Finding the Perfect Critique Partners, Beta Readers, and Sensitivity Readers
For days, weeks, months, maybe even years you slave away at your writing project. Agonizing over the plot, developing the characters, and starting into space trying to think of the exact perfect word. Your manuscript has been washed with blood, sweat, and tears. But it is finally complete.
You think "Yes! Now I can query to literary agents or slap on a cover and self-publish my book! It's all over!"
Please, do not submit your manuscript over to agents or self-publish it just yet. Because as much as you wish it were true, your first draft is not going to be brilliant. Even your second draft won't be a masterpiece. It's not because you're not a good writer - it's simply because that's now how it works.
What you need next are critique partners, beta readers, and sensitivity readers.
As in, you need other people to read your work and give feedback. I know, it sounds terrifying. But, wouldn't you rather get the feedback now from friends, fellow writers, and trusted readers, rather than when you submit to a literary agent or publisher and they give it to you?
There's this image of writers where they are these solitary creatures living in drafty European apartments by themselves typing away by candlelight (on a typewriter of course because there's no electricity), with an overgrown beard, and only the pigeons or a charming squirrel to keep them company. Now, there might be some famous writers who lived that way.
But let's be real - not all of us are Emily Dickenson or Henry David Thoreau. So get that lone writer image out of your head right now. You need other people.
Yes, the writing itself is (usually) a solitary endeavor. Only you can write your book. But, that's the only part of the process that is.
Your critique partners and beta readers are your cheer squad. The people who have your back. The ones who can dish out the tough love. When you're in "the depths" and wonder why you started writing in the first place, they pull you back up and remind you how awesome you are. Most importantly, they help you to clean up and polish your manuscript as much as you can so when the time comes for you to submit to editors, agents, and publishers, you're confident in the work you created.
While I come from this at a novel writing perspective, I think having people like this in your life is important no matter what sort of writing you do. Non-fiction, blogging, short stories, etc.
Critique Partners (CPs)
A Critique Partner is a fellow writer or group of writers where you share your work, give each other feedback, and offer support during the writing and publishing process.
I have two "permanent" CPs where we have an almost constant messaging thread going and we are always sending each other chapters and scenes, brainstorming our novels, encouraging each other when we're down, and also talk about what's going on in our lives too. (It's a perk of having CPs who are also friends you've had for several years.) We're each others sounding boards, givers of tough love, and writing support group. Basically, I could rave and gush about how awesome our little writing group is for pages and pages. They're basically my life line when I feel like I should give up on this whole endeavor.
These two CPs see my work as I'm drafting, as well as after. One of my last manuscripts they saw multiple drafts. They are the ones who hear my ideas and see any of my work before any one else. Other than my family - maybe.
It can be hard to find the perfect CP. I kind of lucked into my writing group because they were people I've known for a long time. One of them approached me a few years ago because she was starting to take her writing more seriously and knew I wrote novels as well, and was like "we should read each others books and help one another out." A year or two later she suggested we added another girl to our group, and it's been that way ever since.
But, not everyone is that fortunate. I know I've had to go through a lot of trial and error with other CPs and not everyone you exchange pages with is going to be a good fit.
What to look for in a CP? It all depends on what you need, your style, your schedule, and your genre.
You need to have at least one CP who writes in your genre. Not that people who don't write other genres can't be helpful to you. They absolutely are and it's important to have people who work with other genres to read your book too because you can learn from them! But, you still need someone who writes and reads what you write because they're going to understand the nuances of that genre. My CPs both write fantasy, but they aren't familiar with urban fantasy, so when I was writing that genre, I went out and found another CP or two so I could have their feedback as well.
Find other people who fit your schedule. Some people are part of dedicated writing groups who meet at a regular time each week or month. Which is awesome! My work schedule though? It would be nearly impossible for me to do this. Even though one of my CPs lives in the same area as I do, the other one does not. So, we have an ongoing chat online and share our manuscripts via Google Docs. Usually, we don't have time limits on when we need certain things done and can be flexible. If you are on a time limit, be sure you communicate with your CPs about this.
Find CPs where you enjoy reading their work as well. The key word is partner. Having a CP isn't a one way street. You need to give them feedback and support as well. You need to have CPs where you feel like you can enjoy reading their work and give the feedback they need. If you find that you don't like their writing style or don't think you're a good fit for feedback, then you need to have that conversation with them. If you don't, you're doing both them and yourself a disservice. Usually, it's a good idea to swap a chapter or two with a potential CP to test out and see if you're a good match before you get too deep into one another's manuscripts.
As to how many CPs to have? It all depends on what you want and need. I don't think it's a good idea to have more than 2-4 because you don't want too many cooks in the kitchen. But, that's just me.
A beta reader is someone who reads your manuscript to give you their thoughts and feedback.
Beta readers are different from CPs for a few reasons.
- They don't necessarily need to be fellow writers. They can be, and I think there is great value in having another writer or two act as a beta reader. But, it is also important to have beta readers who simply enjoy reading. Particularly those who like to read books in your genre. Ideally, you'll have a mix of both.
- You don't have to be their beta reader back. You can, and I think there's value in that as well. But, it's not necessary. It all depends on your relationship with your beta reader(s).
- The purpose of a CP is to give you feedback and critique as a writer. How I see it, CPs can do more line edits, tough love, technical feedback, and digging really deep into the book. While beta readers give you feedback and critique as a reader. How the story flows as a whole.
What to look for in a beta reader? Like with CPs, it all depends on your schedule, style, and needs.
Someone who reads in your genre. Yes, you can have beta readers who don't read your genre. But, if you write science fiction and your beta reader reads almost exclusively historical, they're probably not going to enjoy your novel or give the feedback you need. There are exceptions of course. Recently, a friend of mine wrote a book of poetry which had an overarching story line and asked if I could give her my thoughts. I know NOTHING about poetry, but she said she wanted more of my thoughts on the narrative vs. the words themselves. So, I was able to read and give her my feedback.
Someone who isn't a writer. As I said before, you can absolutely have people who are fellow writers as a beta reader and I think you should. But, you need to have at least one person who does not write and can come at it with a strictly reading perspective. If you plan on publishing, a majority of your audience will have zero interest in having a writing career of their own. Therefore, you need the viewpoint of someone in the same mindset.
Someone who fits your schedule. If you are on deadline, find readers who are willing to stick to that deadline. (But also be reasonable. If you wrote a 500 page book, don't expect them to give you all their thoughts by the end of the week.) If you want to meet someone in person to talk about their thoughts, find people nearby. Or if you're okay with sharing online, you can poke around to find people who don't live in your area.
How many? As many as you like and need. Like CPs, I would avoid having too many because too many voices can be overwhelming and make you more confused. But be sure to have a variety of people.
A sensitivity reader is someone who identifies with a marginalized group and reads your manuscript to identify any representation issues.
This. Is. So. Important.
It's not about being politically correct or not offending people or censoring your freedom of speech. It's about being sure you are being respectful and inclusive to people who are different than you.
Sensitivity readers say to the author, “We exist too, and we ought to exist on our terms.”
Basically, if you have a book which has characters who are somewhere on the LGBT+ spectrum and you are not, find someone who is to read your book. If you identify as one race, but you have characters who are of a different race, have people who are that race read your book.
Heck, even if you do identify in a marginalized group, have others in that group read your book as well. When I wrote my flash fiction piece, The Living Porcelain Doll, it was about the disability I have. But, I still wanted to be sure I was being respectful and handled the representation well. So, I reached out to a friend of mine who also has a divisibility to take a look in case there was anything I missed.
Your sensitivity readers can act as your CPs and beta readers as well. So, don't feel like you need to find a separate third group of people. Or, you can have someone look at your book specifically and only for sensitivity reading as well. It's up to you. Just be sure you have multiple because each person is going to come from a different point of view and will have something else to offer.
Where to Find Them
This is the tricky part. But you have a few options.
People in Real Life
- I was lucky and had a couple of friends from college who were writers and they make up my writing group. They have introduced me to other writers. In fact, in a few weeks we're going to have a small writing retreat and I'll be able to make more writing friends.
- Check out your local library and book stores. Many times they'll have writing groups who meet there and are welcoming new members!
- Take a writing class. It might cost money and time, but it's a great way to know that the people you're meeting are just as serious about writing as you are!
- Go to a writing conference. This is another one that has a price tag and you might need to do research to find the best conferences for you. But, they're great places to network!
- I know social media and the Internet can be a big scary place - but it's also a great place to network. Check out my Social Media for Writers 101 post to find ways to connect to other writers via social media.
- On Twitter, Megan Lally occasionally does some CP matchmaking! She's an awesome resource for connecting to other writers. Wendy Heard also has done forms where writers can fill out information about their novels and writing habits and she'll try to match you up with a CP. I've found some good beta readers and CPs through these!
- A new one I learned of recently was if you search Goodreads, you'll find groups of writers! It might take some digging around, but if you prefer more of a forum style vs. social media for connecting, this might be good for you.
- Some other websites for writers are Scribofile, Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and Agent Query Connect where you can connect to others writers and find people to read and critique for you.
Sending off your manuscript to have someone pour over and read is completely terrifying. I know. You've worked hard on your manuscript and put pieces of yourself into it. Having others read it and give feedback can be difficult. But, it's totally worth it.
You want your work to be the best it can possibly be, and these readers will help you get there. You deserve to have an awesome novel!
Finding the perfect fits for these readers is also hard. You need to be patient and willing to do the leg work to find the best people for the feedback you need. I've had a lot of flops when it comes to this, but it's worth it once you find the right people. And you might need different people for different manuscripts. That's okay!
How have you found your Critique Partners, Beta Readers, and Sensitivity Readers? What tips do you have for others to network? What other questions do you have about connecting with other writers?
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