Alright! Here's the deal. We're all here because we think that grammar is important. I'd be willing to bet about $5 a head that at some point each one of you has read a fic and cringed, or even closed it without finishing, because there was just something that didn't sit right with you about the writing style.
There are two very important things about writing for an audience – and in fandom you are writing for an audience, whether you like to admit it or not. The first is knowing your audience, and the second is being able to convey the information in such a way that the audience will be able to glean the most from it. This is why it is important to have every piece of fiction posted for public consumption betaed, whether it be fandom related or an original work.
Sometimes though, even though the writer might have the best intentions, and the beta might know their stuff, there's a breakdown in communication. It's near impossible for a fic to live up to its potential when a writer and a beta don't see eye to eye. This is why it's important to know your boundaries and set the rules early on. Knowing these things about each other will help your time be used more efficiently.
Specifics of being a good beta
Here in part one I'm going to get into some of the nitty gritty about the knowledge that makes a good beta good, and can potentially make them great.
The SPaG beta – Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar – is the one that's most commonly asked for, and the one people are most willing to go to complete strangers for, because it can be done quick and dirty and the guidelines are set by outside sources. The peril here is that if you have a beta who is disinterested in the subject matter, or who doesn't really know as much as you'd like them to about the basics of SPaG, then the writer isn't really any better off than they started.
But how can that be helped? There are a multitude of places on the internet where you can find the answers to specific questions about spelling, grammar, and punctuation. One of them is right here at fandom_grammar! My favorite place for general information, as you can probably tell from my past posts here, is the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. At that site there are a series of handouts and activities that will help you brush up on your basics.
Another website that will help with one of the most common errors found in posted fic is the Washington State University Home of Common English Errors. It's important that a writer doesn't rely too much on the spell check function of their word processor or internet browser. Despite its ability to tell you when you've somehow screwed up the spelling of 'practice' yet again, it is unable to differentiate between the correct uses of 'lightning' and 'lightening'. And let me tell you, even though I know the difference between those two words, it doesn't stop me from using them in the wrong places all the time. The difference between the lightening brushes of Brendon's fingers against Ryan's neck and the lightning brushes is an immense one.
An important issue that falls within the boundaries of common English errors is that of homonyms. Some of my personal favorite instances go a little something like this:
Incorrect: Brendon snuck up behind Spencer and dropped his head onto Spencer's shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Spencer's waste, pulling him into a tight hug.
Correct: Brendon snuck up behind Spencer and dropped his head onto Spencer's shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Spencer's waist, pulling him into a tight hug.
I've seen this issue come up in several fics and, while it never fails to send me into gales of giggles, there is a very different meaning when you substitute one word for the other. Namely, I imagine that someone wrapping your arms around one's waste would be a good deal more messy than grabbing a hold of their waist. Though I suppose it depends on how kinky the fic in question is.
Incorrect: Yoruichi clawed Urahara across the cheek and jumped out of his arms. She slunk out of the room, head and tail held high in pride. Urahara brought his fingers to the trickle of blood on his cheek and thought that perhaps he shouldn't have voiced his opinion allowed.
Correct: Yoruichi clawed Urahara across the cheek and jumped out of his arms. She slunk out of the room, head and tail held high in pride. Urahara brought his fingers to the trickle of blood on his cheek and thought that perhaps he shouldn't have voiced his opinion aloud.
Certainly, if whatever Urahara had said had been something he was allowed(permitted) to say aloud(out loud), then Yoruichi wouldn't have marred his pretty face so readily. But alas, these are the dangers of being something of a cad and a genius.
Incorrect: There was a part of Murphy that hated all of this planning and sneaking around. It would just be easier if they could gun these dirtbags down in the street, just shoot them on site.
Correct: There was a part of Murphy that hated all of this planning and sneaking around. It would just be easier if they could gun these dirtbags down in the street, just shoot them on sight.
The thing about shooting someone on sight is that you will most certainly be at a site when you're doing it. Unless the fic is dealing with some sort of inner realm or dream world. Even so, shooting someone on site carries less of an immediacy than the need to shoot someone on sight. It's like love at first glance, only more painful.
Diction, Style and Flow
Following close on the heels of spelling and grammar is diction—the vocabulary choices and style of expression that a writer uses to temper the piece. I have read fics, and certainly published works, that used the language to such an advantage that I wanted to cry. And you might say that that's because I'm a huge pansy. I can't argue this, but the point is that every word in a story is important: not only that it's in the correct place, but also that it works with the mood and tone.
There are fewer places to find concrete help with diction and style than with grammar and punctuation. This is because they are such personal decisions, and there are also fewer concrete rules about diction than there are about grammar and punctuation. Once the writer has set the tone for the work, though, the beta should be able to help with words that seem out of place. Sometimes, reading a story out loud will help you to determine if a word is correct for the flow of a sentence or style of the story as a whole.
As for style itself, there is a rather exhaustive Wikipedia article here that will help you to understand the decisions that writers make in a more in-depth way. I will not get into the specifics, but I will note that one of the most important things to keep in mind when choosing a style is the readability. Once again, as fic writers, we are writing for an audience. We want to make sure that we say what we mean and do it in a tone that is appropriate to the scene.
Point of View
The point of view of a piece is very important to the overall tone. Point of view is a style choice and up to the writer, but it is important for the beta to know what the possible point of view choices are and be able to tell whether the choice the writer has made works for the piece. Sometimes stories with large worlds and lots of characters work best in third person, where you have the ability to move between characters without jarring the reader too much. Stories that deal with introspection and internal monologue or turmoil tend to work in first person because it gives the reader that extra amount of view into the character's mind.
The Most Common Points of View
The narrator is a character in the story who can reveal only personal thoughts and feelings and what he or she sees and is told by other characters. He or she can’t tell us thoughts of other characters.
The smoke is starting to collect in my lungs, and it's making it fucking impossible to see. If we can't see the bastard we can't shoot him, but I'm sure he knows that much. I can hear Murphy swear as he goes for another gun and Roc is making a godawful amount of noise. I can't think. Through all of it I can't think, and that's going to be the biggest detriment of all.
The narrator is an outsider who can report only what he or she sees and hears. This narrator can tell us what is happening, but he can’t tell us the thoughts of the characters.
Ichigo ran across the open field and skidded to a halt just before he could collide with Byakuya. Both of their zanpaktous were unsheathed and released. The light from Senbon Zakura reflected off Ichigo's face in a way that made him look like he was under water. Both of them struggled with keeping their facial expressions carefully in check. Both of them looked like they might be drowning.
The narrator is an outsider who sees into the mind of one of the characters.
Pete leaned across the table during a lull in conversation and knocked knuckles with the hand Brendon was holding his glass in. Some of the contents spilled out and Brendon watched it happen as if in slow motion. He knew he should slow down, that he was going to have to walk home and it wouldn't be practical to have Ryan carry him. He looked up at Pete and smiled.
The narrator is an all-knowing outsider who can enter the minds of more than one of the characters. (Note: While many popular novelists such as Toni Morrison and Leo Tolstoy work with Third-Person Omniscient, it is very rarely done well in fan fiction. The writer is often wrapped up trying to convey the inner thoughts of every one of their favorite characters, and it tends to come off as head hopping.)
Harry shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers and grit his teeth. Hermione had been right. It didn't do him any good to blow up at Malfoy and give him what he wanted.
Meanwhile, back at Grimmauld Place, the twins were getting into a rather spirited argument about who would use their one remaining Extendable Ear to listen in on the Order meeting.
One thing to look for with point of view in particular is the tendency that some writers have to head hop. Changing point of view within a scene is not a stylistic choice, it is poor handling of a story. Professional editors and agents will send a piece back to you for head hopping, and a beta for a fic should as well. Head hopping confuses the reader and stilts the narrative. It is possible to change points of view within a story, but make sure that your writer has blocked out point of view changes with different scenes.
When dealing with inconsistencies in characterization in a fic, it is easier if the beta and the writer are comfortable with each other. This is where most of the difficult questions get asked, and a beta will often have to tiptoe around the writer's pride, unless the writer has put themselves out there as particularly masochistic.
There are two basic types of characters: static characters who don't change their attitudes or convictions throughout the course of the story, and dynamic characters who go through some sort of change through the course of the narrative. Even though a character will often go through a series of changes throughout a story, they will still basically be themselves. If we start the story with Brendon being somewhat hyperactive and through the course of the story he grows as a person, he will still probably be a pretty big spazz by the end, albeit a spazz that is slightly more conscious of his surroundings. It would be incredibly out of character for that type of person to become intensely dark without cause. These are the kinds of things a beta needs to look for when reading the characters. Does their action, dialogue, and thought process ring true to the way they were set up at the beginning of the story?
World building is primarily a tool used by people who are creating fantasy or science fiction worlds. People in fandom often have the world already built for them. For example the way wizards are taught at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books is very different from the way wizards are taught at the Unseen Academy in the Discworld novels. Also, the way that souls pass on from the world of the living in Bleach is more hands on than the way they pass on in Angel Sanctuary. This makes it very important for the writer to follow those rules, and for the beta to be familiar with the world that the writer is working in so they can be able to call them on the inconsistencies.
Also important to world building is canon. Canon, for those not familiar with the term, is any information the audience is given within the confines of the original work. In Harry Potter, it is canon that Harry's eyes are green like his mother's. In the world of Bleach, it is canon that there are thirteen court guard squads. When you're working within the confines of another person's world it's important to stay close to them, or you will confuse the reader. A beta who understands the canon for which you're writing is worth their weight in gold. Canon can be checked for after the SPaG and other types of betas have been completed and often takes a less intensive read
However, it is not only important to pay attention to the world building in fantasy worlds. The Boston of Boondock Saints is very different from the Boston you see in Tru Calling. Even in Real Person Fic you want to watch the inconsistencies with the world we know. You can't get from Los Angeles to the Prairie Creek section of the Redwoods State Park in thirty minutes. It would be impossible for your average person to fall from a fourth story window and come out unscathed. Hopefully, the writer has done this research before they finished the piece, but it is up to the beta to point out if they didn't, or if their research or details are unsatisfactory.
Another part of world building is Cultural Correctness. This is what is commonly referred to as the Brit-pick, or the less often referenced American counterpart with no clever name. If you're writing in a fandom based in a place that you're not familiar with, it is important to have someone who is familiar with the area look over it so they can pick out any unintentional anachronisms that would pull the reader out of the story. Your average American would not use the word 'punter', whereas a person born and raised in the UK is unlikely to say 'y'all'. Things such as what a person from Camden would eat for breakfast or how a teenager in L.A. dresses in the winter can really give a story the extra bit of detail that will make it great.
While there are other writing aspects betas should watch for, these are the most important. Some writers may have certain quirks that a beta may pick up on after becoming more familiar with the writer's work, and that familiarity can make a better beta. I'll be talking about this relationship between writer in beta in part two of this feature which will be posted here on July 4.
Until then: Happy betaing!