This is something that’s useful to anyone who’s getting themselves involved in writing. While there are a million different ways to critique, it’s important to know which ones actually help and which ones just waste time.
Step One: Finding a Beta Reader
The first place most folks will go is family and friends. While the occasional family member or friend may be well read, and might be astute in offering a good critique, it’s good to get an objective perspective as well. I’ve used the Absolute Write forums, as well as groups on Goodreads. Be forewarned, if you’re going into these groups asking for readers without establishing yourself, it may not be looked upon kindly. A better bet would be to offer to swap. I’ve almost always done beta swapping, and to be honest, I’ve learned just as much from critiquing others’ works, as I have with their critiques on mine.
Step Two: You Found a Reader/Swap, Now What?
It’s really easy for time to slip away, and I’ve had a lot of failed swaps due to one person not prioritizing the time, including myself. This is essential. A lot of times, setting up a schedule really helps, like every Monday you’ll swap 3-5 chapters. This is my favorite way to swap, because if your critique styles don’t end up meshing, or you’re having a tough time getting through the story, you can always back out after one turnaround. When you agree to swap entire manuscripts, it can be overwhelming, but it’s also rough if you end up not working well with each other. I learned the hard way, and it was the first and last time I swapped full manuscripts–I did a detailed critique on this guy’s entire story which turned out to be a sort of hard sci-fi I just wasn’t into—and when I got my critiques back it was minimal…barely anything at all. Lesson learned.
This is the step that most people can get stuck on. It can take several tries to find a reader/swapper willing to go the whole way with you. It’s definitely a commitment. The positive? Once you find folks worth working with, oftentimes they’re willing to swap in the future.
Step Three: Critiques
First, be honest about what you like. If you’re not into romance, you’re probably not going to offer a great critique on a romance novel. If you hate sci-fi/fantasy, please steer clear. Once you’ve bypassed that hurdle, the next step is the actual critique.
There is such thing as a bad critique. Just because you have an opinion, doesn’t mean it’s helpful, or has merit.
I’m all for hard critiques–this isn’t a gushy Kumbaya circle of happy feelings, and I’m not saying to treat everyone as if they’re a precious glass statue. However, telling someone, this sucks, or I don’t like this, isn’t helpful. Think about it logically–what can they take from that? Nothing. In fact, if you’re a writer and you’re handing out those style of critiques, you may want to examine your skill with communicating via words. What IS helpful, is identifying why you don’t like something. Is a character coming across as unlikeable because the author has him snapping at everything? Are parts of the story boring? Why? Sometimes it can be a lack of variety in the dialogue/description/action/introspection mix. Other times it could be a scene that doesn’t further a character or the story along. It’s okay to call out issues, but you need to give reasoning behind this.
On the flip side, the peppy cheerleader can be just as frustrating. ‘Everything is perfect!’ might sate your ego for a little while, but it won’t make your story better, and that’s what we want. Really, the main reason why friends and family as critique partners can be tricky, is because a lot of them fall into that category. They want to support you! Or, you may run into a situation where someone is new to writing and genuinely doesn’t see anything wrong with the manuscript. After a swap there, you’ll end up frustrated, because you know there are things to be fixed, but no one’s calling them out to you.
The balanced critique partner is the best–or at least my personal favorite. I love when a critique partner will point out their favorite parts, but also rip apart what they didn’t like. For folks who are starting out, this is kind of essential, because a lot haven’t developed that thick skin yet and honing in on what they’re doing right helps them continue to progress in a positive direction.
Head spinning yet?
Once the critique’s done, if you’ve made it to the end with your beta reader/swapper, a wrap up is often nice. I personally like to do an overview of the plot as a whole and appreciate when a beta reader does the same for me.
Step Four: Go Get Another One
What? You just spent all that time getting someone to read it, and now you have to find another person?
Yeah. A lot of times I’ll get two contradictory pieces of advice on a section I’m not sure about, and it takes that third critique to tie-break , at least for me. Plus, after a couple of views on it, the major issues will stand out that much more, making it easier when you go in and do your big edits.
Is that it? Well, I could go on for hours about the subject of beta-reading, but those are the basics.
Go forth and critique!