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Craft 10: On Editing and being Betaed

I was reading a very interesting anthology edited by Gerald Gross entitled Editors on Editing and what struck me was how many of the precepts and wisdom contained within applied to betaing as well. So I thought I’d list what makes a good editor/beta according to the principles found there. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from that book.


1. “Never paste over the author’s original”

“Never paste over the author’s original” states Marion L. Waxman [page 162]

I was quite disconcerted when I once submitted to an archive that required a mandatory beta rather than a validation and got back a beta that simply rewrote my story—new text was indicated in red—but my own words were no longer there. I had to refer back to my own draft to see what had been added, omitted, and reworded. Needless to say, I won’t be submitting to that particular archive ever, ever again. Don’t run roughshod over another’s work. IOWs . . .


2. “Editing is not rewriting”

As Marion L Waxman states, “editing is not rewriting. . . . Keep in mind Perkin’s words: ‘An editor does not add to a book.’” [page 153]

Faith Sale says she sometimes worries if a new author “pounces too readily to accept” her suggestions and that she always tells the author not to “just do it.” [page 271] A good editor/beta can make an author think and so bring the best words out of a writer. But the idea is not for the beta to rewrite another’s story to their own tastes. That’s not a beta, that’s a collaboration imo. If a sentence reads awkwardly to me, I’ll point it out in beta—and I might offer an example of how it might be fixed, but other than that . . .

I also have strong opinions backed up by what I’ve read by editors and agents about things like overuse of italics, capitalization, and saidisms—and I’m not shy about giving them—but that doesn’t mean a beta should superimpose their style over another’s. You can argue vigorously on a point you feel strongly—but know also when to let it go. Which leads into . . .


3. The author has final say

This is underlined again and again throughout the book—that, as Gerald Gross says in the introduction, if “the publishing house is a ‘senate’ in which debates over the manuscript take place, the editor can and should ‘advise’ but the author must always ‘consent.’”

The book does say that in publishing, matters of actual error—such as facts, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and house style are matters of contract that an author can not overide—not unlike HP and the moderated archives—but anything beyond that—such as syntax and word choice—are an author’s prerogative. An editor can give opinions, but can’t issue orders.

Mind you, even if it is your story, in a fandom context I still think it’s good policy to give a beta a look at your final version if they want it to make sure they can live with any changes you’ve made. I usually want to make sure I get two passes before a story goes to an archive—remember, the beta’s name is usually prominently placed on a story. You don’t want your beta feeling burned because a story with their name on it was submitted with lots of mistakes they didn’t have a chance to vet, because they never saw your revised version.

In that regard, to stave off any problems, it’s also probably a good idea to make sure your beta is OK with you using other betas. I use two, sometimes more—betas, like writers, often have different strengths, and I like having different takes—but, again, you don’t want anyone feeling blindsided. It’s also nice to give the beta a heads up on any corrections an archive makes—it’s always a learning process for all involved.

If something has been pointed out by the beta as grammatically incorrect, at least an author will know ahead of time they might have to make an argument at validation—but if they choose NOT to correct—that’s their right.

However, one also might want to remember that when it comes to grammar . . .


4. Fiction is not an essay

Before you get carried away, remember that the author is boss; be sensitive to the author’s own style. . . . Fiction authors are especially likely to resist changes in their style: to them style is as important as story. . . . [And] at the beginning of this chapter I said that even the use of a comma in a compound sentence is an indication of style. . . . [F]iction, and particularly dialogue, need not adhere rigidly to the rules of good grammar. - Judd, Copyediting page 140


Some choices, particularly related to the comma, are more subjective than objective. Some writers, for example, hear punctuation, and they use commas, semicolons, and colons to speed or slow the pace and rhythm of the their prose. Aural punctuators tend to hear a comma as a one-beat pause, a semicolon as a two-beat pause, and a period as a three-or four-beat pause . . . When copyediting nonliterary texts . . . you can confidently apply the conventions set forth in your style manual. But if your author is an experienced literary or professional writer, you will want to interpret some of the conventions more liberally. - Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, page 72


Faith Sale says in Editors that as part of her job she always looks over “proofreader’s markings to ensure that the author’s style has not fallen victim to a by-the-book grammarian.” [Page 275]. There’s a famous story about Agatha Christie. Some junior editor had “fixed” her writing to make sure it was grammatically correct. Christie, naturally, was furious—because real people don’t speak that way. Rowling uses run-ons with Hermione at times to show her speaking in one breath—and more than one book on the craft of writing notes that using fragments and comma splices are a good way of reproducing the rhythms of speech. You might want to keep all that in mind before you crush all semblance of voice and style in the name of grammar.


5. State the case for your suggestions and be specific

The overall tone is one of help and interest. General criticism, which calls for expansion, quickly gives way to specific problems - omissions, repetitions, insufficient information - so the author knows exactly what he has to work on - Waxman, page 167


The beta required by an archive above that overwrote my text never even made one comment or note explaining their changes—that made it impossible for me to consider any arguments in their favor, or for me to learn from those changes. In beta I try to indicate even the grammatical rule (I think) I’m following in making corrections. By putting my cards face up, any mistakes I make have a chance being caught, and the betee might learn the rule—and not make the same mistake again. Given the courtesy of reasons, an author might also be more amenable to accepting a suggestion.

There are times when you sense something is off without knowing why—Editors on Editing calls it a “subliminal itch” and I’ve heard it called “ringing the beta bell” and on those occasions it’s good to offer the reaction FWIW even if you can’t explicate the reasons—it might have been something bothering the author too. But if you can articulate a reason, give it—unless its a mechanical correction and you’re confident that by now your betee knows the rules.


6. Continually state what you like about a work

As John Payne states in the book, a key to “building editor-author rapport ... is that an editor state, continually, what she likes about a work. This is essential, for any author is going to be sensitive to criticism, and blast after negative blast raises the specter of the editor as arrogant, know-it-all jerk.” [page 170]

That’s something reviewers might keep in mind too as they dole out that elusive “constructive crit.” I do try to remember to give strokes when I beta. It can be hard to remember to do so when you’re going in there with an eye to find every flaw—but it does make the criticism not only easier to take—but helps remind the writer that you’re fundamentally on their side—not there to tear them down.


7. Ease your way in to find out how much criticism an author is open to

Waxman suggests sending back only one or two chapters of a manuscript at first and waiting for an author’s reactions before proceeding further—to see how much editing an author is open to. In my previous fandom I used to ease into betas—usually not straightening out things like grammar on a first story or pass if there was a lot to criticize—you don’t want to overwhelm a writer, particularly a newbie, with virtual red ink. It’s harder to ease into things in HP, however, because often people are betaed with an eye to get into moderated archives, and you can’t afford to let things like grammar go—but you do often still have to feel your way to figure out just how well—or how much—a writer can tolerate crit.


8. Read like a reader - then it’s really about asking the right questions

The editor’s acting like the first truly disinterested reader ... giving [the writer] the first inkling of how reviewers, readers, and the market place ... will react, so that the author can revise accordingly. - Alan Williams, page 6


Your response and impressions are the first chance the author has to see how a reader will respond to the book. This is one of the best tools in editing, so sharpen your ability to read like a reader. If you’re confused, distracted, or let down, it is likely that other readers may be. In the politest editorial manner, let the author know - Waxman, page 155


This imo, is what makes a beta invaluable—not typo hunting. A good beta can make many contributions. Editors lists among the tasks of an editor helping “to evolve a concept or story idea,” “smoothing out awkward phrases,” asking about anything “odd or unclear,” “suggesting a better word,” pointing out repetitions, paragraphing issues, sentence variety, characterization, POV etc. But, for me, the most valuable part of a beta is simply giving you an eye into how a reader sees your work and asking questions accordingly.

There’s a wonderful story in the book, about how Waxman, editing a book by a new author, Fowler, questioned how a character could know a beret really belonged to his mother. In addressing that question, the author rewrote the passage—reading it over the phone caused author and editor both to be moved to tears. “Where did that come from?” Waxman asked. “You ask the right questions,” Fowler replied. Waxman said she’d be proud to have that on her epitaph.

Some of the passages I’m proudest of in my own writing have come from exactly that kind of prodding.


9. Don’t beta a story or author not to your taste

An article in Editors advises against editing a book you have fundamental objections to. James O’Shea Wade cautions that “if you suspect you are going to distort, even unwittingly, the authors ideas and expressions for whatever reason ... then you have no business editing that book.”

This is why I won’t beta unless I’ve at least read other stories by the author—and why I’m skeptical of finding a good match at Perfect Imagination’s registry. You have every right to expect your beta to show enthusiasm for your writing and story—and when they don’t, often what a person gets is an AWOL beta.

I won’t even review and give crit to a story I have zero liking for—I doubt in circumstances like that you can be fair. So if you have a hang-up about a character, or slash or het, or a certain genre, best to let the betee know up front. Possibly the worst experience I had with a beta was in my prior fandom when I did my one and only slash piece. The beta, who didn’t like slash, told me if I posted it, it would “ruin my reputation.”

I was a raw newbie and that hurt. I deleted the story and after that experienced my first bout of writer’s block. See, the problem was that as a newbie I thought all my stories sucked. I had no objectivity whatsover. I didn’t see any difference between my prior stories this beta had claimed to love and this offering. It shook me, because I feared it could happen again and I would embarrass myself in front of someone I respected by letting such a story see the light of day.

Mind you—I look back and I tend to think the beta was right—the story did stink. Slash wasn’t a genre I was comfortable with, and it showed. But I do think her attitude probably impacted her reaction, and she probably was never the right beta for that story.


10. Don’t leave a betee hanging
Thou Shalt Not Miss a Critical Deadline - from the Four Copyediting Commandments in Einsohn’s The Copyediting Handbook

Nothing is more corrosive to a writer’s confidence than a long-delayed beta. The natural reaction is to believe—“OMG, I suck and she can’t find a way to tell me!”—particularly if the writer’s a newbie.

We all have lives, and betees do have to appreciate that—but if you, the beta, are going to be delayed in giving a read, EMAIL!! If you don’t have time to beta, say so—and cut the betee loose—don’t force them to be the one to part ways after weeks of them staring into the ether. If you told them to expect the beta by a certain time, either deliver, tell them you can’t do the beta because something came up, or at least give them an overview of what you thought about the story—and a reassurance it doesn’t “suck” even if you can’t immediately give them a line-by-line vetting.

This wasn’t a problem—ever—in my previous fandom. It seems endemic in Harry Potter. I think partly because of the Perfect Imagination system (see above) and partly because the moderated archives add pressures to betas to be perfect—so they feel obligated to find not just typos or do a critical read but to find every single flaw that could come up in a validation.

I sympathize—I do. Betaing in HP is demanding and time-consuming—but there’s just no excuse to put a writer thru the agonies of wondering what’s amiss when their story drops into a black hole. And remember—while the betee is waiting, often they can see their beta actively online doing other things—really begging the question about WTF is going on.



So—anyone have any comments? Anything you’ve liked in a beta—really appreciated? Or anything that really, really bugged you? What do you think are some good practices to make the relationship go smoother?

BTW, you're not just doing a fellow author a favor by betaing—it’s an invaluable learning experience. In medical training, the saying is “watch one, do one, teach one.” There’s no better way to learn some of the precepts of, say, grammar, then to look for those kinds of mistakes in the works of others. I know I tend to sweat over another’s story even more than my own—Merlin forbid I make a mistake and mess up another’s story by adding an error where one was not there before.

Oh, and if anyone wonders why I’m frustrated—it has nothing to do with betaing or being betaed. But trying to write more Book of Shadows or creating an outline for my NaNo story—that’s something else again.
Tags: craft, publishing, writing
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