One of the things I love about this blog is being able to share things I’m learning and hopefully help other writers. Today I want to talk about two things that mystified me as a new writer–critique partners and beta readers.
It’s exhilarating to finish that first draft and type “The End.” Then you let it simmer for a while, reread it, revise, edit, etc., until it’s polished up into a shining beauty. What happens next? Query letters? Elevator pitches? CreateSpace and publishing?
Hold your horses, there pardner. Not quite yet. It’s always better to run your work by somebody else before you send it out into the larger world. As the writer, we’re blind to many potential problems in our own work. (Often we become blind to some of the good things too!) That’s where critique partners and beta readers step in–and no, your mom doesn’t count. (Sorry, Mom!)
Why is that, exactly?
Because your mom, your best friend, and your S.O. probably won’t be willing to give you honest feedback. They don’t want to hurt your feelings or ruin the relationship. And if they do give you honest negative feedback, you’re more likely to feel crushed than if it’s somebody with a little more distance.
Critique Partners vs. Beta Readers
So what’s the difference? I admit it can be a fine line, especially if your beta readers are also writers. We can’t avoid giving writerly feedback and suggestions. But here are some general guidelines.
Critique partners: A CP is another writer with whom you regularly swap work to critique. That may mean individual chapters or a whole manuscript, and it can range from first draft level up to nearly finished. CPs evaluate your writing from an editor’s point of view, looking at story structure, characterization, world building, scenes, dialogue, or anything else you ask them to watch out for. They’ll also offer suggestions, encouragement, and be there to toss around ideas for improving your work. When you feel stuck in your story, a CP is there to ask for help and advice. And you’ll do the same for them, since it’s a partnership.
Beta readers: A beta reader, on the other hand, reads your entire manuscript once you’ve polished it as much as you can. Depending on the reader, they’ll give you comments on the overall story line, the characters, and the subplots. Some readers’ feedback will be more useful than others (rather like reading reviews on Amazon.com). Usually a beta is only committing to one manuscript, although there’s always the chance you’ll find favorite readers who will be up for more. If your beta is another writer, it’s good form to offer to read their work, too.
How to Find CPs and Betas
When I started out writing, the idea of finding a beta reader, let alone a CP, was overwhelming. I was terrified at the thought of letting someone else read my work, and even more terrified to ask them to do it. (Hello, introvert!)
Now that I’ve been in the writing world for a while, I’ve realized it’s not as scary as I thought. There are plenty of other writers out there in the same position, looking for CPs and beta readers too. It’s simply a matter of connecting with them! A note, though–be wise about who you send your work to. Make sure they’re a legitimate writer or interested reader, not someone looking to steal your work.
Here are some places to look:
- Local writer groups–I haven’t joined one myself, but there are groups that meet in person to read and critique work. I’m sure some people have had positive experiences, others negative. Just an option to keep in mind.
- National writing organizations–Many national level organizations, like RWA (Romance Writers of America), have some kind of critique partner matching service. You fill out your information and they’ll help pair you with a potential CP.
- Facebook groups–Plenty of writer groups exist on Facebook. After you’ve joined one, it’s pretty easy to toss out a post asking for beta readers.
- Twitter–Like Facebook, you can use a hashtag like #ibetaread to find possible beta readers. Or you can use something like #CPMatch to look for potential critique partners. Again, it’s a good idea to pick someone you know or do a trial swap of a few chapters to make sure you’ll be a good fit for each other.
Tips for Giving and Receiving Critiques
Once you’ve found a CP or a beta reader, you’ll need to jump in and reciprocate. If they’re going to give up valuable time reading and commenting on your work, you need to return the favor. And, honestly, you might find that critiquing for someone else helps your writing almost as much as receiving feedback. It’s pretty easy to read a book or a manuscript and say, “I liked it,” or, “Meh.” Not so easy to say exactly why. But unearthing the why forces you to think about the various components of writing and how they work together to create the whole.
Let’s be honest about receiving a critique. Giving somebody your “baby” and asking them to point out all the flaws is scary, and it may be discouraging and painful. Everybody says writers have to have thick skin, but nobody likes to point out that the way to get thick skin is by suffering through rejections, bad reviews, and negative comments.
The most important part of receiving and giving critiques is RESPECT. Somebody has taken the time to read your work and (hopefully) put a lot of thought into their comments. Don’t get angry and chuck their comments into the trash. Even if you don’t agree, let the critique simmer for a day or two. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll come around to at least understand what they’re saying.
Do you have to edit in all the changes your CPs or betas suggest? No, but you at least have to consider them. If you’ve chosen wisely, your CPs are trying to help you make your work the best it can be. But in reality, if you have more than one person read your work, it won’t take long before some of their suggestions conflict with each other. I read a good rule of thumb somewhere–if two people agree, make the change. That might be two readers, or it might be you plus one reader.
What about giving critiques? Again, the rule of the day is RESPECT. Another writer has poured their creative effort and energy into this work, and even if it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read, that person deserves respect for what they’re trying to accomplish. Writing is HARD. We need all the encouragement and support we can get.
Of course, you’re not going to help them if you lie. But even the worst manuscripts have some buried gold nuggets. Find the good things and point them out wherever possible. Then, encourage the writer to improve the weak areas in a way that’s specific, honest, and as kind as you can manage. Giving examples and suggestions can be very helpful. Remember to always reference the writing, not the writer, to avoid personal attacks. As in, “The dialogue in this section feels rough to me,” instead of, “You don’t know how to write dialogue very well.”
Remember, too, that each of us has a distinct writing voice. It’s fine to offer style suggestions, but don’t try to rewrite somebody else’s work to make it sound like yours. Many times we hold certain style choices to be hard and fast rules, but that isn’t necessarily true. Whatever rule you want another writer to follow, I can almost guarantee some published author out there has broken it.
Are you convinced yet? Is it worth sending your hard work off to somebody else to evaluate? Think of it this way–would you rather get negative feedback in the form of comments from a beta reader, or scathing public reviews of your self-published book on Amazon.com?
Since I found my critique partners this past winter, I can easily see how both my overall skill at writing and my individual WIPs have leaped forward in terms of progress. And while it’s nerve-wracking getting emails from them, it’s exciting too, because I always know my work will be better for their comments. And now I have a few more people in my corner, ready to commiserate and celebrate alongside me on this writing journey.
What are your thoughts? Do you have suggestions for where to find CPs and beta readers? Feel free to share!
Image Credits: Pexels.com (CC0 license) and Kellie VanHorn.