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Working as a sensitivity reader or a beta reader for a writer friend is one of the greatest joys of being part of the writing community. You get to read a new story before anyone else and you have the privilege of helping your writer friend turn their just-pulled-from-the-cave-wall stone into a highly polished, beautifully cut, sparkling diamond.
Obviously there are no hard-and-fast rules about what you should and should not be doing as a critique partner (beyond Wheaton’s Law). You and your author will find your own communication style and rhythm, as well as levels of honesty and helpfulness that you’re both comfortable with. However, the whole point of stepping up as a critique partner is to support your writer friend and help them make the book they’ve written the best version of itself that it can be.
Sometimes this means you have to point out flaws, but it also means that you should be pointing out the stuff that’s good, that really works for you, and connects with you emotionally as a reader. Writers need to know not just what needs to change, but also what needs to stay the same.
Here are some tips based on what I like best in my critique relationships:
Set your Word/Google doc to Editing Suggestions—don’t just change stuff without explicit permission.
Use comments to point out inconsistencies and places where the story/info contradicts. It really helps to have pinpointed moments where things need improvement.
Keep notes in a separate document of times when the story just wasn’t working or you were confused. When you’ve finished the whole novel, go back and review to see if those moments were because you just didn’t have all the info/grand reveals you needed to know at that stage of the book, and if they’ve been resolved now that you’ve read all of it, or if they’re because of the structure of the plot/character arc/writing itself, and need fixing.
Don’t just focus on the stuff that needs fixing, removal, or has to change. Nobody likes to be made to feel that they’re an utter failure. I love it when my beta reader highlights something and just leaves a happy face or a heart emoji, or explains why a specific scene really moved them. Not only does it make me feel good as a writer, it also ensures that I keep those moments that made them excited, and they don’t get slashed in edits.
Set up a time for a face-to-face conversation about the story once you’ve finished the whole thing, so you and the writer can discuss how the story worked for you. It’s helpful to take the time to really chew through it together.
Talk about the broad “feeling” of the book, and what emotions it made you experience. But also pinpoint exact moments where that emotion and feeling really worked and where it really didn’t.
Ask your author if they’re up for suggestions on how to fix the plot hole/character issue/etc. before suggesting something. Don’t forget, this is their story, not yours.
That said, do offer possible solutions to issues you point out where you’re asked for them. Sometimes your suggestions may propel the writer toward a great solution. “I don’t know, it just didn’t work,” isn’t a very helpful answer.
Ask yourself if something isn’t working for you because it’s genuinely not working or just because you don’t like it. If it’s the latter, consider that you might not be the right critique partner for this particular book if you’re not into it. For example: I really just dislike space opera, so if a writer friend asked me to beta one, I’d decline because I know I wouldn’t be a good match for the project.
If you remember the golden rule about treating writer friends the way you want to be treated when it’s your turn for critiques, and remember to highlight both the delightful and the disastrous, it will be a pleasant experience for everyone!
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