When I first found fanfiction.net and fictionpress.com more than six years ago they were amazing places. Talented writers gathered at two very different places on the internet to share in an art form. Unfortunately, neither place has managed to age gracefully. The gems that were plentiful when I first stumbled upon the sites are rare these days and are more often than not lost in the shuffle that is bad grammar, weak plot lines and the ever present and pesky trolls. The last is unavoidable I suppose. Where there is good there will always be bad and ugly. The first two, however, are very correctable.
And this is where the beta reader comes in. Fanfiction.net says that a beta reader is "a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public." Cool. Awesome. Great. But, do you need one and why?
Well, first of all, everyone needs a beta reader. Reduced to their most basic function, a beta reader is a fresh set of eyes to look at your work. They can pick up things that you've missed since you've probably memorized your work by the time you've reached the beta stage. That means that you'll miss simple stuff that you think you've got covered. So, point one: betas are good for catching stupid stuff that you know, but can't see.
You have no idea (or maybe you do!) how many stories I've come across on both sites that have the potential to be a really good read (maybe not original, but at least they'd read smoothly) but threw the chance out the window because they refused to get a beta reader. In original fiction a beta reader will show you that you missed this grammar error, this sentence is weird, and hey, guess what?, this entire paragraph is not necessary.
In fanfiction, a beta readers role has the added task of making sure you stay in canon (assuming you're not writing alternate universe - to be covered in another post). If you're writing Lord of the Rings, they make sure your characters use language properly, are represented in character and that the world makes sense. If it's alternate universe, they make sure the story as a whole is believable and not drivel you pulled out of your ass.
If you have a beta, make sure they're doing their job. Really. I've come across authors who's stories could use a lot of work and when I say so they respond, "Well I've got a beta and s/he is amazing!" No. No.
It seems that there are a lot of (and I'm really sorry if this comes off rather bitchy) complete and total idiots out there who will read anything! And these idiot readers will happily add you to their group! How, you ask? Well, they take a look at your story (which either is in desperate need of a beta or in even more desperate need of a better one) and they praise it. They put you on a pedestal that's so darn shiny and high you just can't believe it. And you don't want to ever be put down! If you're getting reviews that fall into the following categories:
- one liners
- use leet speak (ie 0MG so so c00l!! ur so l337)
- tell you on and on that you're story is so cool and awesome and they are just gonna wet their pants with joy
- do not tell you why they like your story just that they do
- a flame
- constructive criticism
it probably means that you need some work done. Believe it or not, folks, people don't flame just because it's fun (though this is a substantial part of the reason). They flame because they found something fundamentally wrong with your storty. This could be a glaring plot hole, atrocious grammar, non-canon elements. But really, you're not getting flamed just because they like posting mean things to random people. As wrong as it sounds, you were targeted for a reason. And if you were targeted, it wouldn't be succumbing to their ignorance to get a beta reader. You would be doing yourself a favor because you'd be improving your writing.
Bottom line: Beta's are important. Very important. If you don't have one, get one. If you're a fanfiction writer, guess what? Fanfiction.net has an entire service dedicated to finding beta readers just for you. If you're an original fiction writer Absolute Write Water Cooler (google it, people) has many, many beta readers that are able and willing to help you improve as a writer.