This week I’m participating in the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, a blog hop for writers who want to learn from each other and build a community. I’ve participated in this excellent blog hop since its creation a couple months ago, and last month I discussed how to find beta readers & critique partners online. Often some or all of these people will also be writers, and they’ll ask you to read their work as well. Almost all of my betas/critique partners have also been writers, and I’ve beta read several novels and dozens of short stories.
Every time I beta read or critique someone else’s work, I learn more about giving feedback–and more about the writing craft itself. Today I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned.
Tips for being a great beta reader or critique partner
1. Ask what kind of feedback the writer is looking for
The type of feedback your writer friend needs depends entirely on their project’s stage in the writing process. On a first draft they need feedback on the overarching themes, characters, and relationships. It’s tempting to point out every typo or grammatical error, but it’s also pointless. Many of those sentences–often most of them–will change dramatically when the writer tackles the big issues anyway. Don’t focus on sentence level issues unless you notice a repetitive pattern.
When dealing with a later draft, you still want to be on the lookout for big problems, but you can focus more on sentence level problems. If you’re feeling generous, you can even do a line edit.
The only way to know what type of feedback a writer wants is to ask. You may realize as you’re reading that they need a different kind of feedback–many writers want line edits long before the manuscript is ready. In these instances you need to gently explain why you don’t think the novel is ready for line edits, and provide possible solutions to the big issues.
2. Separate the work from the writer
The absolute worst thing you can do is attack the writer personally. Your job as a beta reader or critique partner is to help other writers improve their work. You want to encourage them, not tear them down. Focus on the writing and keep the writer out of it.
A note about diversity & representation: if you belong to a marginalized group, it’s easy to take these things personally–and to assume the writer is an awful person. Sometimes you’ll even be right. But we’ve all internalized many biases, and some hurtful tropes are so common and subtle that they’re easy to miss. If you notice harmful stereotypes, or a stark lack of diversity, point it out gently. Talk about internalized biases and how strongly they influence. Calling the writer names will only make them angry and defensive. Of course, if you’re polite and they’re still defensive, they’re probably an asshole.
3. Give constructive criticism
You are going to find flaws in everything you beta read/critique. Sometimes you might even be asked to read a project riddled with massive flaws. But no matter how bad it gets, you need to give constructive criticism. You need to offer solutions. You also need to find something you like about the project, even if it’s something tiny.
This type of feedback is called constructive criticism, and it’s effective for a couple reasons. First, it includes positive feedback so the writer’s less likely to get defensive. Second, it actually tells the writer what to do next–or at least gives them options.
To ensure your criticism is constructive, use what business gurus like to call “the sandwich method”. Compliment the work first, then give your criticism(s) and potential solutions, and follow up with another compliment.
When you don’t have a solution: in a book, things sometimes just feel wrong, and you don’t know exactly how to fix them. If this is happening to you all the time, you probably need to read more published books critically to deepen your understanding of the craft. If it happens a couple times a book, that’s totally normal. Many writers complain about this type of advice, but I actually like it. Often it concerns things I was already unsure of, and it only takes me a few minutes to figure out how to fix it.
As a beta reader/critique partner, the most important thing you can do is remember that your goal is ALWAYS to help the other writer. Even if their manuscript is so awful you can barely stand looking at it. If you don’t think you can help the writer, pass on the work. Don’t tear someone else down. Writing is a hard enough career without us being jerks to each other.
Have you done beta reading in the past? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned? Let me know in the comments section below!