I am so, so lucky to have several people who put eyes (and in some cases, teeth and knives) to my manuscripts before they ever see the light of day. These people, my critique partners and beta readers, are so valuable (and patient, and kind, and merciful). As writers, we are too close to our manuscripts to see a lot of potential problems. Our brains fill in the gaps for us–plot details, character motivations, foreshadowing, and more. Are those details clear to someone who didn’t write the book? No way to know without asking an outside reader. I can’t recommend outside readers enough–and you really need both crit partners AND beta readers. But what’s the difference, and you do you find them?
Let’s get the definitions out of the way first:
Beta Reader — A beta reader (or simply “beta”) can be anyone who reads and enjoys the type of material you’re writing. Their purpose is to read your work purely as a casual reader would, noting large-scale issues like plot issues, pacing, and characterization. They’ll give you some general feedback along the lines of “liked it/didn’t like it” and will note any major issues they saw and places they were tempted to put down the book. At least some of your beta readers should be people who won’t spare your feelings–people who aren’t your mom or your best friend.
Critique Partner — A crit partner (or CP) is typically someone who is well-versed in the mechanics of writing and storytelling–usually a fellow writer. This person will give much more detailed feedback. They’ll catch the same kinds of things your beta reader will, but will also comment on things like style, word choice, point-of-view and tense, conflict and motivations, etc. Your CP is the one who will nitpick your story to death to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. It’s best if your CP is very knowledgeable about your chosen genre and age category.
The critique partner relationship is much more intense and demanding. With a beta reader, there is typically no expectation of a relationship beyond them reading the one thing you deliver to them, unless they are a fellow writer or you arrange things otherwise. There’s also not necessarily a requirement for reciprocation. A critique partnership is almost always a two-way street unless you specifically agree otherwise. Most writers don’t have more than one or two critique partners because of the sheer amount of work involved. Both beta readers and crit partners are necessary. Remember, to receive you must also give! Be generous with your time if you want others to be.
There are lots of places where you can connect with fellow writers online to form beta and CP relationships. However, I recommend setting up some ground rules and doing a trial run before committing to anyone long-term. Here’s how my local writing group runs our CP/beta connection:
The Rules — When someone agrees to read your work, start out by sending them the first two to three chapters or 25-50 pages only. Partners should agree on a deadline for delivery of feedback. After the feedback has been given on the first few chapters, readers/partners have the option to walk away from the relationship for any reason whatsoever, no hard feelings and no strings attached. The reason does not have to be stated; “I just don’t think we’re a good fit” is perfectly valid. If both people are happy, the relationship can continue.
This should go without saying, but just to cover all the bases: by accepting someone else’s work, you acknowledge that the work belongs to them and agree to never post, submit, plagiarize, or otherwise claim their work as your own or distribute it without permission.
Should my work be complete before I submit? — Not necessarily. Some people like to send their partners one chapter at a time as they write. Some prefer not to send until the work is complete and has been edited. As long as you and your partner agree on the terms, anything goes.
If you feel ready for a beta or CP, reply to this thread with the following:
Title of Work:
Approx. Word Count:
Is the work complete?:
Crit Partner or Beta Reader?:
Preferred Communication Method:
If you prefer in-person relationships, check with your Friendly Local Writing Group and see if they have a method for connecting partners. There are a ton of excellent places to find both beta readers and critique partners online, too, and they’re pretty much all listed right here for your convenience. If you’re a twitter user, you can also check out @critiquepartner.
Good luck, creatures! I hope you all find the CPs and betas of your dreams.