Thursday, April 27, 2017

W is for Want to Be a Great Critique Partner? #AtoZChallenge

The #AtoZChallenge 2017 Theme at Operation Awesome is the Publishing Journey.

At Operation Awesome, we strive to provide writers and readers with the resources they need to succeed, at every stage of the journey. With that in mind, let's discuss how to be a great critique partner or beta reader!

Writers know how invaluable critique partners (who review your manuscript, sometimes a few chapters at a time, and provide detailed feedback and/or edits) and beta readers (who read the entire manuscript and provide high-level feedback on plot, characters, etc.) are to the writing process. Here are some tips for becoming the kind of critique partner/beta reader who gets thanked in a published novel's Acknowledgments page:

1) Know your limitations. Everyone is busy. All the time. But if you offer to beta read a manuscript, and commit to finishing and providing feedback in two weeks, you really only have two options: finish and provide feedback in two weeks; or, if you know you won't be able to finish on time, contact the writer to let him/her know so the manuscript can be sent to another beta reader if necessary. There's no harm in saying 'no' or 'maybe next time' if the deadline doesn't work for your schedule, but there is harm in overcommitting and failing to deliver. And if you're not sure when the writer needs feedback by, ask! 

Furthermore, most writers know their own strengths and weaknesses and should apply those to critiquing. For example, I'm good at writing scenes where characters sit around talking about things, and not so good at whiz-bang action sequences. So when I'm critiquing, I make it clear that while I may have high-level impressions about action scenes, those critiques should be taken with a grain of salt. 

2) Listen to the writer's needs. When I send a manuscript to a critique partner or beta reader, I'm explicit about the kind of feedback I want. Sometimes it's high-level thoughts about the book as a whole (Does the mystery's reveal work? Does this character arc make sense?), other times it's scene-by-scene impressions. Other writers may want line-edits, grammar checks, or formatting help. But if you're critiquing a manuscript for a writer who wants high-level thoughts, and you send back a version in tracked-changes with extensive line edits, the writer won't find that particularly useful. If you're not sure what kind of feedback the writer wants, ask!

3) Balance criticism with compliments. Secretly, every writer wants to receive glowing feedback proclaiming your work genius, perfect, Pulitzer-bound. But is that kind of feedback really helpful for getting a draft whipped into shape? If a scene works, and you don't see any room for improvement, say that, but be specific about what works and how the author succeeded. On the flip side, receiving nothing but negative criticism is demoralizing to a writer. Have some positive words for every manuscript you critique, whether it's something as simple as the concept, the main character's personality, or the font choice (kidding about that one. But seriously, use Times New Roman 12-point). My go-to ratio is 75% criticism, 25% compliments, but that changes depending on who I'm reading for. Some writers are more open to blunt critiques than others... again, it comes down to knowing what the writer is looking for.

4) Make suggestions, but don't be offended if the writer doesn't follow them. Neil Gaiman said, "When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong." At the end of the day, your job is to tell the author when something isn't working, and maybe brainstorm some possible ways to fix it. The author's job is to find and implement a fix. If the author doesn't take your advice, that's okay, and doesn't say anything about the value of your feedback. Ultimately, it's the author's book, not yours.

5) Make yourself available for follow-up questions. As I'm working through revisions based on critique partner feedback, I'll often send quick emails to my critique partners if I need clarification on their notes or if I've edited a scene and want to see if it works. I've sometimes looked at revised manuscripts for critique partners after I've critiqued an initial draft. A lot of this will depend on your availability, but at least make clear when you send your notes that you're happy to answer any questions the author might have about those notes.

How do you provide helpful and timely feedback as a critique partner or beta reader?


  1. I'm still searching for the right partner/group.

    I think I've shied away from critique sessions because as a former English teacher, I "corrected" way too many papers that were simply thrown away. I spent so much time trying to help, and the recipient didn't care.

    I need to adjust my mindset. My writing will be better for it.

  2. I like to offer suggestions when something doesn't work for me, and then I leave it to the author to decide what they want to do. I always open myself up to follow-up questions, in case the author needs clarification of my thought process. As for getting my work critiqued, I'm still learning, but I do try to ask questions that the reader can keep in mind when they're reading (i.e. does the pacing feel all right? does the dialogue flow naturally? etc.)

  3. I'm a former newspaper editor, so requests for beta reads always come with "How much detail do you want in my comments." I read with a pen in hand. :-) I always keep in mind that it isn't my story, so I never look for plot editing unless something is confusing -- and then I'll say "Hey, the info dump in Chapter X is confusing. You might want to tighten that up" or similar.

    Great series of articles for the challenge. Thanks for sharing.

    Sharon E. Cathcart
    Award-winning Author of Fiction Featuring Atypical Characters


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