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Critiques: covering both ends of the stick (part 1)

Getting critiques and knowing how to give them is a two edged sword. It can be hard to do both. It’s hard to get advice from someone and hearing that some parts are lacking or isn’t good enough and feeling lost on how to improve. And then it’s hard to see another person’s story from their perspective and understand how to critique it in a way that helps them the most.

I decided to make this post about both ends of the stick because I think it would help us as a whole in the writing community, because it should help those that are dealing knowing when to listen to a critique and when to take their manuscript into their own hands, and it should help people that give critiques understand that at the end of the day, the manuscript belongs to that author, and they should be given the freedom to do as they wish with their story. That they just want someone to help them reach their goals, not write the story for them.

So sit around everyone, we’re all going to learn here! This is going to be a two part series, and we’re going to start with receiving critiques. Here are some tips on how you can handle critiques and apply them to your story while keeping your story the way you like.

Edit by yourself first

One thing that’s going to help you is cleaning up your manuscript as best you can before getting a Beta reader or CP. That way, the most obvious mistakes are out of the way and you’ve reached the point where you’ve done all you possibly could to the manuscript before you asked for help. Not just typos and grammatical errors (as best you can!), but also try to clean up any areas you know are weak. If you know the dialogue doesn’t feel like it’s working somewhere, try to fix it. If you know there’s a description that runs too long, make it shorter. Because a Beta/CP is just going to tell you the same thing you already know, which is to fix it!

Also, if your manuscript is too long (I generally see too long as being over 105-110k) your readers may not have the time to read it, so you might want to go through the work of cutting it down before sending it off to Betas or CPs as well, if you can.

(If you want help with knowing where to cut and how, check out my post on cutting down your word count here!)

Fixing your manuscript the best you know how will help you and the person critiquing you immensely. Getting a lot of repetitive notes about the same thing that you could have cleaned up yourself can make you feel depressed about the story before you can even get to the parts that you’re actually lost on. Do yourself a favor so you can keep up your stamina for the rest of the edits to come.

And it helps the person critiquing because it helps them be able to focus on the parts that you didn’t know wasn’t working, or the parts you didn’t know how to fix. And it makes them more effective in helping you spot the errors you couldn’t see!

Create an understanding between you and the Beta reader/CP

After you’ve gone through the book yourself, you should create a list of things you want a Beta/CP to look for when they read. Sometimes there are things you want the reader to focus on more than others. For example, if you’re not a hundred percent on the world-building, but you know you like your characters the way they are, you need to let your reader know that. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t mention the characters at all if something really stands out, but it also allows them to understand that they should mainly be focusing on the world-building, which is what you’re stuck on.

So take some time to think about this. Should the reader focus on finding plot holes? Grammatical mistakes? Consistency? Make a list and put it in order of importance.

Now, once you’ve made your list, time to look for Betas or CPs! You can find them all kinds of ways, on Twitter, Facebook, or even asking friends you trust to help you out. Most people get more than one, so you’d have to decide what’s a good number for you. I personally think 2, 3, or 4 is a good number, so you can get mixed opinions. Keep in mind there are two kinds of Beta readers: ones that read for nothing in return (be sure to express to them how grateful you are when they agree to this!), and ones that do it for money. Think about which would be best for your project, and decide what you want to do.

Also, there’s a difference between Beta readers and CPs. Beta readers will ask for nothing, or simply payment. CP means critique partner, so you’ll have to read their story as well (so reading my next post about giving a critique might help you out here, as well). So if you plan to have CPs, keep in mind you have to be as ready as you want them to be for your story, for theirs. And you may want to have a lower number of CPs than Betas for that reason, as well.

There are pros and cons to both options. Beta readers read for pleasure, so they can’t be expected to go into more detail than they want to because they’re the ones doing you the favor. However, if you get more readers to react to your story, you can cover your bases that way, instead of depending on one or two readers to catch everything themselves.

CPs will be more thorough because they get a lot out of having you as a partner. But let’s be honest, there are a couple of things that can get in the way of this relationship, which means you should pick wisely:

  1. If you’re harsh on their story (regardless on if you’re sincerely being honest or not), they may have a more negative outlook on yours.
  2. The other person may be afraid of getting a harsh critique, so they don’t point out as many errors for fear of making you mad and writing a bad critique out of spite.
  3. If one of you is pulling more weight than the other (i.e, one of you gives better critiques, one of you spends more time editing, one of you read through the whole book and the other is dragging their feet)
  4. One or either of you don’t like the story you’re reading

These things happen. So if you get a CP, you might want to start off with just a few chapters to see if you’re even a good match, and if both of you are really in this thing for the long-haul.

Have open communication

So! You’ve probably arranged a form of sharing the manuscript and making commentary (by the way, if you’re unsure about sharing your content with other people and have fears about plagiarism, here’s a little something to help you rest easy. Your work is already copyrighted when you finish), so now what?

If you have a Beta reader, there’s not much for you to do at this point. You ‘re just waiting for them to go through your manuscript and let you know when they finish. However, if they’re making in-line comments on apps like Google Drive or Microsoft Word, it makes it easier for them to specifically reference to any problems they see, and for you to specifically address them. Talk things out! If you feel like what they’re pointing out is clarified later, or you have any questions about what they mean, you should ask! You might be able to get more out of your reader if you pick their brain a little so you can know how to re-address your problems later in edits. But don’t pick them too much, remember they’re doing you the favor. You want to get a good critique, but you also don’t want to come off as harsh.

If you have a critique partner, same goes, basically, but make sure that you’re not asking for something you’re not willing to give. This is a partnership, so be open and honest with each other, and be generally considerate.

BUT the most important thing with both Betas and CPs is:

Comuuuuuuunication.

Make sure that your book is the kind of book your Beta/CP wants to read, or is a good fit for! Tell them what your book is about, let them read a few pages, as I said. This helps make sure the person reading is genuinely invested in the story, so they’re more likely to be the kind of critique you’re looking for. And if you’re not a good fit, you guys need to make that clear to each other and part ways before the situation gets ugly.

And if your Beta or CP isn’t focusing on the right areas, or if you can’t respond right away, etc. Communicate! Don’t let the other person go in blind, and don’t let them think you’ve disappeared off the face of the Earth!

Honest and open are gonna be your two best friends here. Once again. Communicate!

Listen to advice, but also know it’s your book

Okay, here’s something I feel like authors miss on in general. I know you’ll hear about a lot of people that “don’t know how to take a critique”, which is sometimes true, but in actuality, writers can tend to take critique a little too seriously.

I get it. It’s your baby, and you want what’s best for your baby no matter what. Even if you have to get hurt. You don’t want to mess up your chances of getting better just because you wanted to cling to something that needed to change. You brace yourself like ripping off a band-aid, close your eyes and let it happen. Let them hate your book.

But you also have to know when to draw the line.

Not everyone is a good Beta reader or CP. Some people don’t know how to let you be the author and have the ultimate say in how it’s written. Some people will actually nit-pick at your book with pointless comments that get no where. Yes, sometimes someone will tell you what you don’t want to hear, and it will be true. But some people will just straight up give you bad advice. It happens. A lot.

At the end of the day, you have to know what you’re writing this story for, and why. If you wrote this story to be a Snow White retelling, don’t let someone “critique” you into making it a zombie-filled dystopian! If you wrote your character to be flawed, a “critique” telling you that it’s wrong isn’t accurate!

What you’re looking for is someone to help you edit your story, not theirs. A perfect character in a zombie dystopia may be what they like, but that’s not what you’re writing. If you can find someone that knows what you’re going for, like the flawed main character, and actually help you with their flawed personality instead of trying to change it (even if it’s not their preference)? That reader is golden. Don’t lose them, because you have a keeper.

Otherwise, take the critique, be polite, but focus on what your goals are (which is why you wrote that list of things that are important to you. Stick to that).

You can learn from anyone

Not each and every Beta or CP (though I wouldn’t recommend sticking with a CP if you’re both not a good fit, it just can go very bad very quickly) is a perfect match. But that’s okay, you can still learn from the experience. Anyone willing to go through the whole book and give you any thoughts on it is a gem, even if you can’t apply all of their advice (like if they keep trying to make Snow White a zombie bounty hunter).

But you can even learn from those critiques! If Sally (I’ve named this zombie-loving Beta reader Sally) is only complaining about things that don’t revolve around zombies, but she hasn’t said a word about plot holes, that’s terrific! Your only flaw is lacking the undead, not inconsistent parts popping up unwanted. Or if the only problem Sally has with Snow White is that she isn’t perfect, that’s fine too! You want Snow White to be flawed, so actually, Sally’s critique means you’re doing exactly what you set out to do.

Learn to pick through the bones of a semi-unhelpful reader and get what you need out of it anyway. But don’t take to heart the parts that aren’t relevant to what you need in order to start editing.

~

Well, I hope this was helpful! Stay tuned for part two!