Before I was published, I used to be an avid participant in four critique groups. My “writing buddies” kept me focused on my goals; they helped me brainstorm; and they showed me where my prose was confusing or weak.
Critique groups (or “Beta Readers”) can provide a constructive forum for helping unpublished writers. However, critique groups can also perpetuate some of the silliest myths about the business of writing, and nurture some of the most dysfunctional personalities in the writing community.
Your job is to discern the difference.
When Should You Join a Critique Group?
If you’re ready to solicit feedback about your writing, congratulations. You’ve arrived at an important milestone on your publishing journey.
Assuming that you are sincere about being published, I advise you to postpone critique-group membership until you’ve taken a solid, foundational course in characterization and plotting, including novel structure.
Why? Because the success of your “Beta Reader” experience will depend on 2 crucial factors:
- You must be able to recognize the difference between strong and weak writing in the manuscripts of your peers; and
- You must be able to recognize when a peer’s critique is steering you in the wrong direction.
Not all Beta Readers are educated about the marketplace or the foundations of fiction. I’ve seen hundreds of aspiring authors write manuscripts over and over again, based on the uneducated advice of “writing buddies,” who are operating under misinformation or rumor.
These uneducated opinions about “good writing” or “what sells” will have you reworking your manuscript (especially Chapter 1) until it’s “stale.” Stale manuscripts are easily spotted by savvy editors, who promptly return them to the writer. Even worse, you may grow so frustrated with your book, that you quit writing and end your publication dream!
Understand the Role of Personal Prejudice
Before you begin your search for the right Beta Readers, be brutally honest with yourself. Why are you asking for feedback? If you’re secretly hoping to boost your confidence, you may not be ready for a critique.
On the other hand, certain Beta Readers may not be ready for you. For instance, an individual who is tired of the proliferation of Regency novels may be impatient with yet another drawing room drama. An individual who is going through a nasty divorce may be especially acerbic while evaluating a love story. Someone who is staunchly pro-environment may be uncomfortable with the historically accurate way you depict Railroad magnates in your Western novel.
In short, personal prejudice often seeps into story critiques.
Personal prejudice is not a good enough reason to re-write portions of your manuscript.
To create a positive critique experience, do some gentle probing to learn the hot buttons of your potential Beta Readers. Understand what motivates them, what they like to read, what they don’t like to read, and what level of writing expertise they possess.
Investigate a Reader’s Credentials
Gauging a person’s hot buttons is much more difficult (and potentially uncomfortable) than asking questions about credentials. If someone has agreed to critique your work, you have the right to know that person’s writing background before you surrender your manuscript. For example, you might ask:
- In what fiction genre(s) is she published?
- If she’s unpublished, what is she writing?
- How well-read / knowledgeable is she about your subgenre?
- Is she a bare-bones beginner, who has never completed a manuscript or submitted one for sale?
- Is she an intermediate writer, who has completed at least one manuscript and has won writing contests in the Romance genre?
- Is she an advanced writer, who has earned the sincere interest of literary agents and book editors, and who appears to be on the verge of selling?
Publishing Credentials Don’t Guarantee Expertise
A publishing contract does not necessarily make an author a good story analyst. Many published authors are wonderful storytellers, but they can’t provide concrete guidance on how to “fix” problems in the narrative. For instance, a published author may be able to recognize when the middle of your book “sags;” however, she may have no solution for this issue—other than cutting an entire scene (or worse, a chapter.)
A sagging middle never starts in the middle. A good analyst should be able to spot sections earlier in the book that contribute to your story’s weak conflict. Therefore, a good analyst can save 1000s of beloved words from the chopping block. Cutting entire scenes / chapters should always be the last resort.
Pre-published authors can also be astute Beta Readers if they read heavily in your genre. However, if these individuals are beginning writers, or even intermediates, they may also urge you to “cut the whole scene” when savvy line-editing would suffice.
Remember: your Beta Reader must base her critique on the fundamentals of fiction. She must be able to cite a writing rule to support her literary criticism.
If she does not, then her advice is little more than personal prejudice.