Every writer needs feedback before publication—every writer and every book. It’s a critical part of the process. In fact, it’s several critical parts of the process, because a savvy writer will come to learn that it’s usually most effective to get different types of feedback at different stages. The types of problems a weekly critique group will catch are not the same types of issues a trusted beta reader will point out.
Finding these different types of readers to give you feedback can be a difficult process in itself. It’s taken me years to find the people whose styles I click with and build a circle of solid working relationships I can count on. There’s a little bit of luck involved, and a whole lot of persistence. If you’re still searching for your people, don’t give up. Keep reaching out, whether in person or online, until you find them. They’re well worth your effort.
Today I’m going to share some of the ‘types’ of readers I use, what their different values are, and when I utilize which read-throughs. Not every writer will need every one of these, mind you, but it should give a good frame of reference for filling out your own (probably ever-changing) circle.
A Weekly Critique Group
This is where I started. I still go to my in-person critique group almost every week. I could do an entire post just about critique groups, but I’ll cut to the chase. A weekly critique group alone is not enough. There are things that no critique group, no matter how good, will ever be able to offer you. But there are other things that only they offer—almost exclusively.
Reading a longer work like a novel split into week-by-weekly digestible chunks does interesting things to perspective. A crit group won’t reliably offer you macro critique, but they will almost always zoom in and offer much more detailed micro critique. Does this scene work within the larger scope of the book? They might not have a sense for that. But does the scene work on its own? They can tell you much more honestly than a beta reader, who’s naturally tempted to view scenes within the larger context. Reading only one scene or chapter at a time and being forced to stop and discuss it before moving on is not the natural pace of reading; it forces more attention to detail and encourages more frequent reflection.
Another good thing about receiving feedback one week at a time is spotting patterns. Most critique groups have a varying membership, often even week to week, so you get a broader range of readers. Though this is occasionally frustrating (when someone doesn’t understand something they missed from a previous week), it can also be enlightening. What feedback do you tend to hear most often? Do different groups tell you the same things about different sections? If so, you can start to home in on your general weaknesses in craft. That’s invaluable data.
Even a trusted critique partner you send material to week by week can’t show you larger trends the way a critique group can. If you have access to an in-person crit group, I highly recommend giving it a fair chance. If you don’t, I’ve found it useful enough that I’d seriously consider starting one. If that’s out of the question, there are many groups run online.
When I use this type: all the time, at every stage of the process. It takes a long time to bring a whole novel in section by section, so I start as early in the project as I can and don’t stop until it’s out on submission.
“Beta reader” has become something of a catch-all term for critique partners who read your whole book (usually traded for you reading theirs). Rather than sending each other one section at a time, you send each other your finished manuscripts. Beta readers offer almost opposite pros and cons as weekly critique groups. They tend to focus less on micro but are wonderful for critiquing macro. Need developmental edits? A beta reader can help you spot large-scale problems with story structure, plot, and character. They can tell you which parts of the book read fast or slow, which ones don’t seem to fit, how the pacing works overall, how the book made them feel, where their interest waned, etc.
That said, every beta reader is different. Once you’ve found several whose feedback style works for you, you’ll start to become familiar with their individual strengths and weaknesses as critiquers. One beta might be wonderful for giving you emotion-based feedback and interpreting character, while another might focus on line edits and polish. One might excel at pointing out your strengths, while another really focuses on your weaknesses. One might help you catch logistical issues and continuity errors, while another is more concerned with the quality of your prose. They are all valuable!
When I use this type: spaced apart throughout my process. I have a lot of beta readers, and I find it overwhelming to use all of them at the same time for each book. Each set of feedback takes time and energy to sort, process, and address, so I don’t want eight sets all at once. Instead, I pick and choose for each project and each stage. If the book is raw and I’m nervous, I might go with a beta whose strength is in pointing out my strengths to give me confidence to tackle the next step. Or if I know the book is a hot mess, I might go right to my most critical betas to get all the rough stuff up front so I can get it on track as soon as possible. I save my line-edit pros for the final stages, when less is likely to change overall. There’s no one way here, and there’s definitely a learning curve. Each manuscript has different needs, and the better you get to know your different readers the better you’ll get at knowing who can best meet what.
Another type of reader is what I think of as the specialty read. This could be a fact-checker, an expert in a field outside your own, or someone whose life experience is drastically different than your own. A science fiction writer might want a biologist, chemist, etc. to check their concept for technical errors. An action writer might seek out a weapons expert. Or maybe you wrote a pilot and need a real-life pilot to make sure you got the experience right. Maybe you wrote a character of a different gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or some other walk of life that’s different from your own, and you want to make sure you didn’t slip into any stereotypes, inaccuracies, or other offensive issues. (This is often called a sensitivity read.) These specialty readers are more likely to switch from book to book, since you might have to track down people with different specialties each time.
When I use this type: as early in the process as possible, usually. I do as much research as I can ahead of time so as to not waste my specialists’ time, and then I send them the draft early on in case I messed up on anything big that will affect everything else. (If it turns out you forgot about gravity on your made-up planet, you might need a re-write, so why bother doing line edits yet?)
Agents and Editors
If you have a literary agent or editor, they might serve as some of the readers above, but I put them in their own category for a couple reasons. The first is that I personally don’t think any agent or editor, no matter how good at editorial, should replace the first three types of readers. They can be a vital part of your process or just a nice bonus, but writers who come to rely solely on one or two people for feedback tend to miss important things. Too many readers is a problem, but so is not enough.
The second reason agents and editors get their own category is a practical one: they usually come with a certain amount of weight. At the end of the day, the writer always has the final say in whether or not to change something (sometimes at a cost, but still the right is ours), but of course the professionals working with you or for you to help you sell your book will naturally get more say. Their names are associated with your project too, after all, and as members of your team, you’ll probably give their feedback highest priority.
I also think that (good) agents and editors come with a bit of a built-in specialty; they have experience trying to sell books. And of course that’s what you ultimately want to do too, so if you find a professional you trust, I’d give extra weight to their feedback anyway. I think of it as something of a marketability critique.
When I use this type: usually at the end of my process, depending on the project and the person. Different types of editors will send you through different stages of revisions, and agents vary in how hands-on they like to be in the process, so this one really just depends. If you have one of these readers, you can always just ask!
Obviously, with all the different types of readers and all of their different types of responses, learning how to filter, process, and utilize their feedback is the next step. We’ll talk about that next time. :)
Writers, how many different types of readers do you use? Which do you find most helpful, and why?
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