Friday, August 26, 2011

Beta Reader? Critique Partner? Or Two-Headed Monster?

Nope, this is a betta.
What IS a Beta Reader, Anyway?
I hooked up with my first two beta readers (via Mary Kole's kidlit blog) before I knew what a beta reader was. It worked out fine (*hugs Katherine! *hugs Michelle!), but I blundered my way through it, stepping on toes, nudging when I should have been stroking, keeping silent when I should have been praising, critiquing when I should have been beta-ing -- well, you can imagine.

I've seen writers make a distinction between betas and critiquers (and a third category: test readers-- kids, family, house guests, quick readers), but I'm not sure how widely held these assumptions are.

The Beatific Beta
Betas, in this view, are big picture people. They refrain from line editing, correcting punctuation or word choice, or really close reading.
Instead, they give general impressions: This is working for me, this isn't. Or, to follow novelist Kathleen Duey's method, you can do a BCD (Boring, Confusing, Don't Buy It) and just put a letter in the margin whenever you feel inclined. To be even more minimalist: a checkmark where you're bored, a smiley face where you're laughing. And then maybe a paragraph at the end detailing your big picture thoughts. The beta only has to be smart; she doesn't have to be a writer.

The OCD Critiquer
Critique partners get into the nitty gritty--removing words, rearranging paragraphs, flagging spelling errors, putting metaphors to the test, eradicating cliches, pointing out inaccuracies, in other words, acting like an editor -- along with the big picture stuff. Generally they are writers themselves. It's more time-consuming for the reader, and it can be a lot rougher on the author's ego.

Who You Gonna Call?
Left to right: Beta, Critiquer, Tester
There's no best or worst draft-stage to call on either kind of partner. The OCD critiquer can be great with a new writer who hasn't quite learned to compose a tight sentence (too many words, too many cliches, the bane of first drafts and beginners). But that manic critiquer can come in handy for a final, pre-query polish. Same thing with the beta, who might identify your yawning plot hole, the one any agent's bound to fall right into, never to be heard from again...

Generally, I've moved away from critiquing toward beta-reading, but I'm still a two-headed monster. My first instincts were critique-ish, a habit of mind cultivated over years of being a journalist/editor/copyeditor, where every sentence will be hacked up and pasted together by a string of people filing their red pens to points on your ms. You develop a strong stomach for editorial input. And I have found it very helpful--especially where my lines are flaccid, my word choice awkward, my character descriptions riddled with cliche, or where I just had too many damn words.

The salient point here is: You need to get this straight with your partner before you begin.

I had a nasty experience with one potential partner when I blithely dove in doing line edits, and her knickers got majorly bunched up over it. We were both to blame: She hadn't said what she was looking for in a reader, and I hadn't asked. Because you and your partner have put in months or years on a manuscript, you might even go so far as to exchange a questionnaire:

  • What issues do you need most help with? Plotting? Characterization? Voice? Pacing?
  • Describe your ideal reader. (What do you honestly want from me?)
  • Line edits? True or False?
  • What time frame do you have for a complete read? How often will we be exchanging?
  • Anything you DON'T want to hear from me?
  • I'd also add: send me a jacket-flap synopsis of the book. If I'm going to read the whole thing, I want to be able to see where you're deviating from your concept.
And then start slow. You don't have to fall into the arms of any potential partner who comes knocking. You can reserve the right to say, "This isn't really working out. But it's not you. It's me."

[Looking for a reader? Go to the querytracker forum, check SCBWI forums (for kidlit), or check out Absolute Write Water Cooler.]


  1. I'm so glad you stepped on my toes! Yes, sometimes I'd cringe, but then I'd feel challenged to make it so much better. That's what a good critique partner can do for you. My story wouldn't be what it is today without having critique partners who gave it to me straight.

    And now, as I'm writing my next novel, I think: Am I taking it too easy on my characters? What would Gail say if she read this?

    Great post!

  2. Aw (blushing). You know I feel the same way about you! Let's do it again with novel #2!

  3. What a great post! I love my betas and my critique partners. Really, I don't know what I'd do without them! :) Nice to "meet" you! :D

  4. Well, I learned something new today: What a beta reader is! When I come up for air in getting my website zinging along I am going to join up for that. Your site is beautiful! Love the images, look forward to reading through a lot of your posts and enjoying the campaign together!

  5. Finding the right people to look over your project at the right stage is a delicate process. I'm thankful my two CPs have been responsive when I've needed them to be but I've been in writing groups less organized that have led to some of the situations you described. Better to be upfront.

    I'm also a campaigner in the SF group -- hope to see you around!

  6. What a great post! I'm just getting involved with my first critique group, and these are some really important points!


  7. Enjoyed this post. I belong to two terrific groups; one for picture books and stories for very young readers, and one for MG or YA novels. They give me so much help!

  8. Hey, Gail! Thanks so much for commenting on my blog and for becoming a Follower! It's great to meet you!

    And I wish you much luck with your writing! From what I'm reading, middle grade is in high demand right now, so keep at it!

    Thanks again!

  9. I have always wondered what a beta reader was! I am so glad I found your blog!!!!! Thank you!

  10. Hi just returning the visit - looking foward to this round - such fun. My friend from forever/editor is my beta reader as well - invaluable

  11. I never knew there was a difference between the two. Thanks for posting this, Gail!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  12. Thanks for clarifying what a beta reader is, I didn't know :( Looking forward to connecting and campaigning with you :)

  13. Hey all -- very glad to meet a whole bunch of fellow writers. Thanks for visiting, I'm looking forward to getting to know you all better.