Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Critique Partners vs. Beta Readers

Let’s get ready to...edit! Critique Partners and Beta Readers are the gold medalists, the critically acclaimed, the crème-de-la-crème, the très magnifique. In short, they are the essential ingredient in your story recipe. Without these marvelous wonders, your manuscript will fall short of its proper cooking time.
Attributed to Tim Lucas, Flicker toolmantim under Creative Commons license Attributed to Amy Stephenson, Flicker YoAmes under Creative Commons license
Do you want a soufflé or a bowl of mush?

Who are these fabulous beings? Well, first, let’s define the difference between the two.

Critique Partners: working with you chapter by 
chapter of a work-in-progress. 
Beta Readers: offering feedback AFTER at least the
first draft is complete on the whole MS. 

When do you use beta readers?

Stephen King in On Writing discusses writing with the door shut. He believes that a writer needs to draft in the dark without any input from the outside. He would not advocate critique partners, instead relying on beta readers once his drafting was complete.
I'm of this persuasion. I've had the great privelege of working with fabulous critique partners in the past. However, in my writing journey, I've discovered that the process doesn't work for me. I'm a "closet" writer. I need to simmer in my own oven before opening the door. My MS needs to be almost cooked before I can start letting another chef meddle with my recipe. Had enough cooking metaphors yet? :)

When do you use critique partners?

Not every writer feels comfortable wandering in the dark, waiting for input before forging ahead. If you find yourself going over the same chapter again and again, this is when critique partners shine. They can help get you past that nagging chapter, that plaguing scene, that sagging middle or that dull beginning. Like baking cookies with kids, they cheer you on when you're doing well (yum), and call you on it when you're not (more chocolate chips).

Where do you find them?

By far the most common question I'm asked about critique partners and beta readers is where to find these mystical beings. Here's the thing, they're not all that hard to find. The key: social media. Join writing related Twitter chats, comment on writers' blogs, go to a professional organization (RWA, SCWBI, SFWA) chapter meeting (find one in your area or online), attend conferences and workshops, talk on writing forums, and most of all, don't be afraid to put yourself out there. Writers are often introverts, but the only way you'll find the help you need is to ask. As I told another writer just this week on Twitter, the worst that can happen is the person says, "No". Know what happened? She asked me! And...I said yes.

What do I do with all of this feedback?

Let it cool. The worst thing you can do when taking that fresh MS out of the oven, or in this case, getting it back from your critique partner or beta reader, is to cut into it. Read over the feedback, but before you start making changes, give it a few days or even weeks to percolate. Roll it around your mind and see what sticks. Don't be defensive. Don't dismiss the reader's comments. But, don't blindly follow them either. You need to see what works best for YOU and YOUR story.
Ideally, you'll get feedback from multiple sources. If all of the readers say the same thing, THIS is what needs to be changed. If one reader says your heroine is too nice, and the other says she is too mean, guess what? Leave that heroine alone. Not every reader will connect with every aspect of your story.

Do you use critique partners or beta readers? Which method works best for you?


  1. tend to be a 'closet' writer as well...I appreciate both betas and critique partners, but I tend to use betas more often.

  2. I definitely use them, but only after I've edited thoroughly to get the story where I want it. Of course I'm always willing to do changes after my crit partners and betas read, but I take time to absorb their feedback and use what works for me and my story. So I guess I sort of agree with Steve. I prefer not to share with readers until it is relatively polished to my satisfaction, but after that I feel they're still a must.

  3. For my first book I had a critique group and a beta, but for this book they've switched places. My "beta" has been helping with keeping me on track, and then I'll run the finished draft by my CPs. But for the most part, I do keep those first drafts to myself--not so much because I'm ashamed of them, but because they are still very fluid at that stage.

  4. I've never heard that distinction between the two terms before (I've always seen them used interchangeably.) That said, I also don't really like people actually READING my works before I've finished a draft and edited it myself. I do have some close friends I bounce ideas off along the way though. But as I tend to pants my way through things, it's just better for everyone to read it afterwards =P

  5. I do both. I like to have the opinion of several beta readers (I use this term for people who are not necessarily writers, and read the WIP as a reader with a critical eye) then revise, then get critiques from other writers.

  6. Great topic and post, Tina!

    I actually tend to lean more towards Beta Readers more so than Critique Partners. I actually learned a lot from this latest WIP because as I wrote I passed pages over to my bestie. I found the notes and/or conversations we had about it while I was in the drafting stage, well, I found them a bit distracting. You could definitely tell after the first draft where those notes had come in (because I am sooo inpatient and don't how to ignore the email or shoot down the conversation starter), which made the editing phase a little more difficult than usual. So lesson learned there. I hadn't done that before, and I won't be doing it again. My door will officially be closed with the deadbolt and chainlink locked during the first draft AND the first editing pass.

    With that being said, I do rely more on Beta Readers because I feel as though I have a weakness with the 'overall' concept stuff. In place of a critique partner, I have an editing partner. She actually does the work of a Beta and Critique partner. At first I thought it may not work out because she wasn't as 'into' the paranormal/urban fantasy genre as I initially thought (she writes horror), but it turns out that after we crawled past the learning, it's worked out great. Sometimes someone who doesn't know your genre works just as well, if not better sometimes. :)

  7. Thanks for all the feedback. Looks like Beta Readers are leading the pack. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably as Hildred mentioned, especially when discussing a critique group or circle. So, be sure you tell your partner exactly what you expect from the feedback and where you are in the process.