Probably not your mother: on beta readers and critique partners
by Michelle Barker
The trusted reader is one of your most important allies as a writer. You must have one. More than one, ideally.Who might a trusted reader be? Probably not your mother. Probably not your husband or wife either, although I know of people who have made that work. But it’s risky, and in my opinion there’s too much baggage attached to the relationship to make it reliable.
In the writing world, we classify trusted readers as beta readers, critique partners, and critique groups. There are some important differences between these classifications.
A beta reader is a member of your target audience who will read your completed manuscript and give you their (hopefully) honest opinion. Beta readers may or may not be writers, and they may or may not have expertise in the craft. In any case, that is not their primary role. They are the test run for your book—the teen reader you’re writing for if you happen to be writing YA, for example. They cannot replace the work of a professional editor and should not be relied upon to do so.
A critique partner is a writer with whom you exchange work on a regular basis. This is someone you trust who will tell you the truth about your writing. In order for this relationship to be of maximum benefit, your critique partner should be someone who knows the craft well, so they can tell you not only that something isn’t working, but why. However, if you’re a writer in the early stages of learning, this might not be easy to find.
In that case, it might be more practical to turn to a critique group where everyone is exchanging work and the process (usually) involves focusing on one person’s work at a time. Many MFA programs operate on this model, in the belief that a writer learns as much from critiquing other people’s work as they do from having their own critiqued. Over time, you learn what to look for, and when you start recognizing errors in other people’s work, you become aware of those errors in your own.
As a writer, I depend on all three of these types of trusted readers. I rely on the expertise of other writers to help me with my manuscript, and I value the learning process of assessing other writers’ work—but I also need the opinion of my intended audience.
The first time you hand over your manuscript to a trusted reader, chances are you’re hoping to hear that it’s brilliant and perfect and you are the next Margaret Atwood. If anyone says this, don’t walk—run—in the opposite direction. In all my years of reading and editing manuscripts, I have never said that to anyone—and nor has anyone said it to me.You need to prepare yourself emotionally for the fact that your trusted reader will find flaws in your work. This doesn’t feel good. We are vulnerable when we hand our work over to someone else and basically say, here is my soul, go ahead and stomp all over it. But this is an essential part of the process.
Try to remember that if your reader really can be trusted, they are doing you a huge favour. They are helping you improve as a writer.
It is also worth keeping in mind that a trusted reader is only one person, and the process is subjective. That’s why it’s nice to have more than one. If one person tells you something in your story isn’t working and you disagree, you might be right. However, if two or three people tell you the same thing, it’s worth paying attention.If you decide to join a critique group, I would urge you to remember two additional things: be kind, and be honest. It’s easy to blow smoke up someone’s skirt and tell them their work is great when it isn’t, but you’re not doing anyone a favour by lying just to be nice. Be honest. But at the same time, be kind. There is always something good to say about another person’s work. Find that good thing, and let it be the first thing you tell them.
Where does one find a trusted reader?
I’ve always found critique partners and groups in writing classes or conferences—both of which you should be attending if you’re serious about learning the craft. There are also meetups in most major cities where you can befriend other writers and become part of the local community.
As for beta readers, there are many online options. The Darling Axe offers a beta reader service. Another good place to start is GoodReads (Beta Reader Group). Of course, the Twitter #WritingCommunity is always an excellent resource.
As a fledgling writer, it’s easy to hide in your room and convince yourself your work is brilliant. But if you want to sell it, you must come out of hiding and seek the opinion of others. It’s hard; it might hurt a little at first; but ultimately it’s worth it.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.