How I critique
As a writer, I love reading other peoples’ work. My love of reading aside, it is a great way to learn about the craft of writing and how other people put words together.
I didn’t realise how much I had changed my reading technique until recently, when I was describing a book to my partner. I talked about how I loved the character development, the pacing, and the story arc being so very satisfying–something that before I was a writer I would probably have just described as ‘enjoyment’.
Writing very rarely gets to the point of being published without going through many phases of self-editing and professional editing. But there is another step between those two: beta readers. A beta reader is someone to whom the writer sends a piece of work that they believe is fairly polished, and who then reads and gives feedback on the piece.
‘I loved it,’ is a great phrase for any writer to hear… But not the mark of a great beta reader. Great beta readers comment on several areas that can improve a piece. This feedback is often actionable and specific, helping the writer see where there may be problems with comprehension, structure, flow, or other aspects that they can address. A writer might send multiple drafts of the same piece to one beta reader, or ask several people to read it at different stages. It all helps to bring in an overall idea of whether something is good enough to send to an editor yet.
I should say this at the start: every critique is an opinion. Just as every final reader will have their own, a beta reader’s opinion is also formed through personal taste, preference, and experience both writing and reading. But it’s the latter that helps writers choose who to be their beta readers, and I cannot stress this enough to new writers–other writers make the best betas. Not your best friend, who doesn’t read your genre but wants to be supportive. Not your Mum (sorry, Mum!) who’ll tell you it’s great no matter what (you would hope). Of course, there are some people who might spend an entire document making harsh criticisms. Many new writers make the mistake of critiquing a piece with how they would write it–foregoing the author’s voice entirely for their own. Beta reading is an art.
People from the industry, readers and editors, also make great betas. For me, I find my beta readers through writing groups both online and physical, and through the writing community on social media.
Which brings me to this week’s post. I wanted to share a little about how I personally beta read. Two resources have helped me incredibly in this:
“…[T]hese questions are meant merely to trigger thoughts of what worked and what didn’t. Depending on our process, we might even be able to use this worksheet for self-editing by gaining insights into the areas to study and improve.Jami Gold
…Personally, I wouldn’t send this whole list to a beta reader because it could be overwhelming and distract their big-picture reading. Instead, I’d ask a few overview questions (like from the last section about marking issues). Then if the beta reader requested more direction after they were done reading, I might send this sheet or a good portion of it. For me, I want my beta readers to use these questions only to organize their thoughts, not to direct their reading—but my goals are not necessarily your goals.
…Remember, this is a tool, not necessarily a to-do list.”
This subReddit writing community will “…tell you the good, the bad, the ugly, and the horrible of your writing.”
Yes, the crit there is multi-level, in-depth, high effort, and very, very critical. But that’s how you improve! Honestly, even reading other peoples’ critiques is a lesson in the art itself. In the link I’ve given, a former moderator for the community gives a detailed rundown of how they approach critique.
How to start?
I like to use a combination of Destructive Readers’ and Jami Gold’s beta reading prompts to work out what I will be critiquing. I also make sure to ask the author what it is they are looking for feedback on the most. For example, I recently did a beta read of a fellow writer’s short story, in which they asked for feedback on whether the story flowed and if, after many changes, it still made sense, along with anything else that stood out. I myself recently asked another beta for feedback on my own short story in the works, focusing on whether the story made sense and how the pacing felt (too slow to start, areas that I could tighten, etc.). I could probably have given them a link to one of the above beta reading guides, but I trusted them as another writer to have an idea of how to beta read.
Then again, those guides are also great for figuring out what I might need to ask others for critique on.
Back to how I do it. In beta reading for others, I tend to start with a first readthrough, not commenting but getting a feel for the piece.
On the second pass, I start to leave comments as I go along for any inline issues, problem areas, or anything that stands out to me during the read.
At the end, I write up my thoughts about the story:
- my overall impression;
- thoughts on major mechanics;
- whether the story and characters felt realistic and distinct;
- the major theme(s);
- setting and worldbuilding;
- writing style/craft;
- and any overarching issues.
See the linked resources for detailed breakdowns of these and more writing aspects. And for more helpful writing information, I highly recommend Jami Gold’s website.
Of course, you don’t have to touch on every area to make a good critique–it’s all about sharing opinions and explaining what did or didn’t work.
I often work on Google Docs for critiquing: this gives the author feedback in [almost] real time in the form of comments in the margins, to which they can reply. This makes such a difference, because I can have a discussion with the author. I can also see what changes are made to the document after a critique and give further feedback on if that’s working differently/better now–if the author wants me to.
What about flash fiction?
Flash and micro fiction can be particularly difficult to critique–you can’t go full tilt with the huge list of story aspects. For me, the most important thing is to figure out the purpose of the piece (talk to the writer, if possible), so as to determine what the most helpful feedback would be.
As a former teacher, I like to make critique sandwiches. Especially for a short piece, I often open with my overall impression and a specific thing that I liked, and why. Then I might pick up to three things that I found an issue with, giving specific examples and how/why it didn’t work for me (remember, of course, that it is an opinion!). Finally, I wrap up with a positive comment–whether a hope for the future, thanks for letting me work with them, or another aspect of their writing that I enjoyed.
I hope this has given you some idea of one way to approach beta reading. I recommend reading the many blog posts on Jami Gold’s website, and others, about beta readers–whether you are looking for your own, looking to do some yourself, or just looking to improve (something we can all do, always).
Thank you for reading, and see you next week for a new piece of fiction, hopefully. Just got to get some feedback on it first…