Many thanks and *hugs* to thismaz, who beta'd this piece sensitively, thoughtfully and with illustrations from her own experience as a writer and beta which improved it considerably.
Grateful thanks also to eyezrthewindows, snowpuppies, suki_blue and velvetwhip for advice during its genesis.
These are not exhaustive or definitive notes, but the product of long experience which I hope will inform other beta readers and remind writers of the care and feeding of their betas. I've used 'she' throughout when referring to writers only because the majority of fandom writers are female and it's handy shorthand, but that's not meant to exclude male writers. It's just less cumbersome than saying 'he/she' throughout. I've tried to steer a course between too much information, which would be dull and pompous, and too little, which would be useless. If you'd like an expansion on any subject, please don't hesitate to ask.
My particular strength is the technical side, though I've been known to nit-pick about characterisation, story flow, plotting, and inconsistencies, hopefully to the benefit of the story.
For the sake of context, I've beta'd almost exclusively in the Buffy fandom, with occasional excursions into Stargate: Atlantis, The Sentinel, Harry Potter, DC Comics and Heroes. I have beta read a small amount of gen, het and femslash, but prefer slash. It may sound obvious, but it's advisable to beta in fandoms and genres you know and love. If you can't abide Spuffy, for instance, and a writer you usually beta has a bunny for a series, best to suggest that she find someone else to work on it with her. If you can't become engaged in a story, you won't be able to do your best. A one-shot, on the other hand, may well be doable, even fun to do, and stepping outside your comfort zone occasionally is never a bad thing. You may find another OTP!
It's important to understand the difference between betaing and cheerleading. Betas check for mistakes or oversights in the fic and offer constructive criticism on how to make those areas better, as well as compliments on things that are done well. Cheerleaders, on the other hand, tend to offer only praise. Cheerleaders are fabulous and essential to fandom, and are especially useful if you're nervous about posting something, but they are not the same as betas. You need to know and understand the difference. They do, and would rarely characterise themselves as betas.
How to find a beta
Good betas are hard to find, I know. If you're having trouble, at the very minimum send your fic to a trusted friend or friends who will tell you if there's a glaring problem, preferably a friend who understands that their/there/they're, your/you're and its/it's have different applications. The number of times I've had to fix that... I digress. The best way is often to observe who writes your kind of fic, and writes it well, and ask if they'd be willing to help. Don't be embarrassed to post, asking for a beta. By definition, your flist will predominantly consist of people who like the same kind of fic as you do and you may find someone who would be delighted to help.
For those interested in the BtVS fandom, especially Spanderphiles, it's worth looking at the bloodclaim profile page for a list of people who have expressed interest in betaing. I can't vouch for how many of the commenters are still active, but it could be a starting point. In the SPN fandom, darkhavens has created spn_betas. If you know of any other useful lists, in any fandom, please feel free to note them in a comment and I'll edit this post to include them.
Offering to beta
It's important to remember that every writer is possessive of her fic, and an unsolicited offer to beta a posted story, or future stories, may cause offence, no matter how carefully and diplomatically couched. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it if you feel you have something to contribute, but be prepared for a rebuff as the writer may take it as veiled criticism. We can be a thin-skinned bunch. *g* The ideal circumstances in which to make such an offer is if you have a history of commenting to the writer and have made it apparent you enjoy her work. It may well be that the writer will be grateful for the offer, so don't dismiss the idea out of hand if you're enthusiastic and genuine about it.
There are bad betas. The most obvious sign is that they consistently send back work without any corrections, or a token one or two. A beta may receive a fic which doesn't require so much as an added comma - I certainly have - but the operative word is 'consistently'. If it happens time and again, the beta probably hasn't done more than skimmed for very obvious mistakes. That's not helpful. A decent beta should give your fic a good going over and not send it back ten minutes after receiving it. My first writer still isn't happy unless I send back her fic 'bleeding'. (I beta in red font.)
I can't stress enough how important it is to have a good relationship with your writer, a give-and-take. Otherwise, your interest will steadily circle the drain. That's also the responsibility of the writer. If you're not getting positive reinforcement from her, you're much more likely to feel unappreciated and lose enthusiasm.
How to go about dropping a writer is a topic which it's difficult to address because it all depends on the relationship. Be tactful, stress all the things you like about their fic but explain that you don't think you're a good match and perhaps another beta would be better for them. Similarly, don't be offended if a writer decides to look elsewhere for a beta because she is not entirely satisfied with your work. It's not a reflection on either of you, but a matter of facing up to the fact that the relationship isn't working. You can stay friends with good will on both sides.
When hammering out the details with a writer, make sure you're upfront about what you do. Every writer is different, and will need different aspects of your abilities. If you primarily check for grammar, punctuation and spelling, say so. If it's not your strong point, say so as well. The same goes for plot, characterisation, flow, etc. If it's your first time up as a beta, it's worth telling the writer so (if she doesn't already know). You can take it as an opportunity to learn together and have a few giggles. A relationship only works if there is tolerance on both sides, as well as respect, and you're both having a good time.
You should both also be clear about timelines. It may be that your writer isn't bothered about when you send back work, within reason, but if she's writing to a deadline, she will need time to digest your suggestions, make the changes she agrees with and discard or discuss any that she doesn't. If you've promised to send a piece back within, for example, two days and something comes up which will prevent that, tell her as soon as possible. Don't leave her hanging, wondering if you've even received the fic in question. That's not conducive to a good relationship.
Give them a truck-load of leeway. That doesn't mean letting them get away with mistakes you would point out to a more experienced writer, but don't expect instant improvement. They're on a learning curve, trying to do better. The fact that they've asked to be beta read is heavily in their favour. If there's enough time, you could offer to re-beta if they're still doubtful after trying to put your initial advice into practice and want to re-write all or part of the fic. That applies to any writer, but a newbie may need extra coddling to build up her confidence.
Don't be a doormat. We're important, and fandom wouldn't be the vibrant place it is, were it not for us. Give your pov. You don't need to hammer home the point, but don't lie down and accept that the writer is always right, no matter how exalted she may be in our world. She's taken the step of asking for a beta, so she knows she's not always right. She wants your help. It's an equal relationship: the writer does what she does, and you do what you do. Ideally, you fulfill your respective roles conscientiously, to the best of your differing abilities.
If, after you've told her twice that it's not 'Drucilla' or 'Shepherd' or 'Micheal' but the writer keeps on with it, give up. Such mistakes are easily noted and subsequently fixed at the writing stage, so it would suggest a lazy reliance on your good will and a waste of your valuable time.
If your opinion is not being respected, you and the writer are not a good match. If you are being respected, hold on to the writer, fb to them, give them hugs and kisses and expect them back. Writers who also beta are especially aware that it's not an easy task. If you're not being credited after reminders, you have a right to be miffed. That's a glaring symptom of lack of respect.
A beta is an important part of the process, so be proud of what you do and do it as well as you can. And if you're a non-writing beta, do give writing a go, if you're inclined to. It gives more insight into the mind of the writer and, what's more, it's fun!
Resist it, even if you're also a writer. Yes, I know it's sometimes tempting. I don't count switching around a sentence, or a paragraph, for clarity and/or flow. I've re-written precisely twice, on both occasions when my writers asked me to, and then only a few paragraphs within the fic. They are both very good writers, who had a block and needed a bridge to help them through it. Never presume that you can do that. It's not your fic, no matter how much you may contribute. You may suggest it would be sensible to re-write a scene because it didn't work for you, and you don't think it would work for other readers, but, ultimately, it's the writer's decision.
Characterisation is at the heart of all good fic, of course, and never mess about with a writer's view of the characters unless you believe they've got it hideously wrong, in which case discuss it with them, explaining your point(s) diplomatically. Nothing is gained by hurting someone's feelings.
Your job is to be the final resource, the one who fixes problems. If your writer continues to mis-spell and/or misuse punctuation after being told repeatedly where they're going wrong, it's frustrating, but allowances should be made if it's clear they're doing their damndest to incorporate your advice and are improving, no matter how gradually. The proper use of the semi-colon may click immediately with one writer but take much longer for another. Only you will know when, and if, you reach a point where giving up is the only option to preserve your mental health because no progress is being made!
In that respect, I'd advise always explaining why you've made changes. There's no point in just belting through a piece, gaily adding and subtracting and altering, unless you give good reasons which the writer can apply to that and subsequent pieces. Apart from anything else, if she disagrees it gives her a chance to argue her point, which can result in some interesting discussions...and you may learn something. And do make your changes absolutely clear or you bear a large part of the responsibility if the writer doesn't appear to be learning. How can she if she hasn't a clue why you've changed 'we're' to 'where' or 'passed' to 'past'? Personally, I put brackets around the original text and change the font colour to red, then make the alteration in red bold font, with my reasons in brackets and blue font immediately afterwards. Some betas use track changes with comments added, which is an excellent method that I'd use, if only I had Word!
Every writer puts a lot of herself into each story so be sensitive when sending back a beta. Returning it torn to shreds is to inflict hurt not only to the writer's pride, their ego, but also to their baby. It's important to offer changes as suggestions, not as instructions, and to highlight the things you like in a story. That goes a long way to sweetening the pill and has the added advantage of encouraging her to build on her strengths, which is as vital as working on her weaknesses.
Now for the technical stuff. Take a deep breath, everybody.
There are plenty of resources available, so make use of them. No matter how excellent your education and knowledge of the English language, you will need expert back-up sometimes. If you don't have easy access to reference books, there are any number of online grammar, punctuation and spelling sites. I like The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and Hyperdictionary because they are easily searchable and have proved to be reliable, but it's a matter of personal taste. The Blue Book has a very useful section on Confusing Words which is worth investigating.
Whether you're a technical or a plot beta, or both, the story must be properly spelled and punctuated, and there's no excuse for bad grammar, so use your resources whenever you're in the slightest doubt. Your writer is relying on you to pick up errors she's missed.
If a writer regularly sends work that hasn't been spell-checked, raise the issue with them. Unless they don't have access to spell-check, or do but have trouble with homonyms (two words which are pronounced the same way but have different meanings, such as 'site'/'sight'), it smacks of laziness. We're not walking, talking spell-checkers, but a back-up. Be sensitive to each writer's circumstances and strengths and weaknesses, but make sure you're not doing the most basic of jobs which are the responsibility of the writer.
If a beta is accustomed to a different spelling protocol than the writer (e.g. American v. British), it's up to the beta to make at least a good stab at fitting in with the writer's preference and up to the writer to double check before posting. In fact, the writer should double check everything before posting and query the beta if necessary. Ultimately, what she posts is her responsibility. I recall, with shame, the day I posted a fic containing that horror, 'cemetary', because I hadn't spell-checked. Ouch!
Hmm, did I say there's no excuse for bad grammar? There are many exceptions in dialogue, fewer in narrative. None of us speaks perfectly grammatically correctly and, if we did, it'd sound stilted. The same applies to characters, so give a lot of leeway there. Xander would be very unlikely to say: "Buffy, with what weapon would you like to kill that vampire?" He'd be more likely to say: "Buff, stake or ax for that sucker?" That's extreme, but the point is that marvellous, gold star-winning grammar shouldn't be at the expense of characterisation. However, when writing Giles, who is a well-educated Englishman, it would be appropriate to flex your grammar-lovin' muscles.
Ending a sentence with a preposition ('of', 'on', 'from', 'which', 'by', 'at', etc.); split infinitives ('to boldly go'); and beginning sentences with 'and' or 'but', were once considered to be grammar sins, but language is a living thing and they have become acceptable. We're not writing text books, but fiction, where the imperative is to be clear, in character and readable. But do me a favour and avoid the use of 'off of', pretty please? A pet hate - the 'of' is redundant.
Sentence fragments (incomplete sentences) can be a contentious issue, but we've all seen fics where they are used for effect or emphasis so don't be too quick to make changes. For example, Xander went to the cemetery. Alone. Without a weapon. It's not grammatically correct but, as long as the writer knows it isn't correct and is deliberately choosing that construction, it's up to her.
I don't propose to examine every rule of grammar at length, complete with examples, or this would be about 50 pages long. *g* Suffice to say, a writer who knows and understands the rules well can, where appropriate, break them for the purposes of the story. Being an overly pedantic beta who points up every tiny little instance isn't helpful. Save your energies for those writers who really don't understand the rules and need guidance.
Don't get hung up on commas, especially if you beta both Americans and non-Americans. Americans tend to use more, and that's not necessarily incorrect unless they've seriously overdone it. It's just different. Read your writers without a presumption that they should use more, or less. Does it make sense? Does it work? Are the commas getting in the way of the flow? That's what you should be checking for, so don't wield the blue pencil, or red font, too quickly. Also, Americans use double quotation marks around dialogue, whereas single quotes are acceptable in Britain.
If you're a non-Brit and so is your writer, it's often a good idea to advise her to send, for example, a HP or Torchwood story to a British friend for a reality check. The same applies in reverse - Brits can get into a terrible tangle due to unfamiliarity with American terms and colloquialisms.
Semi-colons are our friends, but should be used sparingly in dialogue. A conversation peppered with the little devils can look busy and distract the reader from what's actually being said. The simple comma can be used as a pause, as can an ellipsis (the three dots: ...) or a dash.
Those bad boy semi-colons seem to cause more confusion than any other type of punctuation. The Golden Rule is, they should be used in place of a conjunction such as 'and', 'but', 'so', etc. to link two connecting independent clauses. If each clause could stand alone as a sentence, you're on the right track. See Dawnie and her eggs in the next paragraph for an example. They have other uses, such as separating items in a list where one or more of the items contains a comma, so check your punctuation resources before whipping them all out, or inserting them willy nilly, if you're not absolutely sure.
Comma splices also cause confusion. For example: Dawn went to the grocery store, she needed to buy eggs for supper. Noooo. A comma shouldn't be used to separate two complete sentences. Correct constructions would be:
• Dawn went to the store because she needed to buy eggs for supper; or
• Dawn went to the store. She needed to buy eggs for supper; or
• Dawn went to the store; she needed to buy eggs for supper.
Dawn must be planning to cook a lot of omelettes. ;o)
I couldn't leave this section without mentioning the humble apostrophe. Not so humble, actually, because correct usage is essential for clarity. They're used primarily to form the possessive of a noun:
• add 's to the singular form of a word (even if it ends in -s):
the owner's car
• add 's to plural forms that do not end in -s:
the children's game
the geese's honking
• add ' to the end of plural nouns that end in -s:
three friends' letters
• add 's to the end of compound words:
my brother-in-law's money
• add 's to the last noun to show joint possession of an object:
Spike and Xander's apartment
Opinions are divided on whether the last should be Spike's and Xander's apartment (which is more logical), but recent thinking seems to come down in favour of an apostrophe only after the final noun.
They're also used to indicate missing letters in contractions, like...they're! The missing 'a' in they are is replaced by an apostrophe.
The most common fault is a failure to distinguish between its and it's. Its is an irregular possessive while it's is a contraction of it is. The English language is a wonderful thing, but those deviations from the general rules can be a right bugger to learn and remember.
If you like your writer (and if you don't, why are you betaing her?), you want her to get it right and show her writing to its best effect. Put yourself in the position of the average reader. What's blocking my enjoyment? What could usefully be changed without damaging the writer's intentions? What do I need to discuss with her? Personally, I always go through a piece at least twice - first to get an overall impression and pick up on the most obvious errors; secondly, to get to the nitty gritty of exactly what needs to be changed, and why. Don't forget the why.
Never underestimate that gut feeling that something is off, even if you're not quite sure what it is. More often than not, a little digging will reveal that your instincts haven't led you astray. Maybe it's a misjudged word or mixed tenses or a confused pov, or something as simple as: Spike was wearing leather pants in the last paragraph, so how come Angel is now unbuttoning his blue jeans?
It's wise to accept the fact that you can read until you're cross-eyed, and you'll still sometimes miss things. Professional editors do, and we're just enthusiastic amateurs. Don't beat yourself up over mistakes; you can only do your best and the vast majority of writers realise that, and appreciate the time and effort you spend on their fic. They don't expect perfection, which is lucky because it would be an unreasonable expectation.
It is possible to beta over IM, and it's the preferred method of one of my writers and me, but the relationship needs to be very secure. It leaves little room for expressing criticism in the most tactful way possible because it's so immediate. I wouldn't advise it for every writer/beta team, but it can work well in the right circumstances, particularly for a drabble or short one-shot where it's convenient (and fun) to dissect the fic together, paragraph by paragraph. If your writer is quick and responsive, she may even be able to rewrite on the hoof while you toddle off and check your emails for ten minutes. :D
I'm effectively retired now but have had a wonderful time over the years, and made some good friends. If you fancy giving it a go, and have the time and energy to do so, I highly recommend betaing as a great way to participate in and contribute to fandom. Do remember that it's a time-consuming activity, though, and needs to be taken seriously. It's not a job for the faint-of-heart.
I hope this has been helpful. Sorry if some of the content has overlapped headings, but nothing is straightforward, right? *g*
ETA: Further to the heading How to find a beta, snowpuppies has found a multi-fandom comm which looks very good indeed.
ETA2: darkhavens has sent a link to a very good SGA beta com *smooch*