Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beta Readers and Critique Groups


This post first ran on April 25, 2013.

Today I'm talking about critique groups, specifically the sort where work is presented in small bites rather than having someone evaluate an entire manuscript. The ideal critique group has people who write as well or better than you do, and understand your genre. Members should agree to a schedule for submitting and giving feedback. They should be willing to accept the positive and the negative, and understand that if several people have problems with an aspect of the work, it deserves rethinking no matter how good you think it is.

Critique groups can be Face to Face, or they can be done online. I've done both, although now I'm with a small (3 member) online group.

Face to Face gives you a chance to discuss critiques in more depth. One of my constant questions as a beginner was, "Am I writing it wrong, or are you reading it wrong?" because I thought I knew what I meant to say, and needed to know where I'd gone wrong. The feedback in a live group is immediate, and can go into some depth. However, it's also slow, depending on how often you meet. If you're only allowed to present a limited number of pages once a month, then you're likely to be writing faster than you get feedback. It's not unusual to find that you're finished writing, but your group is only halfway through the book.

An online group lacks that immediate feedback. In some groups, you still might have restrictions on how long a submission can be, and how often you can submit to the group. There are some groups online that seem to be filled with people who want to hear only the good, and they refuse to accept any flaws in their work. Get out of those. Fast.

I remember one of the first online groups I found, where the leader told me she didn't want to see any more bad stuff happen to Sarah. I left that group, too. Clearly the leader didn't understand there has to be conflict in a story.

My current group has been through at least 4 or 5 manuscripts each, so we know each other very well—or at least our writing. We've never actually met. We've reached the point where we don't need to be stroked. Yes, we like the warm fuzzies, but we need to see the weak spots more. We want to know what's wrong so we can fix it. A newcomer to the group would probably find us harsh, but we know that if comments are sparse, it means "good job" without having to stop to point out all the good stuff. And, I'm pleased to say that thanks to my partners, my editor knows she's going to get a 'clean' manuscript from me, and that ends up saving me money.

I asked one of my partners to share her thoughts about being in a critique group. She said, Beta readers are most helpful for brainstorming. I find that sometimes I'll write a chapter that I'm not sure of, and a beta reader can check me by pointing out what I've overlooked or missed, or when I've gone too far afield. They also provide a good thermostat for what's working/not working.

Even though we write in different sub-genres, my partners and I have learned a lot about each other's niches, and we understand that if we point out something that bothers us, an answer of "readers in my genre expect it that way" is acceptable.

Have you worked with critique partners/ groups? What has worked for you? Any warnings?


Terry Odell
is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

31 comments :

  1. Thanks, Karla (who happens to be one of my crit partners and is responsible for the quote). Karla is wonderful about keeping my characters in line.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  2. Thanks for the post, Terry. I have participated in only one very small group (3 people), which was terrific—initially. We met face-to-face every other week and emailed no more than ten pages of our work to each other, in preparation of those meetings. I enjoyed our discussions and always came away with new knowledge about writing, useful suggestions specific to my piece, and or concepts/techniques/story elements that I wanted to research more thoroughly. However, after some months, one person felt like the other was not pulling his weight in the group, and I ended up in the middle as a buffer. We soon stopped meeting.

    Thanks for mentioning online critique groups, I had never thought in that direction before. I'll do a search and check some out.




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  3. Terry, I'd be lost without my writing partner, online critique group, and, when the time comes, beta readers.

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  4. Does anyone have online critique group recommendations for me?

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  5. I like that you kept trying new approaches until you found one that worked for you, Terry—I hope our readers paid attention to that. Critique groups are great for rookie writers, but the very rules that help them function can hold back a writer who is ready to launch her career. You need to find a way to get the feedback you need now, yet be ready to seek new solutions when the need arises.

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  6. Alison - good crit partners are golden, but you have to know when it's time to say good-bye. As for on-line groups--I hope others here have suggestions for ways to find them. I found mine by chance via someone who suggested it to me. It's a Yahoo group, although it's not the one I started with.
    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  7. Margaret - I've never really used a full manuscript beta reader although I did ask an author friend if she'd read my first mystery and let me know if it was something I could get published. I never feel comfortable asking people to read the whole book--even in final draft status. But if you have them, as I said to Alison, they're golden.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  8. Kathryn - so true. Which is why I love my group, because it's small, so we're not overworked, and because we've all been published one way or another, so we're at about the same level. I don't think we could add a 'rookie' to our group at this point.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  9. Great post, Terry. You nailed all the pertinent ideas. I was fortunate to start off with 2 gals who really helped my writing. We met weekly looking at up to 20 pages a week for several years. That forced us to crank out the words. Good because we all know you can't fix what isn't on the page. First one and then the other got a contract and our needs changed. We're still very good friends and support each other, just not as regular CPs. (Now I have a contract, too. In large part to those two wonderful writers.) I've had two on-line CPs. You're right, it helps if you on the same plane or one is just a bit more experienced. If there is a huge gap, that doesn't seem to work as well. No matter how you do it, you've got to have other people look at your work. Search for kind people who will be honest with you. (I do like to hear what's working well. Our inperson CP group always did that with each other.) Not so sure I'd be happy with your group, Terry. LOL I need an occassional smiley face in the margins.

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  10. It does help to get this kind of feedback, and you are so right about being in a critique group where the members know how to give constructive feedback. I, too, have been in a group where everyone just gushed over the writing of one person who was the most popular in the group. They even clapped at the end of the reading. Needless to say, I did not stay in that group for more than a few sessions.

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  11. I sorta skipped the beta readers and went straight to the ultimate critique group ... and, while the feedback from those readers hasn't been harsh ... it sure has been sparse ... I somehow thought that group would be larger ... silly me.

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  12. One online critique format I would warn against is that of AuthorSalon. Your mileage may vary, but even though the critique helped me sharpen my novel pitch and synopsis, my fellow greenhorns in that venue were not very helpful on the craft end. I was in on the beta phase long enough to convince me that it was not the way to go.
    It might be a different story with a less-complete WIP, but I still wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Except for interaction with one young LAXican whose WIP was an interesting twist on a vampire saga, I spent more time explaining the genre and its tropes and warding off bad writing tips from zealous MFAs than actually crunching text.

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  13. I couldn't do it without my critique partners, The Ladyscribes. They read the book I wrote rather than the book I think I wrote!

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  14. Marsha - we do include the smiley faces, but there are a lot fewer of them than constructive comments. By now, we're a bit more secure in our writing, so we don't feel obligated to give the positive and negative "equal time."

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  15. Maryann - That high "negative to positive" ratio of feedback does help prepare a manuscript. Nothing worse than misleading someone with false praise. Then they start submitting and can't understand why they get rejections. Or now, worse, they rush to indie publish because everyone said it was so wonderful.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  16. Chris - I know your comments here are always humorous, so I'm not sure whether you're saying you never got feedback for your work. I certainly hope you're joking, because none of us can work without some kind of editing.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  17. James - the 'blind leading the blind' approach rarely works. Unless you're in a very small group, you don't want to spend your precious writing time teaching.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  18. Diana -- you said it perfectly. What's in our heads isn't always what's on the page.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  19. I've been in a screenwriting group and a couple of fiction critique groups. They've all been helpful. I'm not in one now, but your post makes me rather wish I was in one. You can get great and helpful feedback.

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  20. Helen -- I think we're all insecure about our product at some level, so the sounding board and fresh eyes a crit group can provide can be invaluable--at least mine is.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  21. Hi Terry,

    I've been in both face to face critique groups and online crit groups. You've highlighted the pluses and minuses fairly well, although I might like to add that a strong personality can quickly derail an in-person group. My first group often suffered thusly when one member would go on and on about some micro point (that could be effected by a simple wording change) telling us her emotional response and why that was such a bad memory, etc.

    Sadly, I don't have time to hold someone's hand. I appreciate the turn around from my current crit partner, and yes, we've gotten more to the point as the years have gone by. I still reward a particularly nice turn of phrase with an atta girl because praise is important.

    Our crits involve an overview of our main points, or even a note that the quality was generally good and some wordsmithing was needed. Then the critiquer marks in the sub or makes a comment through Track Changes that alerts the author where a potential trouble spot is.

    Someone asked where to find crit partners. I've found all of mine through my writing groups. Finding the right critique partner is a lot like shopping for shoes. Some can look good on the feet but pinch like hell when you move.

    Nice discussion!

    Maggie
    http://mudpiesandmagnolias.blogspot.com

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  22. Terry, I belonged to two face-to-face critiques but eventually dropped the first one because we only met sporadically, way too slow. I now belong to the best group ever. Six of us meet every Friday. Four of us are published, the other two are close to being published. We give positive criticism, celebrate holidays and birthdays, and are best friends. Without them, I wouldn't be published today.

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  23. Carol - it's great that you've got a group willing to devote that much time to meetings. That can be a real challenge with live groups--mine was spread out over the city, had different work schedules, and it was hard to meet more than twice a month.

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  24. Maggie - yes, people have to understand the focus is on the critiques, not the people. Glad you've found a group that works for you. I think in live groups, you're more likely to give those back pats, simply because it's easy to speak the words and if you're busy typing comments onto shared manuscripts, all the facial expressions and nuances can get lost--and it's easier to forget some of the back pats. As I said, we enjoy getting them in my group, but we don't run and hide if we get a chapter back without many of them.

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  25. Where did you find your critique group?

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  26. Terry so true for now I have one that is working perfect for me. Groups of more than a couple overwhelm me.

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  27. Kat, I found mine when a friend recommended it. I'd tried several others back in the day before Yahoo groups even existed. One was with iVillage. You can search Yahoo groups for writing groups, but there's a lot of luck involved. If you belong to any other groups--I've been in RWA chapters and MWA chapters, and other writers can suggest places to start. I was with one small live group from my Florida RWA chapter for a while.

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  28. KC - I agree. Smaller seems to work better for me, too.

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  29. Beta readers can play a significant role in the grooming of a manuscript for publication. They can also contribute to lower editing costs by helping writers polish their work prior to sending it to an editor for that essential polish.

    Several years ago, I belonged to a face-to-face group on the Western Slope in Colorado. Despite the inevitable ups and downs, we had a number of productive sessions. Genres were all over the map, and I feel that detracted somewhat from the overall effectiveness.

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  30. Linda - I know I've saved money with my editor thanks to my critique partners' sharp eyes and honest feedback. One of my live groups was a challenge because 2 of the members wrote poetry, which was so far out of my realm all I could say were things like, "I think there's an apostrophe in that word." They, however, had no problems with my prose.

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