At some point in your writing journey, you’re going to need someone else to read your work. And I’m not talking about agents or publishers or editors. I’m not even talking about your mom or dad or your second cousin twice removed. I’m talking about beta readers and or critique partners.
In my mind I sort of separate these two categories, though I’m sure others would disagree. The biggest distinction for me is that critique partners, often found in a critique group, are other writers, while beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers themselves. Both are helpful though in taking your stories from drafts to publishable novels. And while you can pay a professional editor, you might benefit from taking it first to a critique group.
A critique group are fellow writers who will read and critique your pages for you
The parameters of these groups can vary. Some choose to remain genre specific. The benefit to this is you have other writers familiar with the conventions of your genre. You also have discussions about well-known writers and can reference their work for easy examples. Sometimes it’s just fun to geek out and have someone actually get your weird Firefly reference. On the other hand, having other genre writers read your work, a mystery writer reading an epic fantasy, say, might allow for unexpected and mind-expanding insights into your work. If you write poetry or short-stories, the form may be a more important distinction than the genre in regards to the critiques. Again in this situation you have other writers familiar with the specific needs and parameters that the form requires and are able to read your work with this in mind.
Some established group have scheduled weekly sessions. This can be the needed kick in the butt to write and submit (lather, rinse, repeat) on a regular basis. These groups often have very specific rules of conduct with word count limitations and procedures on how to conduct the actual critique. There are some groups that require the author to remain silent during the critiques or only to ask a few questions of clarification. Others are a bit more loose.
The advantage to having an established group of writers is they are in it for the long haul and able to give valuable feedback on novel size work. The only down side might be the time it might take to get through an average 80,000 word story, as turns are rotated among the members. So depending on how many members are submitting and the diligence of the meet-ups, your novel may take a year [or several] to finish. Usually keeping the group between 5 and 7 members allows for the occasional and understandable absenteeism while maintaining a useful amount of feedback on your work.
Critiques are on a quid pro quo basis; you read and critique chapters or scenes from their work and they do the same for you. Having another writer catch your grammar and punctuation gaffs, point out your inconsistencies and notify you of structure speed wobbles, are just a few of the obvious benefits to a writer. But if you go into it only thinking of the feed back you are getting, you are missing out on the opportunity to improve your ability to critique. This is an important skill to have and one that can make you a better editor of your own work. Besides which, if your critique partners aren’t feeling as if they are getting a fair exchange, you might find yourself with less and less people interested in spending the time on your own work.
Critique meet-ups operate more on a members-drop-in sort of approach
Meet-ups tend to be monthly scheduled open door affairs. Attendance is come when you want and writers wait their turn to read their pieces and are given feedback on the spot. This works for writers who may have difficulty committing to a schedule or are only dipping their toe into the writing world or perhaps only need feedback on short pieces or scenes from novels. Usually these groups are quite big and are a great place to meet many other writers and to hear a variety of styles and genres and in turn stretch your critiquing abilities. Sharing industry news and views and networking is another advantage. It might also be a great place to meet like-minded writers in order to create a smaller dedicated critique group.
Online critique groups are virtual communities
This is a great opportunity to get a lot of feedback on your work. Online could work for writers who have not been able to find writers in their immediate city or town. Online communities are often arranged by genre, again with the benefits that garners. Although from first-hand experience I find that meeting face to face and the subsequent conversations that erupt over the critiques is extremely valuable both as a writer and a critic, one can’t underestimate the value of feedback from multiple writers actively involved in an online community. Not that it is a guarantee, but often these writers are a little more comfortable navigating the internet and may offer valuable direction there for a newbie. In order to manage these large groups, some communities have strict rules of conduct and mandatory critiquing before you can submit. This can manage those that want something for nothing, but not gage effectiveness of critiques. You might have to weed through several to find feedback you can use.
That of course is the key element to whatever critique group you become involved in; feedback. As writers, we want to make sure our story is coming across and the only way to do that is to have the story read. Having said that, once you feel as if you are getting down to that publishable novel, you might need to find yourself some Beta Readers.
Beta readers is another term used for critique partners, but in my mind, I think of them as your genre guinea pigs. They are those die-hard genre fans that have a lot of reading under their belt and while they might not write themselves, know a well-constructed story when they are reading it. They might not be able to give you all the help a fellow writer might be able to give, using all that writerly jargon, but they will be reading the story as a reader reads it. And after all, isn’t that who we are writing it for?
It might be a good idea to give a beta reader an entire draft, maybe even (dare I say it?) a paper copy, allowing them to make notes in the margins as they go. These notes can be as simple or complex as they are capable of giving. Even a comment on the likeability of a character or when they get board or felt like skipping a part, or when the gravitational pull of a small satellite doesn’t jive with the spacecraft trajectory, can give a writer great feedback on what they need to look at in the next draft. Did I mention genre? Make use of their love and appreciation of it; which means don’t give a military sci/fi fan a romance novel, unless something big gets blown up and not just a relationship. Also, make sure your novel has already been extensively revised and copy-edited and is definitely not a first draft. Respect the reader and their time. After all, they are doing this, usually, for free.
Critique groups and beta readers are easy things to find out about. There are several articles that you might find helpful. I suggest you start with this article from Writer’s Digest. It explores the whole critique group concept. A must for writers venturing out for the first time, it is also a touch point for those who have been at it for a while. Another one to check out is this one from Jane Friedman‘s website. There, Brooke McIntyre of Inked Voices invites you to evaluate where you are as a writer/critic, shares what to expect, and offers suggestions on how to go about becoming involved in a critique group. And because I try to be balanced in my view, here is an article from Kristen Lamb that might make you more aware of some of the pitfalls.
Not all critique groups and beta readers are created equal. You may have to go through considerable trial and error to find ones that work for you; offering feedback that you can use, in a manner you can digest. You’ll want to be challenged to improve but not so overwhelmed you quit writing. Remember, you’ll be part of a community. You’ll need one that is a good fit with your personality and writing style.
Know that it is worth it. All you need to do is check out the acknowledgements page of your favourite book. That author had a community around them. They didn’t do it alone. Why should you have to?