#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: How to be a good beta reader or critique partner

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This week I’m participating in theΒ #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.

Final advice

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!

24 thoughts on “#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: How to be a good beta reader or critique partner

  • Great advice πŸ™‚ I find it hard to ask for help, so the fact that my writing friends are supportive when beta reading for me while still pointing out all the flaws I was blind to before really helps.

  • I belonged to a critique group that met weekly. We stayed together for several years until friction arose when some members became published.
    I’ve worked with groups and one-on-one and always tell my partners what I need in a critique (Is the MC a jerk? Can he be redeemed? Is the villain too soft?) I generally look more for content than typos.
    It is sometimes hard to find the good in a book, but I look for it and try to soften any blows. Fledgling writers don’t need harsh criticism, but a hand to lead them down a difficult path.
    I especially like your advice about receiving feedback about diversity. The last thing I want to do as an author is to insult someone, get an aspect wrong, or appear totally ignorant.
    Thanks for the input!

    • dlgunn

      I’ve never belonged to a consistent critique group, and I’m 100% OK with that – I like working one on one with people better anyway. I have now created a Facebook group for the beta readers of my main series, but that’s more to encourage active participation in other aspects of the worldbuilding, which I am heavily focused on.

      Glad you liked my tips, thanks for stopping by!

  • Great advice. Number was was an eye-opener for me. I know this, but still, I feel like I’m not being a good critique partner unless I point out even the sentence structure issues, for example. Maybe I should, as you say, first ask what kind of critique the person is looking for. As so long as they know that I’m not going to point out grammar, etc., then at least I know that I’m not letting them down by omission. Thanks!

    • dlgunn

      Oh, I’m the same way! It’s a concerted effort to not stop on every sentence that’s weird when people are looking for big reads.

  • I like to do my ‘beta reading’ on a Kindle, then I can add notes, ideas and suggestions as I go, rather than waiting until the end. It makes it so much easier when giving feedback, as you can quote specific examples πŸ™‚

  • I’m always nervous about Beta reading. I don’t want to give advice if it’s wrong. One thing I usually do is tell the author if I’ve skimmed anywhere or was tempted to skim. This usually means too much backstory at some point. I alway point out if I’m confused by characters names. And, I tell the writer what I liked and why I think it worked. It’s hard work to beta read properly, but can be fun too. Are you on twitter? I retweeted this post but couldn’t find you. I’m at @StanleyKMS

    • dlgunn

      Personally I’ve reached a point where I have a harder time reading for pleasure, as I automatically beta read things in my head, and I often get focused on the writing itself rather than the story. Which helps me learn a lot, but can be really frustrating!

      And I am on Twitter, @DiannaLGunn – I just followed you!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Beta reading can be tricky. Particularly since so much about writing is subjective. I always suggest people swap sample chapters before exchanging complete manuscripts. That way both parties will know what to expect from the other.

  • Great points! Number 2 is always what I fear in both ways. I often fear that my feedback is going to be too direct or not helpful enough and vice versa. The best way I foung to avoid it was to make sure to have specific questions asked.
    I’m going to go through this phase soon, so it’s nice to read this article. Perfect timing for me! πŸ™‚

    • dlgunn

      Glad you found them useful! I don’t think you need to worry too much about being too direct–just remember to minimize the use of the word “you” and stay focused on the story itself.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • I find it so difficult to get beta readers or critique partners. Especially good ones. I even had people say they are beta readers and all they have given me by way of advice is a quick comment, like Great read. Thanks! One even said: “Loved it. Keep up the good work. If you want me to read more send it on.” I don’t want praise, although that nice. I want to see where I went wrong, where I could improve. I’ve also been incorrectly advised about grammar and spelling (I’m British) and where they tried to edit out voice in favour of correct grammar within dialogue? Bonkas! I have of course enjoyed marvellous experiences with non-writers who offered their personal opinions honestly, and from writers who appreciate cultural differences and ‘voice’ but highlight plot/character issues professionally.

    Your tips are very helpful and are those I stick to when working with or for other’s (I offer services as a beta/critique partner for those who don’t want the ‘exchange’ responsibility) as they are surely, to me at least, common sense.

  • Some great tips πŸ™‚ I’ll be beta reading for the first time soon, so I’ll keep them in mind!
    I’ve always wondered, how do you make notes and give them to the author? I don’t have microsoft word, so I can’t use the notes feature!

  • I agree wholeheartedly that critiquing is an endless learning experience. I have been actively involved in several critique groups and always learn both from receiving and giving feedback.

    One technique that has been remarkably helpful and that I had never considered before I received is summarizing/retelling the story I read. It seems silly, but it tells the writer what you took away as the reader, which is invaluable.

  • I almost wish I’d had a chance to read this before I made my first attempt at a beta reader. I think I might have done a better job…. Well, if I ever get asked again, now I’ve got some handy hints πŸ™‚

  • Excellent and highly needed post. This is good information not just for the author, but also for authors to communicate to beta readers who might be new to reading through this lens. Well said.

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