Ground Rules for Beta Readers and Critique Partners

Two ways newer editors get experience with developmental editing/story editing is through beta reading and critique partnering. Beta reading is giving a basic reader reaction to someone’s manuscript. Critique partners are writers who trade their manuscripts and give each other feedback.

Here are some basic rules to follow when beta reading and critique partnering:

1. All feedback should be constructive and diplomatic. If a manuscript makes you want to fling your laptop against the wall, just say, “This is not for me” and go on with life rather than trying to tell the author all of the ways in which they are a terrible writer. That does not mean you can’t tell an author that you find a character to be, say, stereotypical, or that you must never point out that acres of boring description have made your eyes glaze over. It does mean that you need to do this in a polite and productive way (“Here is where I lost interest” versus “You call yourself a writer? Really?”).

2. Ideally, critiques and beta reads are about reader reaction. We’re not trying to solve the author’s problems for them. This is a significant difference from developmental editing, but it is the best way to ensure that you’re not overstepping the role. Relate your reactions, and only your reactions (“I was confused by this scene”). Let the author figure it out from there (or suggest they hire a dev editor!)

3. Critique partners typically work in the same or related genres and trade manuscripts, so it helps if they are in similar places with their manuscripts before they begin a CP relationship. If the relationship lasts then of course “I owe you one” can be trusted but in the beginning, it is best not to seek or offer critique partnering unless both parties have manuscripts ready for critique.

4. Make your expectations of your CP relationship clear. How will you each deliver your feedback? Will you each write a two-to-three page critique? Hop on a call? Return a marked-up manuscript? Any or all of these approaches can work fine, but make sure you agree on the procedure before going forward.

5. Offering to do a beta read does not imply that the person you are beta reading for owes you a beta read; that’s a critique partner. But reciprocity means a lot in the writing/editing community, so don’t be a taker.

6. To perform a beta read or a critique, adhere to the following suggestions:

(a) Set expectations. How long will it take you to do the beta read? How will you deliver the critique? (See #4 above.)

(b) Remember, “Seeking critique partner” implies that you will exchange manuscripts with the other writer, whereas “seeking/offering beta reads” does not.

(c) Before offering your reader response, read the full manuscript! No matter how tempted, don’t offer a preliminary reaction (“I’ve only read the first chapter but it’s really good so far!”). Sometimes the first couple of chapters can be amazing, and then the manuscript falls apart. Other times the first three chapters are painfully dull but the rest of the manuscript is engaging. You don’t know until you know.

(d) Offer specific information about your reader experience: what parts are effective, where did you lose interest, what confused you, what did you like, what didn’t you like? Refrain from offering advice on how to fix the problem. Focus on conveying your experience as a reader.

And this one is for receiving feedback:

The golden rule: Do not dismiss the feedback, disagree with it, or try to argue about it. Say, “Thank you!” Then, after you’ve had some time to digest what has been said, you can decide what parts of the feedback you’ll address in your revision. It is okay to ask clarifying questions – “When you say the heist is implausible, do you mean the way the bank is broken into or the way the thieves slip by the police?” But don’t argue about it! That’s rude and unproductive. You don’t have to agree with everything your beta reader or critique partner says, but you should appreciate the spirit in which they have offered their feedback.

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