During the #yalitchat last night, one of the topics that came up was critique partners/beta readers/alpha readers. Why are they important? How many do you need? And where do you find them?
First, some definitions (since not everyone knows what’s what). An alpha reader is someone who reads along with you as you’re writing. You finish Chapter 7, they’re reading chapter 7. A beta reader is someone who reads the whole book once it’s done, but before the book gets sent to any agents/editors. And a critique partner is someone who critiques your work: so basically it’s a catch-all term that includes alphas and betas.
“He said something about Goldilocks. I can’t wait to see how he pulls THIS one off.”
Some people like their porridge hot, just like they like their critiques harsh and unyielding. Some people like their porridge cold, just like they like their critiques with a lot of hand holding. And some people like their porridge somewhere in between, just like their critique partners.
There is nothing wrong with any of these systems. The trick with HAVING a critique partner is that you have someone who gets your work, who likes your work, and who will challenge you to be a better writer. I’ve had CPs who ripped my books to shreds, but that was a challenge to improve the book. And I’ve had CPs who left me 100+ notes about how much they loved the book, and what parts where their favorites. Both of these helped in different ways. And you won’t really know which you like best until you experiment a little bit and try some porridge.
So why is having a critique partner important? Because it’s getting your work peer-reviewed before it goes out into the Great Big World. There’s always something we can learn, and there’s always improvements that we can make to our writing. Having a CP can help you understand if your plot is believable, if your dialogue leaps off the page, etc. Every time you polish your book, you make it that much stronger. Also, critique partners (at least the good ones) will tell you the truth. They’ll tell you the things you NEED to hear, even if you don’t WANT to hear it.
Critiques also help in other ways. By critiquing someone else, you learn a LOT about your own writing. It’s hard to be thorough and analytical with our own books – we’re too close. But when you see someone ELSE make mistakes that you do, too, not only can you point it out to them, but you can fix it yourself. And you can learn a lot about someone else by reading their novels – it may be that what they write isn’t your cup of tea, and no matter how good of a crit partner they are to you, if you’re not all about THEM too, then it’s probably not a good match.
So where do you find them? I’ve included a couple of links down below to message boards where a lot of writers gather. Twitter’s another great resource – finding like-minded writers and trading a couple of chapters to test the waters can work wonders. You may find your One True Critique Partner just by random accident. Also, keep in mind that a lot of writers (especially ones who are already pubbed or have agents) may not be able to read your manuscript. It’s legal stuff. So if you don’t have an agent yet, look for other writers who don’t have an agent. Find someone “on your level.” The added bonus is that they’ll be going through all the same things you are.
With critiques, just be sure to give as good as you get. If you spend a lot of time and energy on someone else’s book, make sure you’re getting the same in return. And vice versa. I’ve been known to be a big slacker in this regard from time to time, which is why I try to only crit (aside from my roommate) only very rarely.
As for how many critique partners do you NEED? As many as you feel comfortable with. Keep in mind that usually, critiquing is an exchange. I send you what I’ve worked on, you send me what you’ve worked on. So if you have 5 CPs, you could end up with 5 projects to critique all at once. I have one or two “constant” critique partners, and then occassionally I’ll exchange with other writer friends, depending on who has time to read.
So, like I said, find the porridge that’s right for you. It may not be the same temperature as someone else’s. And that’s totally fine.