General Rules – Part II: Setting up a “contract”
Before You Say Yes!!!
Once you’ve introduced yourself to the editing world, the next step is setting up an agreement with an author. Whether they contact you, or you are answering an ad for them, the very first thing to do (this is very important in my book) is to take a look at the piece you will be working on. You can do this by simply contacting them and saying that you are interested in viewing their work. Most authors are more than happy to either send it to you via email, or direct you to where it is posted, if it has already been archived somewhere. This is important for two reasons.
The first reason you should look at either some of their previous work or preferably the piece you’ll be editing is to see whether you like their writing. If you will be working on a long piece, it’s important to make sure you won’t get sick of it after a couple chapters (or paragraphs). This is frustrating for both the author and for you because you’ll have wasted your time and theirs. Nothing is more awful than betaing a story you hate for chapter after chapter so make sure it’s something you don’t mind reading several times in a row.
The second reason is to make sure that you’re up to the kind of work it will take. Some authors are better than others, and some take more editing than others. If you are looking for a quick easy mechanics piece, then someone who is new to writing is probably not your best bet. So, before agreeing to anything, make sure you like their work, and that you are up to the task. Nothing is worse than agreeing to work on something, and then deciding later that you can’t (or don’t want to) handle it.
If you decide NOT to beta their work, thank the author politely for their interest and time and say that you don’t feel that you are a good match. If you know another beta who might be interested, it never hurts to set the author up with someone else who might be better suited to the task. Under no circumstances should you insult their work. Authors are fragile, and you might just discourage someone from ever writing again. Being kind is always worth it.
If you opt to take on the project, then this is where negotiation starts. There are a few key things to hash out before you begin. If you’ve gotten this far, you are probably aware of what genre the story is in, and what kinds of things are included in the story that could be potentially off-putting to you. This includes elements like rape, child abuse, explicit sex, homoerotic themes, excessive violence, incest, bestiality, etc. If you have not talked about this yet, please do so before you do anything else. If there is something that is not to your liking, it’s best to know about it in advance. If there is anything you are not comfortable with, you may either choose not to work on the story at all, or simply edit only those parts that do not contain subjects that offend you.
In terms of genre, it is usually helpful to know what kind of story this will be (romance, horror, deathfic, angst, comedy etc) because this will set the tone for the kind of editing you might be doing. Personally, I stick to dramas for the most part simply because I enjoy reading them. If it is a fanfiction piece, you should also be aware of the fandom in which the story takes place. If you have read their work, you probably already know this.
Another thing to note is the severity of your edits. It is important to know yourself as an editor. Are you harsh, sarcastic, encouraging, shy? If you tell it like it is with very little coddling, do not pair yourself with an author with a fragile ego. You’ll only frustrate yourself and discourage them. ASK your author what kind of editing style suits them. I’m a fairly straightforward beta. I like an author who can take a beating and tell me to fuck off if they don’t like what I suggested. I have learned to deal with authors who need a lot of encouragement, but I don’t have as much fun doing that as I do with saying exactly what I think. Be sure to pair yourself well.
What’s the Job?
After you have assessed that the story and the author is to your liking, then the REAL work begins. First, ask your author what needs to be done. If they want only punctuation edits, or whether they need a full-blown character consistency, dialogue reality check etc, then make sure that those are the kinds of edits you are capable of doing. If you know shit-all about punctuation, don’t agree to check commas for them. Stick to what you know.
On a more ethical note, it is important for a beta to realize one very essential fact: This is not your story. You do not get the final say in what does or does not get changed. Your job is to suggest, critique, comment etc. Not to change. For the most part, it is always best to merely suggest a change, and make sure it is visible so they know that you have done something to the text. If you change something without noting it, you’re getting yourself into a whole different ballgame. Please don’t do that unless you have specific permission from the author to do so. The only circumstance in which I will change anything without noting it in the text is punctuation for someone who has given express permission for me to do so. In most cases, this involves fixing commas, semicolons, hyphens, capitalization, and, very occasionally, spelling. I’m pretty careful about noting everything else.
Speaking of noting your edits, you should ask your author whether they have a preference as to how they would like you to note your comments and changes. There are a couple common ways to edit. I usually put the document on Microsoft Word and use the different colors to note different types of comments, which I usually put in parentheses to separate them from the author’s text. Another way, which also involves MSW, is the tracking function. If you go to Tools, then Track Changes, the program will automatically track any changes you make to the document and note it in the margins in a bubble. It also gives you the option of inserting comments, all without disrupting any of the actual text. This is very helpful and saves your author and you a lot of time and hassle dealing with color coding things. If you know the person you are editing for, there is also the option of using a hard copy and a red or blue pen. Again, this only works if you are in close proximity, or don’t mind giving out your address to a complete stranger and spending money on postage.( If you have an alternate way of editing, please leave a comment. I’m interested to know what other methods are used. )
Once all the terms have been set and the details worked out, ask your author to send the document to you in your preferred format. Most of the time, this is done in one of two ways. The first is through email. I prefer it to be emailed to me as an attachment rather than as inline text because it’s less messy and easier to save. You should make sure that you both have compatible programs to avoid formatting problems. I like Microsoft Word because it’s pretty universal. I have used RoughDraft on occasion. A second way to edit is to take the document with a copy and paste off of the place where it is archived. This is more time consuming, but some prefer it this way. Always make sure that whatever they give you is the latest version, so that your comments are not obsolete.
Once you get the piece in your grubby little fingers, it is necessary to ask the author when they expect it back. This can be negotiated at any time, and I like to know sooner rather than later so I can be as timely as possible. Real life does occasionally butt into my editing time. If this happens, I like to inform my author as soon as possible about any delays. Most people are pretty understanding about computer deaths and school/work troubles.
Things to Ignore
Every once in a while, you’ll get an author who does something that you do not agree with, but they do it on purpose and they like it that way. If there is something that they are aware of (these are usually stylistic in nature) that they don’t want to change, don’t waste your
breath fingers. Ignore it and move on. As long as they are aware of it, and are doing it on purpose, there’s not much you can do to change their mind. Don’t pick a fight.
On a personal note, I think it is very helpful if you are storing the document on your computer, to save the original as a different file from the one that you are editing. You never know when you need to see the original words. Also, this helps if you want to edit something again (and want to start with the original), or for a different problem. That way you don’t run into your own comments. It’s cleaner and less distracting. If your computer runs into problems frequently, it can be a good idea to save the document on disc, or print it. * On another ethical note, once you are done, it’s usually a good idea to destroy your copies, unless you want to keep proof of your edits for later. It’s a tricky topic. Be sure to ask your author what they prefer.
If you expect to be credited for your work, good for you. There is nothing wrong with being credited for your trouble. Let your author know what you expect, and what name/penname you want to be credited under.
I think that sums up most of the main points in what to discuss with your author before you begin your work. The key to working cohesively with your author is communication. Don’t be afraid to spend a week discussing your expectations before you begin. It will save you trouble in the long run, and can often create a good long-term working relationship. If I have forgotten anything you feel is important, please let me know and I’ll add it in. Happy editing, everyone!