Crit Partner or Beta Reader: Which one are you? by Susan Bischoff

As we near the end of ROW80, I thought I’d give you a post about editing. Here are some things that won’t be covered: proofreading, line-editing, copy-editing. These are all basically the same thing, and are a final phase that comes after the real editing has been completed. The lesson in this paragraph: proofreading does not equal editing.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk crits and betas. A lot of times you’ll see these terms used interchangeably. I’m not sure there are official definitions or if there’s an actual difference, but in my head I definitely make a distinction between these two characters, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. The difference between beta and crit in the mind of Susan, and how it applies to you.

To me, beta reading is a kindler, gentler art than critque. Beta readers are a small pool of readers with slightly varying tastes and life experiences (because our own life experience often plays into our enjoyment of fiction) who are going to give your book a read-through to see if they like it. While some are more critical than others, beta readers basically want to like your book and generally will. When you send things out to beta readers, you’re often looking for general impressions:

* Did it make sense?
* Did you enjoy the story? How was the pacing?
* Did you like my characters, esp. the mains? Were they relate-able, could you connect?
* Did you feel like there were holes? Was anything confusing?

These are all important things to know. Naturally, you think you’ve handled all this before you let anyone else see the book, but it’s good to get confirmation from fresh eyes and different brains.

Beta reading usually doesn’t take much longer than any other kind of reading, and, while some betas may note some typos for you, ask a few questions, or write a bunch of LOLs within your text, what you usually get back are a few paragraphs with general impressions.

Critique implies criticism, or at least critical thinking. Someone who is critiquing your work is not casual about their reading. They’re thinking like an editor. Unlike the beta who gives you a read-through, wanting to like your work, a crit partner combs your text, line by line, wanting to make sure as many people like it as possible. They’re looking for more than “Do I like this?” I guess the easiest way to describe reading for critique, in the way I think of it, is that a crit partner is looking for things to be wrong.

Which is why finding a good critique partner or editor is really hard. Because not everyone is good at looking for problems objectively, from the mindset of Genre-Reader X. Some people who go looking for mistakes do so because they get personal satisfaction in finding mistakes and pointing them out rather than the in the editorial process itself. Some people involve ego in their crits. Some people aren’t able to step out of their own voice and style and objectively evaluate work that is different from the way they would have written it.

Good critique involves, amongst other things, understanding the voice and style of the author you’re working for, and understanding the genre you’re reading. Because as a crit partner, you’re placing yourself in the character of Genre-Reader X, a picky reader who would be happy to write a scathing, 1-star review on Amazon. You’re undercover as Genre-Reader X, looking for anything that might confuse or pull the reader out of the story, when, in reality, you’re really the person who stands between your author and that 1-star review.

As a crit partner, even though you’re in there looking for mistakes, it’s not because you want to tear your partner down, it’s because your job is to serve and protect your author by helping to find weak spots and flaws that she was too close to see. It’s then up to her to decide, hopefully with the same amount of objectively you brought to the job, whether and how to make changes. You might provide thoughts, guidance, suggestions, but the work is hers, and so are the decisions.

Now you have some understanding of how I think of these two different terms and we can get to my real question: In your own work, are you doing beta or crit?

I see this a lot: “Whew! I finally finished the first draft. Huzzah! Now a quick pass for typos and then it’s off to the betas!”

I’m here to suggest, based on what I’ve seen in rough drafts over the past few years, that you do more than a quick pass for typos. When you’re writing your first draft, it’s important for many people to just write through and not go back and edit the work as you go. There’s value in that. But your readers, even the pre-release readers on your team, deserve more than a pass for typos. In fact, they probably don’t much care about the typos (proof-reading being an entirely DIFFERENT event that comes after this phase).

But, more importantly, part of growing as a writer is learning to be better evaluators of fiction, including our own. It may be especially true for indies, many of whom won’t have the benefit of professional editorial services, or will have to pay for those by the hour, that learning to put yourself in that Genre-Reader X suit and to look at your work objectively will be an invaluable skill. I think that the more you’re able to do this after your draft is written, the more you’ll be able to internalize what works and what doesn’t, and the stronger your first drafts will be going forward.

So what I’m suggesting in this post is to consider becoming a critiquer, as opposed to a beta, of your own work, before anyone else ever sees it. Rather than giving it a quick read-through, and one in which you want to love everything you’ve written, learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and evaluate. Think critically and learn to find your own weak points.

Editing, whether it’s for yourself or a fellow writer, is a skill all its own. Few people are naturally good at all aspects of writing. Learning to analyze what works and what doesn’t in fiction and in your genre, learning to be objective about your work–these things can take time. Probably the hardest thing is learning to see what’s actually on the page, rather than what’s in your head that you meant to be on the page.

Keep practicing your editorial skills, on your own work, and on work you critique for your peers, and they’ll improve like any other skill set in your Writer Arsenal of DOOM.

12 comments

  1. I would be a terrible crit partner. Like I told you yesterday, I just like to be entertained. I’m a much better beta reader. I’m just too forgiving.

    I agree, though, that you really should try to crit your own work before sending it to someone else. Sometimes that’s really hard, though. You’re just too close to see the problems. But you should do the best you can before sending it out…that way your crit partner or editor want have as much to “hammer”. LOL

  2. It’s very difficult “hearing” the criticisms of others…especially when these readers seemingly hammer away at our favorite parts.

    But I can see that it’s necessary.

    How does one go about finding these Beta readers? This online experience (in terms of editing) is new for me. With my first five (now published) books, I had “readers” that I chose from my real life.

    I purposely selected quite different people, so I could get a varied experience.

  3. I agree. When I first began writing [seriously] a few years ago, I would get so excited about finishing the first [very rough draft] that I’d have a friend or relative read it. As I’ve grown as a storyteller and writer, I’ve learned about editing and perfecting that skill with each story. I have my ‘beta’ readers and critique peeps, when I feel I’ve done all I can to clean up the first draft. And go from there. GREAT POST!

  4. Excellent post and very helpful. Mercy, I could never let someone read my first drafts. with just a rough pass for typos. (well, except maybe my husband.) They aren’t ready by any means for beta reading or critiquing. I’ve not completely edited any of my 3 wips. Something I really need to work on and that’s a learning experience in itself. I’m just not ready for beta reading or critiquing at this point. Hope to get there by the end of the year.

    I’ll have to learn how to critique others work. My mind frame is still show em how to fix it from my years of working corporate. Have to get past that and learn how to make helpful suggestions, not step on a writer’s toes.

  5. But but but… “proofreading, line-editing, copy-editing” is the part I’m good at! I’m not much of a crit partner – if you were looking for a critique I’d temper my criticism and never really tell you if you sucked. But ooh, line edits, I love those! I can pick apart tenses and word repetitions and continuity mishaps so on any day. Which is funny, cos I don’t think I need a copy editor for my own stuff, but oh how I love betas and critiquers who can comment on the overall picture and the growth (or lack thereof) of theme and emotional arcs.
    To each his own [g]

    1. You are, quite possibly, the most awesomest proof-reader evar! As you know, I constantly leave words out when I type and put them back in when I read. I miss TONS of stuff. But I really enjoy thinking about how a story is working, watching it build as I read, and trying to figure out what’s throwing me and how to fix it if I’m not into it. (Well, sometimes. Sometimes I just want to cry, you know.)

  6. My computer’s running so slowly tonight I have to go to the one big comment.

    @Laurel- It sounds like you’ve done a great job of choosing readers so far. Finding a crit partner can be difficult. I went through having a lot of friends reading my work and getting some support but never feeling like I was getting the kind of feedback I needed to improve. I was lucky enough to meet Kait through a random online classified we both participated in, we were in the same genre, we both saw potential in each other’s work, and we really just hit it off. If you haven’t found the kind of reader you’re looking for yet, I’d suggest just continuing to ask different people until you find the kind of criticism that helps you. And then hold onto them! For a pool of candidates, try Crit Partner Match. You should be able to find into on that group at http://kaitnolan.com.

    @Nya- yes! I feel like the attention of the readers I ask is so precious that I don’t want to distract them with things I could have fixed myself. If I send them all something that’s not as good as it can be and ends up needing major changes, who’s going to be left with fresh eyes for that rewrite? Better to get that rewrite out of the way and not “waste” my qualified personnel. Thanks for your comment.

    @Robin- I’ve experimented on Kait a lot as I’ve honed my editing skills. Poor girl. Believe it or not, there was a time–long before we were close to submitting or actually publishing anything–when I’d just go ahead and rewrite things for her the way I thought they should be. (And she was always free to take those changes, leave them, change them, whatever, but she often liked them and kept them.) It took me a while to learn how to structure feedback in a way that was clear and helpful without actually just doing the work myself.

    So yeah, what you said, it’s definitely learning a new skill set. I thought I could write, but then I found I had to learn how to follow through on a story from beginning to end. And then I had to learn how to structure a story so it didn’t get off track and so the end answered the beginning. And then I had to learn how to go back and edit anything that went wrong in between. And now I have to learn how to work a series and write a sequel. There’s always something else.

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