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Monday, June 6, 2016

Dear Beta Readers and Critique Partners

Dear Beta Readers and Critique Partners,

Writers need constructive criticism to perfect their manuscripts, but just because “criticism” is in that phrase doesn’t mean you have the right to be nasty. “Constructive” is the keyword there. To be constructive is to be helpful and being rude is never helpful.

Etiquette for Beta Reading and Critiquing:

      -       Before you begin reading someone else’s work, keep an open mind from beginning to end. The story may start off boring but could become amazing.

      -       As you beta read or critique, it is perfectly fine to fix any errors you see with grammar or punctuation (with Track Changes). This is extremely helpful to the writer. Even switching some words around in sentences to help the flow is fine. Just restrain yourself from doing so much that you’re editing their work.

      -       If you find repetitiveness (repeated phrases or ideas) or redundancies (sentences that don’t need to be said), point them out to the writer and suggest cutting them.

     -       Don’t just shine a light on the bad, though. If you read a metaphor that tickles your fancy or a sentence that strikes you with awe, let them know. Did a part make you laugh-out-loud? Highlighting it and leaving a simple comment like “Hilarious!” can really lift a writer’s spirits.

What if you find big problems?

      -       Don’t leave a scathing remark about how awful a scene is or how dumb the characters are. Instead, say you didn’t really care for the highlighted scene then explain why. Perhaps the characters’ actions weren’t believable, the scene wasn’t realistic, or something confused you. Then offer a suggestion or two for how the scene could be fixed if the writer chooses to do so.

Many people create a separate document of notes about the story or paste their notes into an email when they return the manuscript. There is also a way to go about doing this.

      -       Highlight the things you loved about the story, even if there wasn’t much. Tell the writer which characters you loved and scenes you enjoyed. Is the writing vivid? Does the writer have a knack for action scenes? Let the writer know all of this to boost their confidence.

      -       After you talk about the good, mention the not-so-good…the things you feel could be worked on. Tell them which scenes or characters could use some help, and include a sentence or two for why you feel this way. If there are plot holes, point them out and offer a suggestion for how the writer could possibly fix it. Try to be helpful no matter what; that is your job.

      -       Whatever you do, DO NOT write huge paragraphs bashing their writing, characters, or scenes. This is bad taste. And it doesn’t help the writer at all.

Below are real beta reader comments and what should’ve been said instead.

Beta Reader Comment #1: Oh, there are one or two one-liners in her first person POV, but not even those mentally spoken words show any real emotion. So it all just comes across as an author trying so hard to make the heroine the star that she's willing to make the men look weak and incompetent.

What Should’ve Been Said: Work on adding more deep POV and emotion into your main character here. And try to divide some of the heroism among the other characters in this scene.

Beta Reader Comment #2: You also put a couple of scenes in this book that were either unbelievable or ***** acted so contrary to anything a normal person would do that I just couldn't buy into the fantasy. 

What Should’ve Been Said: I pointed out a few scenes that need some work. I think your character’s actions need to be more believable. What would you do if you were in his/her shoes?

Beta Reader Comment #3: Single lines of deep, 1st person POV monologues work very well when used sparingly, but in my opinion, you've over used them in this manuscript and at times, it comes across as a short cut so you can avoid writing something more personal and descriptive.

What Should’ve Been Said: I found spots that could use more emotion and physical
responses so readers can connect personally with your characters.

There comes a point when “constructive” criticism becomes bullying. So remember, it’s important to be considerate during every phase of critiquing. From the first correspondence to the last.

Author of Hurricane Crimes, Seismic Crimes, 30 Seconds, Ghost of Death, and Witch of Death. Blogger. Reader. Auntie. Vegetarian. Cat Lover.

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QUESTION: Have you had a beta reader/critique partner say something harsh about one of your books? All of those comments above are from one of mine...who also said she wouldn't care if my heroine died.


Bish Denham said...

Excellent advice and good examples!

Chrys Fey said...

@Bish, Thank you! Those examples were comments someone gave to me once. :\

Carrie-Anne said...

I get the feeling a lot of modern-day folks believe a critique partner or beta reader should only criticise one's writing, instead of offering equal parts praise and constructive critique. I don't understand people who think they need to get their work ripped apart and entirely rewritten. Don't they have enough faith in their own abilities?

My local writers' group started a small critique group some months back, and I was really glad when no one had any issue with all the things I'd said were criticised by someone who did a critique of my first 250 words. They think she was just trying to find fault for its own sake, and profoundly not grasping the context of the story. For example, they all understood the first word of the story, a German word, was defined in the very next line, instead of becoming obsessed by what it meant and claiming they broke their Google trying to look it up. They also understood, based on the context and the date provided, that it depicts an escape from a death march instead of being baffled as to what was going on and why these people had to be depicted as running very fast. I honestly don't think that strange critiquer had much or any experience with historical stories if she couldn't figure out the setting!

Chrys Fey said...

@Carrie-Anne, Why they think that, I don't know. Maybe it's the word "critique," and how people critique so harshly now-a-days.

I don't think it's the writer who wants their work to be ripped apart, though. I don't know any writer who wants this. Or that they want to have to rewrite it. I give my work to beta readers to help me find plot holes or other issues. I have complete faith in my abilities as a writer, but I sometimes need that help to spot things in my story I wouldn't otherwise see because I'm so close to it. But the fact that beta readers or critique partners can use that as an excuse to rip apart a book is not right.

Sarah Foster said...

Great advice! I think a lot of people may forget to say what parts they really liked, and not just the parts that need to be fixed. And I wish people would remember the "constructive" part of constructive criticism (I've only had one beta reader so far and she was awesome, but I had a classmate in a college workshop AND a PitchWars mentor who were just complete jerks about it).

Chrys Fey said...

@Sarah, it's terrible when a mentor is harsh. Mentors are supposed to help, guide, and teach.

Anonymous said...

Great advice. I had someone offer to beta read once stop after she asked a question about switching tenses and I explained I didn't like present tense because it sounds choppy to me and always throws me out of the story. She pretty much decided that since I didn't take that one piece of advice, I wouldn't take any of her suggestions and she was wasting her time. =\

I do admit myself that there was someone I beta read for that I wasn't as nice as I should have been. The problem there was it was 4am and I couldn't sleep so I was cranky. I only did a couple pages though, so I suppose it could have been worse.

Liz A. said...

Yikes. Yeah, those are people who would not be beta reading for me again. When I read, I like to highlight and use comments in Word for what I'm talking about. (I really prefer to have a hard copy and just write on that.) That way, no changes are made to the MS, but it's clear what I'm talking about.

Lisa Thomson said...

Hi Chrys, these are great suggestions. My beta readers were wonderful. One of them was a little too nice and didn't really make any suggestions. That's not so great either. Your editing is really helpful! I'm still working on my fixes although the whole project has been on the shelf for the last three weeks due to life events. Great post, Chrys. Very helpful tips for anyone giving feedback to an author.

Nicola said...

Great advice, Chrys! Being constructive and not destructive in remarks is a skill. I remember, many years ago, during my first year of teaching, I was assigned a mentor whose approach was only to be destructive. Luckily, I was more mature and was able to see what she was doing and I sought advice elsewhere. I'll never forget that experience and later became a mentor myself - I knew what not to do!! Luckily in my writing career, I have only experienced good critique partners/tutors. I think it's worthwhile saying though, that even constructive criticism can still hurt a little. The skill of digesting comments and then approaching the work with fresh eyes (as well as being more objective) is part of the learning process. Thanks for the great post!

Chrys Fey said...

@Patricia, jeez. Which tense a writer uses is their choice, their preference. It doesn't matter what a reader or beta reader likes. She obviously wasn't a good beta reader.

@Liz, using the comment boxes is how I highlight what I'm talking about, too. Hard copies are hard to get for beta reading, And even editing. That's why Track Changes is great.

@Lisa, yes, too nice beta readers don't help. They have to be able to point out problems, but to do it nicely.

@Nicola, I think it's terrible when mentors are destructive. That's not what a mentor is supposed to do. You do have a great point that constructive criticism can sting. Of course it can. It means we have to work on something, and we hate this! lol Which is why being considerate is so important. If a nicely worded constructive criticism can sting, imagine what a rudely worded constructive criticism can do.

Huntress said...

My betas/cps have always been exceptional. Great, succinct comments and nearly always on-point.
The problem I've had are with the critiques from anonymous sources on blogs such as Miss Snark's First Victim. Crits from ppl who are clueless about my genre or words in general can be jarring. A person can tell if a critter is not on the same experience level.

Chrys Fey said...

@Huntress, I'm glad your betas/cp have all been great. I can see how using something like Miss Snark's First Victim would invite people to be mean or uneducated on the genre.

Loni Townsend said...

I've had to police my critique group before to be constructive in their feedback. Sometimes, that's hard but it's better for everyone in the end.

Chrys Fey said...

@Loni, good for you!

Liesbet said...

Great guidelines, Chrys! I read them right after I offered my two cents about a manuscript. I seemed to have followed most of your advice unknowingly, but should have added more positive feedback as well...