For this series of posts, we are writing about the road to publishing. You should start with our overview. Today, Stephanie discusses beta readers and critique groups.
How important are beta readers and critique groups to the writing process? Take a look at any acknowledgments page for a quick answer: very. Beta readers provide much-needed perspective for authors who’ve seen the same pages often enough to recite them from memory. They contribute feedback that ranges from formative to collaborative to editorial to cosmetic. Some of the feedback is valuable; some isn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
I’d like to share a list of tips for the most effective ways to work with beta readers and critique groups. This list is focused on productively receiving feedback; I’ll post another later on giving effective feedback.
Over the past decade, I’ve done an MFA in creative writing, I’ve had critique partners, I’ve participated in writing groups, I’ve worked with teachers who run student writing groups, and I’ve taken four books through the editorial process. Please take what’s useful from my thoughts; leave the rest. That’s the first rule for this list and any other advice you’re offered as a writer!
Seek criticism. Seems obvious, right? But many writers secretly want cheer leading rather than tough feedback—and many beta readers and critique groups are (understandably) hesitant to offer truly honest criticism. Writers tend to be sensitive and beta readers are often friends or colleagues with investment in the relationship. My strategy is to insist verbally and then repeat in an email that I want the toughest criticism my beta reader can offer, and that I see it as a major gift. If the critique still comes back too glowing, I’ll ask further questions, specifically targeting areas I know need work.
Don’t argue or explain. Resist the temptation to justify your work. When a beta reader offers criticism, take it as the gift that it is, take notes (if appropriate), and listen carefully. If the feedback raises further questions, feel free to ask them. But don’t tell the beta reader why they’re wrong or what they missed.
Choose your critique partners and beta readers carefully. Not everyone is skilled at offering useful feedback. It’s best when your partners are professional writers as good as or better than you, industry professionals, or literature/writing professors. Of course, that’s in an ideal world. Many people who are simply avid readers can give great feedback, especially when guided by questions from the author.
Try out different writing group formats. There are many ways of running critique groups. One popular method involves members reading aloud from their work while the group follows along on hard copies, making notes. After the reading, there’s a group discussion. I find this method frustrating in general but sometimes useful for moral support and fine-tuning. I’m a novelist and I need big-picture feedback on full manuscript drafts. However, this format works well for people who want to take a picture book, short piece of writing, or single scene to the next level.
Another format involves emailing work ahead of time to members, who then read it and prepare feedback (usually in writing) to be discussed at the meeting. I like this option better than the first; I think digestion time is conducive to stronger feedback.
However, after ten years of experimenting, I’ve decided writing groups eat up too much of my time without enough to show for it. I now focus exclusively on manuscript trades (or other trades) with trusted writer friends and beta readers.
Offer trades. Don’t lose sight of the fact that when you ask for feedback, you’re asking for a significant amount of work from someone. No matter how graciously your reader refuses, insist on a trade of some sort. If he or she is a novelist, offer a critique—even if it’s a future critique. If your reader is in another line of work, offer something. And don’t take no for an answer. Free babysitting, a gift card, a gift basket… something to show you recognize and appreciate his or her time and effort.
Don’t ask for another read too quickly on the heels of the first. (e.g. “I made some changes. Now could you read it again and tell me what you think?”) First of all, the changes you made probably aren’t as significant as you think they are. Second, it can be torture to reread anything but a cherished classic, let alone someone else’s work-in-progress. If at all possible, seek a different reader for the new draft.
Guide the feedback. Don’t be afraid to state exactly what you’re hoping to get out of a critique. “I’m ready to submit this and all I want is fine tuning and line editing.” Or “I’m struggling with the narrative arc, and need you to tell me where it feels slow.” Or “Can you read for Joanna’s character, paying attention to when you start to distrust her and when you know for sure she’s mentally ill?” Be specific and offer a written list of questions or areas of concern.
Be patient. You handed off the manuscript yesterday, you’re doing the math, and if your book was really interesting, he’d have started last night and finished by now! So where’s his email? A joke, but not that far off from how some of us feel when handing off our newborn. Remember that the urgency is yours and yours alone. The manuscript is just another thing on your beta reader’s giant to-do pile. So cut him or her some slack. Don’t pester. I’d say two months is a fair wait before a nudge. (Although I’d skip nudging altogether if possible.
Notice trends. If you hear the same feedback from several readers, it’s definitely something to work on.
Know your readers and their talents. People have different kinds and levels of skill in offering feedback. Some are great at big-picture feedback. Some can nail plot problems and suggest fixes. Others have a feel for characters or language. And a few gems can do everything. Know your beta readers’ strengths and ask for critiques correspondingly. For instance, don’t give your copy editor friend a first draft. Do ask your character-savvy reader to take a look at an early draft to give a thumbs up or down to your cast.
I thought I’d stop with ten, but this one has to be said. Enjoy the process, take the criticism, and realize that none of this is a huge deal in the grand scheme. We’re just lucky to be writing!