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Book Critiques– Beta Reading, How to Take Criticism, and Much More. A Discussion

Join us, two authors, to discuss the ins and outs of beta reading, from a writer and a reader perspective. This is the second post in a series on reviewing and critiquing. You can find our first one here, with details on reviewing. Like last time, we are J.S. Fields and William C. Tracy. Here’s a little about us and beta reading:

WCT: I’m William C. Tracy, author of a series of space opera science fantasies, collectively known as the Dissolutionverse, in which a series of planets are connected by music-based magic instead of spaceflight. The more I’ve written, the more I’ve included diverse people and genders to make my worlds more vibrant and real. I also have an epic fantasy coming out next year from NineStar Press.

As I’ve gotten more into the writer community, and specifically the self-publishing area, I’ve been involved with critiquing others’ books, both early versions and ARCs (Advance Reader Copies). I generally like to read science fiction and fantasy, but I’ve also critiqued a few romance and contemporary fiction. The principles are the same.

As I also work in engineering, I’ve learned a lot about the iterative process of design, and so I was able to translate that to my writing. It’s certainly helped in learning to accept that multiple drafts are necessary before a story (or design) is finished.

J.S.: I’m J.S. Fields, author of the hard sci fi/space opera series Ardulum (Forewords INDIES finalist and Gold Crown Literary Society finalist in science fiction). I also write science nonfiction. I recently got an agent (yay!), and moonlight as a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books.

Like most writers, I started doing beta reads and critiques when I began writing as a way to get feedback on my own work. I’ve been a member of a long-running critique co-op for a few years now, but also have a number of stable beta readers (and beta read for a few other authors as well).

My day job is a professor in the hard sciences, so I am very used to being given critical feedback, and giving it as well. Peer review is a brutal, brutal thing sometimes, but I think it prepared me well for fiction writing.

Basic principles of reader feedback and critiquing

WCT: Critiquing is a different animal from reviewing, which we talked about last time. Even if you are not a writer, you are trying to give impressions back to the author, not to other readers. It’s a switch from just enjoying the book to dissecting the book, and your reactions to it. Why did it make you feel this way? Could you have felt a stronger emotion or been more involved in the plot?

There are a couple different types of critiquing, too. A lot of writers have critique groups, where several other people read a chapter or so at a time and give in-depth feedback on that piece. Then there may be an alpha or beta reader, who gets the whole story at a time closer to publication. They give their thoughts on the plot, character, and setting as a whole rather than on individual sections. Finally, there are ARC readers, who are reading a work that is very close to what will be officially published. This is often less for feedback to the author and more to gain a first reader reaction to help publicize the book right when it goes on sale.

J.S.: First off, critique is not reviewing. Crit is meant to help the author, and is not at all meant for reader consumption. At its most basic level, a critique gives the writer one person’s emotions about the piece of writing. When taken with feedback from several other people, the crit can help form a picture of where people are ‘bouncing’ from the work, what resonates, how pacing is progressing, etc.

William has gone into the different types of critiques, but I’ll add a few more. Above what he wrote, there are a few categories of paid readers. The first are technical readers, where a beta reader or critique partner is selected based upon their knowledge of a certain field (I get pulled for this a lot because of my background). These people fix technical issues of worldbuilding, like the physics, the biology, etc. There are also sensitivity readers, who are paid (italics because this involves not just time but also a heavy dose of emotional labor) to read through the work and identify cultural issues. People use sensitivity readers when writing both outside their lane and even when writing in their lane, just to make sure that the experiences presented land as authentically as they should.

How and what should you, as a reader, give as feedback?

WCT: If you are just starting out critiquing—say a friend excitedly gives you something they wrote and asks what you think of it—what do you do? You don’t want to offend them by not liking it, right?

Not necessarily. The first thing is to find out what kind of feedback the author really wants. Do they just want affirmation? In that case, read it and tell the author how proud you are that they finished a story. It’s a hard thing to do, especially at novel length. Maybe mention the parts you liked best, and if they seem comfortable, one part you liked the least, and why.

However, if you ask the author and they say, “no really, give it to me. Tell me what sucks and what’s good,” then you have some work to do. One of the best methods I’ve heard of to give basic feedback is from Mary Robinette Kowal. It’s the ABCD method:

A: Awesome B: Bored C: Confused D: Don’t Believe

Whenever you have a reader reaction—whatever it is, from “That’s cool!” to “Ugh,” to “I hate this character,” to “I don’t get why X did Y,” then try to categorize it in one of the four boxes and make a note with whatever reaction you had. Don’t try to figure out what’s wrong—that’s the author’s job. Just give them your honest feedback as a reader. This keeps you from coloring the author’s perceptions of the story and possibly changing it to something other than the writer intended. Often, what you think was wrong with a scene might be just one aspect of a larger problem in the book. On the other hand, a writer can also change reader’s perceptions of a character by deleting a single word in a description. It’s a complex problem, but that’s what writers do!

J.S.: This definitely varies, but some of the best feedback usually follows a format like William presented, or is a blow-by-blow emotional reaction. This second type is usually accomplished by leaving little notes as you read to tell the author what you were feeling at the time. Even things like ‘ewww no’ or ‘OMG I LOVE THIS’ can help the author know where emotional points are resonating correctly.

You do no favors by sugar coating your comments and reactions. Don’t critique the author, clearly, but all authors must grow a thick skin in order to survive in publishing. They have to learn to take feedback and critique of working drafts is the first place that starts. Be honest (not mean) about what worked for you, what didn’t, and how you felt. Resist the urge to just say ‘I loved it!’ That isn’t helpful at all.

In that same vein, you don’t need to tell the author how to fix something. You can offer suggestions, such as ‘I think I would have liked this more if X did it instead of Y,’ but don’t rewrite whole swaths of text unless you are trying to illustrate a point you cannot manage to do otherwise. New writers, especially, are prone to sterilized works when too many rewriters have had their hands in a manuscript and have overwritten the original text. Give the author feedback and let them decide how to integrate it.

How should authors react to critiques?

WCT: Imagine this: you are giving your precious newborn baby to someone else to hold—just for a moment—and they tell you it’s ugly! You’re going to get defensive, right?

In the world of writers, this is a no-no. DO NOT respond negatively to critiques from your writing group, your critique partner, or your alpha or beta readers. If you asked for feedback, then you have to be open to getting it, bad or good.

Some writers take this even further, and when a writing group meets, the one who wrote the submission for that session is not allowed to speak at all, or defend their work. They might be able to ask some questions after everyone has given their feedback, but that’s pretty much it.

Why so harsh? Because the writer needs to turn off their protectiveness when getting constructive feedback so they can instead focus on fixing problems. Responding to a single critique will bog things down and keep a writer from getting all the information they need to make a better story. Instead, swallow that pride, gather all the feedback in the spirit it was given, and figure out where the collective input points out holes in your story.

Then use it to turn your baby from an ugly mess to a beautiful creation.

J.S.: 100% everything that William said. Don’t defend, don’t explain. If you have to explain something in person, your text has failed. Just listen.

I will add one caveat. If you are writing marginalized characters you will at some point get critique feedback that has obvious bias in it. It can be really tempting to just shout the critique giver down. Definitely do tell them why their feedback wasn’t constructive, but also use it as an opportunity to see how your characters will land with different demographics. For instance, I specifically chose to send my nonbinary fantasy novel through my critique group made mostly of cis white males, knowing that they would miss the more nuanced discussion in the book. Their feedback helped me identify areas where gender needed to be better discussed for a broad audience.

Moving past basic critiquing…

WCT: If you are familiar with everything we’ve talked about so far, there are some more complicated aspects to critiquing we haven’t mentioned.

Being Prescriptive: Remember the ABCD method? What a critiquer is not supposed to do is give ideas or prescriptions of how to fix the problems they’ve found. However, there are cases when this is allowed. Usually, this is when the writing group knows each other very well and has worked together for a long time. They understand some of the common problems that author makes, and some of them may have experience with the same issue.

This also may depend on the skill and experience of the people involved. If a very experienced author is giving feedback to a less experienced one, they may be able to give some simple prescriptions to help lead the newer writer to a quicker fix for their story, rather than struggling through everything alone.

However, if you are that more experienced author, this gives you an extra burden. This is not your story. You may think you can help out this poor newbie with some of the problems obvious in their craft. But make very sure you are not influencing the story they want to write. Offering prescriptions on certain character traits or technical issues with the story is probably alright. But prescribing the direction the story should take leads to taking the story away from that writer. This is the danger, and why you should only prescribe if you are aware of the ramifications.

J.S.: Nothing beats a well-worn critique group where everyone has worked together for a few years and knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses. If you can get into one of these groups, as William said, many of the above rules may not apply.

You can also get down into the weeds a lot more with a critique group. William and I have been in the same group for about two years now, and also beta read for each other. Over time our feedback has changed, especially as we are familiar with the deeper worlds each of us write in. What started as a more formal feedback: ‘I’m unclear what is happening here. This character’s motivation confuses me,’ has morphed into feedback like: ‘EMOTIONS! WHERE ARE THE EMOTIONS? Also X would never do that because she had that thing happen to her so really I think she should just STAB HIM AND BE DONE WITH IT.’

WCT: LOL. This is so true. I think it also helps us as writers to be able to give each other such raw feedback instead of formalized phrases. Often the all-caps and keyboard-banging “WHAT JUST HAPPENED??” when one of us surprises the other is even better in terms of feedback. We get a true “fan” reaction (because of course we are fans of each other’s work) rather than just anyone reading our stories.

In conclusion

WCT: Books are complicated creatures. The popular version is a lone author, slaving for months or years over a draft, which then is sent to publishers and produced into a novel. While it does require a lot of work on the author’s part, often there is a great amount of help from an army of alpha and beta readers, maybe a critique partner, then later developmental editing and copy editing. This is not to mention the revisions the author does alone.

That said, it is primarily the author’s vision. So if you are in the position to offer feedback, do what you can to help that author out. Give your honest opinion, as much or as little as you are asked for. The person writing may or may not take your changes, but know that they are appreciated. When the finished novel is published, take pride that you were a part of it!

J.S.: Your book isn’t ready for submission/agents/publication until you’ve had it go through beta reading and preferably, a critique group. It just isn’t. You need the feedback from other perspectives to help identify problem areas you were not aware of.

In that same vein, you need to critique other’s work in order to grow as a writer. It can seem hard to find time to balance doing critique for others when you barely have time to write, but seeing issues like pacing, head hopping, etc., perpetually crop up in newbie writing can help you avoid those issues in your own work. Time spent critiquing is never wasted. Long term critique groups tend to grow up together, too, which can be a very exciting phenomenon as you all hit those bigger milestones together.

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