Wednesday, June 25, 2014

CP vs Beta

A while back I saw a couple of writers debating the merits of critique partners versus beta readers on Twitter. I didn't get involved in the conversation at the time, but it kind of snagged in the back of my brain and I thought it might make a decent topic for the blog.

The reason it caught my eye is that a lot of the discussion was confused because some people use those two phrases interchangeably and others have very distinct opinions about the two roles. I found it interesting that not only was there a debate going on about whether one should prefer one type of reader feedback over the other, but also just what those types of feedback really were.

So, for what it's worth (and the self-deprecating little voice in my head assures me I can expect to get change back in this case) here are my two cents:

The answer is critique partners and beta readers are two different things and you actually need both.

As I define it, a critique partner is another writer* with whom you exchange work and offer constrictive criticism. The ideal is to have critique partner who is better than you are so you can learn and improve that much more. Though the very nature of such an arrangement means that can only work out about half of the time.

(Which is one of the reasons why I think you need multiple critique partners, or possibly a whole critique group if you can find one that isn't toxic. Having a couple of trusted writerly folks to exchange work with keeps the whole thing balanced.)

Writers understand story building better than just about anyone else. We live in these trenches. We know the landscape and we know how to see what's going on behind the words on the page. Another writer can diagnose things about your work that you miss and explain it in such a way that you can actually fix it.

Critique partners know how to write stories and they get the nitty gritty details of it. You can get into the minutia of story structure and character development. Critique partners can give you high level overall feedback sometimes, or they can get all the way down to "this verb isn't strong enough" or "you need more description here; your hero turned into a disembodied chest with a penis in this sex scene".

A beta reader, the bookish version of the software industry's beta tester, on the other hand, should be someone who is well read in your genre, but they don't necessarily need to be another writer/agent/editor. In fact, I believe you should have at least one who isn't attached to publishing in any way besides being a consumer.

A beta reader is there to test the story once you've got it all put together the way you want it but before you call it finalized. The role of a beta reader is to look at the I-think-it's-finished-but-I-need-someone-to-try-to-break-it-first-so-I-can-be-sure-it's-really-finished product and make sure it works.

A good beta reader can tell you if the story's interesting. Where they laughed. Where they almost peed their pants because they couldn't bring themselves to put the book down long enough to go to the bathroom. Where they skimmed or put the book down to go fold a load of laundry. Whether or not it made them cry. A beta reader is your first reviewer and they're there to let you know about the end-user experience.

You can use the same people as critique partners and beta readers, but I try not to. The people I trust to read and give me useful feedback is a small group and I don't like asking them to read my work more than once or twice if I can help it. People can only read the same thing so many times before they start glazing over.

The meet-cute is only cute the first time, and after a few passes, the humor becomes annoying and the action looks stale. Unless the person has an extremely poor memory (which doesn't really do much to recommend them for the job) or is extremely disciplined (which isn't something you find as often as you'd think) the feedback you get from them is going to get progressively less useful.

There is a third category of reader I like to call the cheerleader. This is a person who reads along while you're writing and is basically just there to keep you motivated when the work gets hard and the shiny new ideas threaten to get too distracting. I see these most often during events like NaNoWriMo, when everyone is writing together and soaking up the collective creative energy, though I've been known to call in the squad on other occasions too.

You might or might not need a cheerleader and, to be totally honest, while they sometimes provide feedback, that's not really the point. When I ask someone to read my zero draft and tell me if it's any good or not, that's usually just a sign that I'm feeling insecure and needy and I want someone to validate my life choices.

I don't phrase the request quite like that, of course. I usually make up some BS that sounds sufficiently professional at the time. ;-)

When you bring these people into your process is, of course, a matter of personal taste. I try, with varying degrees of success, to avoid calling in a cheerleader squad. Barring a complete and total floundering mess, my preference is to hold off on involving CPs and betas until I've given a book a good rest period and then been through it at least once or twice. No sense in other people getting bogged down in problems I can diagnose myself.

What is your take on beta readers and critique partners? Is this how you define them? Which do you prefer? Neither? Both? Have your thoughts on the matter changed as your career has gone on?

*An agent and/or editor can also fill this role if you have one. Or anyone, really, who has professional expertise in story development really.

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