I’m a Finnish student doing my Bachelor’s degree study about beta readers in fan fiction. For that I need to ask you guys a couple of questions. I’d be really thankful if you’d take the time to tell me:

1. “Why be a beta reader?

2. “Why do/don’t you have a beta reader?

3. “Who is your beta reader/fan fic writer to you (stranger, Internet friend, sister)?”

You don’t have to answer all of these questions, even answering one of them would be a huge help! If you don’t want to answer here, you can be anonymous in my ask box or e-mail me at I will not use your e-mail address for anything.

Cool! I have to say I’d also like to have some opinions about this all in one place. It’ll be interesting to see commonalities and different practices.

1. I beta in order to give back to fandom and my fellow writers, because people have beta’d for me, and because I love talking about writing. I have to admit it’s a lot of work, because I can’t turn off the English prof who wants to worry at every sentence, but good god, what a labor of love.

2. I have beta readers because for me it’s simply a principle of good writing that you get feedback and collaborate. For me—not for everyone, but for me—the notion of the writer as lonely genius on a mountain is part of masculinist culture, and while we all experience it as lonely struggle at times, being willing to ask for and accept help as an inherent part of the writing process is part of what makes fanwriting such a unique communal (and community-building) process.

3. I do have one “main” beta, someone I’d never write without. I’m incredibly blessed that way, because she’s a writing prof who thinks a lot like me but writes very differently. This means she gets what I’m after, but knows different strategies for getting there. But I also try to get as many people as I can to read stuff—for one difficult story I had five.

(As I write I realize that I haven’t beta’d for others nearly as much as I should during this academic year. Fandom, I owe you; next term’s easier, so my services will be on offer…)


1. “Why be a beta reader?

I tend to offer to beta when I see a lot of potential in a story or somebody’s writing and I think, “Man, this is spectacular and with a bit of spit-shine everybody would see how gorgeous it is!”

I also offer because I like editing.  It’s fun for me, relaxing, and I’m good at it.

And finally, I love beta-reading because it often lets me get an inside look at another writer’s process and skills.  You can learn so much from getting to watch somebody work.  Writing is normally, in some ways, a solitary craft.  Mostly we see the end product, with most of the seams polished off so you can’t see the process of how it was made.  If you want to stretch your wings and learn new writing skills and insights, beta reading is a unique opportunity.

3. “Who is your beta reader/fan fic writer to you (stranger, Internet friend, sister)?”

I’m flipping 2 and 3 because it’ll let me respond to a mistaken assumption here.  Writers don’t always just have one beta reader.  In fact, it’s pretty common for writers to have a bunch of beta readers.

Most of my beta readers are internet friends I’ve met through fandom.  A lot of them are fellow writers, though not all.  (And some of them are people who occasionally write but wouldn’t call themselves ‘writers.’)  I have since met some of them in person and brought those friendships into the real world as well—but interestingly, I (and they!) have mostly both found that even when we have the option of being in the same room together, it usually feels more comfortable to do beta reading online.  It can be a pretty personal thing, and sometimes it’s just easier if you don’t have to look each other in the face. ^_^

2. “Why do/don’t you have a beta reader?

I have beta readers for a lot of reasons and purposes.

Some people are better at (or prefer) different kinds of stories.  I have beta readers I wouldn’t send a horror story to, but who’ll gobble up something fluffy or romantic.

And some beta readers have different skill sets.  Some of them are rock-awesome at grammar and spelling.  Others are really great for collaborating on world-building.  Some specialize in consistent characterization, or ‘Brit-picking’ (an example of somebody who can advise on your accuracy regarding another culture).  Weaponry and fighting.  Historical period.  The ins and outs of fashion.  Sexy dirty talk. Science and technology.  Etc. Etc.

I have in fact probably roped most of my fandom friends into beta-reading for me at some point, at least once.  (Sorry, guys.)

But underneath that utilitarian aspect, there are deeper reasons to have people beta-read for you.

Two brains are better than one.  Flat-out, sometimes somebody else will think of things you never would have thought of, and their idea is better than yours.  And sometimes, in talking with somebody else who’s a good idea person, the two of you collaboratively come up with richer, livelier ideas.  It makes your writing more vibrant, helps keep you from getting in a repetitive rut, and is just generally fun.  It’s wonderful to have someone to share your excitement and investment in a project, and it’s wonderful to watch people being creative and skilled and brilliant.

And sometimes, when I’ve gotten myself stuck on a scene and can’t figure out what to do next, it just takes somebody else who hasn’t been grinding themselves into a rut to bump me out of it.  Some of my beta readers will even do a thing where, if I’m sufficiently stuck, they’ll start writing.  Sometimes what they write is the right thing, and sometimes it’s the wrong thing—but even if it’s the wrong thing, just having something there is often enough for my thoughts to crystallize so that I can say, “No, wait, it should be this!”

For me, sometimes a beta-reader also tells me what not to fuss over.  I have terrible perfectionist tendencies.  Left to my own devices, I can easily get caught up for over an hour working on one sentence till I have the wording just the way I want it, and sometimes I just need somebody to say, “Let it go, nobody cares but you.”  (Occasionally, the sentence being perfectly worded matters.  The vast majority of the time, it does not.)

Bobrossanon taught me this next one: When I’m writing a long story, by myself I have a tendency to take mental shortcuts.  Because I more or less know what I’m doing, right?  The ideas are all there in my head.  Except, left to my own devices, sometimes I don’t notice that I’ve skipped over details.  And sometimes the details are really big damn details.  This has gotten me in hot water with Man Who Sold the World—somewhere along the way, I discovered that the plot I wanted was not the plot I had, and now I’m kind of at a dead end because frankly it’s going to places I’m just not interested in.

But when I’m co-writing Odalisque with Bob, since there are two of us and we’re not (unless she’s been holding out on me) telepaths, we have to talk out the details so we’re on the same page.  This has led to a much much much more thorough story-planning experience, with a more detailed understanding of what the story is and where it’s going and, I think, a richer world and plot.  Bob has, in a word, taught me to outline.

And sometimes, having a beta just makes me want to write, period.  I don’t really write stories for ‘the audience.’  But I do write best for somebody.  If there’s one person out there whom I know wants the story—like, I’m writing it for them, it’s answering a need or desire they’ve had to see a story like this—I feel more motivated.  

Finally, the reason to have a beta-reader, the reason why even the best writers in the world could use one: you lose perspective when you write.  As the author, you spend hours, days, weeks, months head-down in that story.  After a while of examining everything at such a granular level, you lose the ability to tell whether something is working or not, because you’ve read that line so many times it has ceased to have any impact for you.  You lose track of whether the flow of the plot makes sense, because you know so much about what’s going on underneath that you can’t tell whether the writing really makes sense or if you’re just filling in the gaps.  You know too much.  And so at some point—and this gets more true the longer the story is—you just need somebody else to come in and read it, and tell you what works and what doesn’t.  And ideally why it works or doesn’t, but anything is a start.  (Even better is if that person is also of a mind to tell you things like, “You realize you don’t have a single character who isn’t white in this story?” and “Do your women ever actually do anything or are they just hanging around waiting to become victims for the sake of the plot?”)

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