Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Critique Partners vs. Beta Readers

What is the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader?

It’s an oft-asked question. They seem to do the same thing – read your stuff and give you feedback – but there are subtle differences. Ideally, they should both be interested in the type of writing you do, whether it’s YA fantasy or adult erotica (although this isn’t 100% necessary – it’s good to get other perspectives too). The main distinction, though, is right in the name: partner vs. reader.

A critique partner (sometimes called a CP) should be another writer with whom you can share or trade work. They might write the same genre as you, they might not. Their first goal is to look at your work like a writer for issues with the plot, characters, worldbuilding, etc. You may want to provide them with specific questions about your manuscript. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to have a finished manuscript to start looking CPs; a good CP will see multiple versions of your manuscript anyway.

Having an honest, open relationship with your CPs is paramount. You don’t have to be BFFs who message each other until the wee hours of the morning, but you should at least be cordial. These are people who will be picking your manuscript apart, and you want to be able to have an honest discussion about their critiques. Remember, this is a two-way street; you’ll be reading their work as well. It’s also a good idea to have multiple CPs – at least three, so that you can have “tiebreakers” if two CPs disagree about something, but more than five or six might be too many opinions. Ultimately, it’s up to you how many people you want looking at your work.

A beta reader (sometimes called a beta) should, first and foremost, be a reader. They should answer the most general (and scary) question: What did you think? They are big-picture while CPs are looking at the nitty-gritty. You should, at the very least, have a finished manuscript to send to beta readers, preferably one that has been polished by critique partners already. (That’s why they’re called beta readers, not alpha readers.) Betas should be reading your work as if they just took it off the shelf at the library.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there can’t be overlap between the two groups; if a beta reader catches a typo that slipped past your CPs, of course they should make a note. For the most part, though, it’s best to keep them separate. A CP who has been with your manuscript through eight rounds of revision is probably not a good choice as a beta. Use your best judgment – this is your work, after all, and in the end it’s up to you.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • You may consider paying someone who offers editorial services (usually charged by the word or page) to look over your manuscript. While this is a viable option, try to get other writers to critique your work for free first. If you’re still struggling, you might look at paid options.
  • It’s okay to break off a relationship with a critique partner or beta reader if you’re not happy.
  • Your favorite published author probably won’t agree to read your work and provide feedback. One of my favorite writers explained why on her blog:
    • Many aspiring writers believe that published writers have more power than we do. My opinion is just that—one opinion, one set of biases…. What most writers can’t do—for a multitude of reasons, legal and otherwise—is read your manuscript, edit it, and get you an editor or an agent. We can’t give you the magical shortcut to publishing success. Trust me—If I knew what that was, I would have used it myself.

Where should you look for critique partners and beta readers?

As tempting as it may be, friends and family members are probably not your best bet. It can be hard for them to be objective about your work, especially if you have talked to them about it in the past. Keep in mind the fact that they may not like it, or that they may give you critique that you don’t want or agree with. Think of it this way: Are you willing to jeopardize your relationship with someone to get feedback on your work? If the answer is yes, you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with that person. If the answer is no, well, that’s where writing communities come in.

There are many ways to find writing communities. There are, of course, writing groups online (such as Operation Awesome!) that you can find through Google searches. Twitter has an amazing writing community, with many people hosting events that help you connect with other writers, get feedback, and even win free books. Competitions like Author Mentor Match, Query Kombat, and Pitch Wars usually have groups on Facebook or Slack where you can talk to other participants and look for CPs and betas as well. You never know – you may even meet someone through an online community who lives in the next town over!

You might also want to look into joining national or international writing organizations like the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Romance Writers of America, and the International Women’s Writing Guild. These sometimes require membership (which can cost money) or that you are already a published author, so be sure to research the requirements before joining.

If you’re more of an in-person…person, you may want to check your local Meetup community for writing groups. Don’t be discouraged if you only find groups where you get together for the explicit purpose of writing as a community; if you ask around, you may find a few like-minded people who would be willing to read your work in their spare time. Your local library may host events for writers or may even be affiliated with a local writing group.

Here at OA, we found our CPs and betas in a variety of ways: Query Kombat, Author Mentor Match, CP Match, Writing.com, professors from university, even through MMORPGs. So there really is no single Right Way!

When should you let a critique partner or beta reader go?

This is a tough thing to do, but necessary to keep in mind for your sanity and out of consideration for everyone involved. Let me tell a story from my own experience.

A while back, I had a CP named “Nancy.” We swapped full manuscripts, and I felt like I put in a lot of time and thought to her work. On the other hand, when I got Nancy’s feedback on my manuscript, I got a strong sense that she didn’t understand my work at all. I was frustrated. I felt that I had sunk a lot of time into helping her with her manuscript and got no helpful feedback in return. I tried to explain some of the things Nancy had issues with and point out where she had missed certain things, but she continued to disagree with me. After a lot of thought and agonizing over this decision, I didn’t send her any further material.

Now, let me be clear: negative feedback is just as useful, if not more so, than positive feedback. It’s not helpful to get responses that all say your work is perfect. But criticism should be constructive, especially when it comes to writing. For me, Nancy’s feedback wasn’t helping me improve my work, so I chose to set most of it aside. Another reason I ignored most of Nancy’s comments is that she was the only person who raised most of those concerns. I had six to eight other people who were also reading my manuscript, and when none of them missed the gender of one of my main characters, I realized that it was just Nancy.

If you feel like a CP or beta relationship isn’t working out, it’s okay to say so. You wouldn’t stay in a relationship that didn’t make you happy “in the real world,” and writing shouldn’t be any different. The goal with CPs and betas is to make your work better, and if someone’s notes aren’t helping you do that, you don’t have to take them. If a CP or beta is constantly slamming your work, maybe it’s time to step back. Don’t let anyone stand in the way of achieving your writing dreams.

Still have questions? Leave a comment or send us an email and we’d be glad to answer!

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