The Options

The Options

There are three common possibilities when it comes to getting feedback: critique partnerships, critique groups, and beta readers. You may be constrained by what’s available through your chapter—although if your chapter doesn’t currently support a critique group, you could always start one!—but we’ll go through the pros and cons of each type of critique relationship, so you can make an informed decision about what you’re looking for.

 

Critique Partnership

Typically an ongoing partnership between two or three writers who read and comment on each other’s evolving work. This can include brainstorming sessions and multiple readings of different versions of the work as it’s revised. A critique partnership is the closest of the three possible relationships, the most intimate and time-consuming, but when it works, it’s also the most rewarding.

 Pros

  • Deep insight into each other’s styles, voices, and stories can lead to extremely productive brainstorming.
  • Frequent support and companionship through the writing process.
  • Familiarity can make critiquing easier, less frightening, and less upsetting—both giving and getting.

Cons

  • Eventually, your critique partners will know your story almost as well as you do, so they can lose the ability to experience the book the way a fresh reader would
  • The closeness of the critique partnership can lead to personal drama interfering with the professional aspect of the relationship.
  • Familiarity can encourage people to go easier on each other.

 Critique Group

There’s as much variety to how critique groups are run as there are critique groups, but what they have in common are that they include larger numbers of writers who meet regularly (either online or in person) to check in with goals and critique one another’s work. This can be organized several ways, depending on the size of the group, but the most common is probably the Milford style, in which a group of writers swap portions of their work, critique each piece ahead of time, and meet in person to discuss each piece.

Here are the basic rules for a Milford-style Critique: Manuscripts (or chapters—whatever length is agreed upon) are distributed beforehand. Everyone in the group reads and critiques each piece before the formal workshop begins. During the workshop, the participants sit in a circle and choose a moderator. One by one, it’s each author’s turn to be critiques. When it’s your turn, you must sit silently and listen (and take notes!) while each member of the group has a timed, uninterrupted number of minutes to offer his or her critique. When all the critiques are finished, the author has a gets a timed, uninterrupted number of minutes to reply with questions or clarifications. Often, the critiquers will give the pages with their notes to the person being critiqued, for more in-depth study.

But that’s not the only way to critique! In my RWA chapter alone, there’s an informal contemporary romance group that has fewer than ten members, and they have a Yahoo loop on which they swap chapters as needed. There’s also an official ARWA (Austin RWA) monthly group critique, to which one or two people per month submit a chapter for critique by the rotating group of 15-20 members who show up for the critique, which is conducted in the Milford style.

When you’re considering joining a critique group, find out up front how often you’ll be allowed/expected to post your own work, and how many words per week or month you’ll be expected to critique, and at what level (we’ll talk about that tomorrow!)

Pros

  • A critique group can offer similar feedback to the critique partnership (and over time, you’ll grow familiar with each other’s work, although on a less intimate basis) but with a potentially smaller time commitment.
  • You’ll receive a variety of different people’s comments on your work, and since different readers focus naturally on different things, you’ll get a broader and more varied understanding of how your work is being read.

 Cons

  • It can be much more nerve wracking to submit your work to be read by a larger group, especially if you don’t know all of them well.
  • A variety of commenters can make it difficult to separate the valuable insights from the subjective opinions, especially when some of the comments contradict each other.
  • As a member of a larger group, you’ll have less ability to be sure your work is only read by people whose opinion you respect and trust; in a larger group context, you may encounter another group member whose critiques are never useful to you but short of leaving the group, you’re stuck with them.

 

Beta Readers

A beta reader is someone who will read your work (often a finished work as opposed to piecemeal) and provide feedback without expectation of reciprocation. Beta readers might agree to this because they enjoy your work, because they like the process of reading and commenting, because they want to practice and hone their critiquing skills, or simply as a favor.

Pros

  • If you use the same beta reader over multiple projects, you can develop a good working relationship and bounce revision ideas off her, etc.
  • The beta reader is the busy, under-deadline author’s best friend, but she can also be a huge help to an unpublished author looking for reader reaction to her first novel.

Cons

  • People willing to volunteer their time as beta readers are rare—and those with great storytelling sense and the ability to communicate their reactions constructively are even rarer!
  • Because it’s not a formalized, ongoing relationship, timing can be an issue. They may not be free whenever you need them.

 

So once you figure out what types of critique relationships are available to you, and which will work best for you, how do you proceed?

First of all, I’d advocate trying all three at some point in your career. And if your first critique partnership fizzles or the first group you join doesn’t work out, don’t give up! A lot of the success of any of these relationships is about the chemistry between the people involved. 

Yes, chemistry! Critique relationships are like any other relationships. And just as with all relationships, honest communication is key. Be open and specific about what you’re looking for, how you work best, and be realistic about what you can commit to contributing to the relationship. Here are some things to think about as you embark on a critique relationship: 

Sub Genre – How important is it to you that your critique group/partners read extensively in your sub genre? Familiarity with the sub genre can eliminate questions about whether certain story elements need more explanation or are common to readers of that genre—for instance, as someone who rarely reads science fiction, it’s difficult for me to critique a sci fi manuscript because what seems like incomprehensible technical jargon to me may be obvious and expected by regular sci fi readers. On the other hand, it’s that sci fi writer’s job to make her story shine through and hook anyone who reads it, so an “outsider” perspective can be useful.

Critique Requested – What specific feedback are you looking for? Plot, a pass at the structure, tone, POV, grammar, character development, continuity? The more clear you are up front, the more effective a critique your readers can give you.

Critique Tolerance – Do you just want broad strokes and all the positive things or can you tolerate some of the more stark realities? Be honest, but also push yourself. There’s not much point to submitting yourself to a critique if you’re not willing to learn from it. 

Experience & Goals – Is this your first novel? Are you looking to publish? Have you sent it out already and it just isn’t clicking with publishers? What are your plans? (Be brief but help people understand what sort of critique would be helpful at this juncture.)

Method of Communication – do you want to email? Chat? Send snail mail versions of marked up manuscripts? Meet up in person? Different groups work in different ways, but there’s something out there for everyone!

Disclaimers – If your manuscript contains a lot of violence, strong language, extremely graphic sex, or other potential triggers, you should let the group/reader know ahead of time.  

Timing – Are you on a deadline? Make sure the group’s or reader’s schedule works with your writing/submission schedule.

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