As writers, we live with stories in our heads all the time. If we’re lucky, they arrive single file, but too often they don’t. Scraps of half a dozen stories are poking around in my brain at any given time, and I’m not talking short stories, but novels. There’s the one that just released, the one I’m completing edits on, the one I’m writing, the one that’s due after that, the one I set aside in spring to deal with contracted work, PLUS a few random ideas that want to become novels and a few older works that haven’t abandoned me completely. Whew!
So it should come as no surprise that I’m not the best judge of my own work. Plotting isn’t my strongest point to start with but, with all those characters jostling around in my head, sometimes plots aren’t my only needy spot.
I’m too close to the story—or the stories—plural, if you will. It’s impossible to see each objectively. I depend on other people’s eyes to evaluate my stories and help me determine the areas that still need work. I like to present as clean as possible a manuscript to my editor, but can’t trust my own opinions.
In short, I need critiques.
I believe you do, too. You, too, see the story that’s lived for months or years inside your head when you read the words on your monitor. I don’t think it’s possible to look at one’s own work completely objectively.
But is a critique group right for you? How about a critique partner instead? Is that the same thing as a beta reader? Which is the best fit?
Typically, a crit group consists of 4-10 people. They may meet in person, say, once a month. Each member is expected to bring a new scene or chapter to share and folks will take turns addressing each.
An online crit group also has a specific format agreed upon by the members. Each is expected to submit a chapter at prescribed intervals. Each is expected to critique everyone else’s submission by a certain date. In some groups, crits are “open” and everyone can read them. In others, they’re returned privately to the writer.
There is no limit to how many critique partners a writer may have, but do remember the partnership goes both ways and should be fairly even. That means you return a crit for every one you receive. If you seek too many opinions, you may not have time to write anymore!
Critique partners are other writers, usually at a similar point in their journey as you are. They understand the industry and genre conventions. They may have a good grasp of grammar…but may not. Critique partners can work in individual chapters, chunks, or entire manuscripts—whatever works for both of you.
- Who helps you see the flaws in your work? Yes, you have some! http://ow.ly/pkljO click to tweet
- What’s the difference between critique groups, critique partners, and beta readers? Which do you need? click to tweet
A beta reader may or may not be another writer. Instead of reading for the industry (ie: how the novel might be received by an agent or an editor), this person reads as a consumer, like anyone picking a book off the shelf. A beta reader may or may not know or even care about grammar or punctuation or other technicalities. She’s more interested in whether she bonds with the character and enjoys the ride.
I think many writers go through all three types of help, in the order given. Crit groups are likely most valuable early on in your writing. Meeting the group’s deadlines and expectations may be a big help in keeping you encouraged and moving through the first manuscript or two. As you gain confidence, dedication, and speed, you may find you outstrip your critique group’s ability to keep up, so a one-to-one (or several of them) may work best. As you keep writing, you’ll come to the place where you’re fairly confident in your voice and the technical aspects of writing. At this stage, you’ll want confirmation that your story works as a whole, or the reasons why not.
Authors under tight deadlines often forego any of the above, trusting their publishing house’s editor to play whatever roles are necessary. These authors have generally gained enough experience by this stage that they’re confident their manuscript doesn’t need major work, but sometimes they’re surprised to find it does.
Whether you rely on a critique group, partners, beta readers, or your editor, each of us needs another set of eyes (or several sets) that can look at our work objectively and help us make it strong. After all, don’t we all want the best possible stories for our readers?
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