amount of validation you need as a beta is to give it to yourself. It takes a certain admirable flexibility to learn to pat yourself on the back.


Notes and thanks: To Kat, whose careful and loving attention to word counting kept many a reader of mine from auto-erotic asphyxiation, and to Francesca, who helped me write my boys out of a paper bag without doing themselves, or me, injury.  

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