Tuesday, April 08, 2014

On Critique and Beta Reader Etiquette

By Michael Kinn

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please welcome back Michael Kinn today to share a few thoughts on being a good writer while waiting for a critique. Offering advice can be tricky for both reader and writer, but some basic manners can make the whole process easier.

Michael makes up stuff as a scientist, a storyteller and a writer, any combination of which sets his creative juices flowing. He loves the ocean, writes under the influence of green tea and finds life a breeze compared to negotiating his teenagers’ freedom charters. Michael is addicted to great stories and in dire need of extra lives.

Take it away Michael...

As beta readers we can all do with some critique to guide our feedback to the (hopefully) well-polished drafts writers send us. The seasoned beta reader will find out what type of critique the writer is looking for, shun infeasible turn-around promises and warn the writer of any delays. Of course, beta readers should always offer candid feedback and treat the writer with respect. These are sound rules for critiquing. But in guiding my own critiques, I try to let one piece of advice rule them all.

The Prime Rule of Critique

Don’t change the work. Change the writer.

Change is growth. Focus crits on the writer’s growth, not on the demolition of their work. Harshness stunts growth. Be a Beta Poppins and offer a spoonful of friendly advice to make the change go down.

As most writers, I find myself on both sides of the fence. So it pays to give a little thought to etiquette in receiving beta critiques on our work.

Beta readers, as our first readers, frequently display great bedside manners while serving tough medicine for no pay. But even if they shred our work, drench it in motor oil and bounce the papier-mâchéd blob off our skulls, we thank them sincerely for their hard work. It’s basic beta reader etiquette, as is “don’t argue about a crit” and “put their kind feedback to good use.”

Yet, waiting for crits to come in tends to rise other little demons, feeding on eternal fears that the work might still have some glaring issues. To ward off those demons, I jotted down a few notes on beta reader etiquette. Perhaps they may be of use to others too.

The Three Commandments of Beta Reader Etiquette

Don't ask where they're at

Not before the agreed time at least. At that time, a gentle reminder is appropriate. Breaking silence earlier risks being perceived as rude or needy. Keep it professional.

Never second-guess their crits

Don’t waste time on guessing what beta readers might stumble over. Put that time to good use working on other work.

Hands off work till the crits are in

Respect your reader. Changing the story while they're reviewing, invalidates their hard work. If a change seems necessary, write down your thoughts and save them for when the crits come in.

So far, these did the trick.

Lately, I’ve particularly cherished crits on the synopsis. For many writers, the synopsis can be a pain to write, yet, like the query, the synopsis is a wonderful tool to lay bare the story's core. Here too, beta feedback is invaluable to help re-jig drafts.

When the crits do come in, it’s time to polish, revise and, in some cases, look beyond comments to try and identify the real reason for the reader’s boredom/discomfort/outrage. Most beta readers are happy to clarify their comments, so well-aimed questions help. Failing that, there is always this handy little prayer to turn to.

Prayer to the Muse

Please grant me the courage to change the parts I think I can't
but not the ones I can but shouldn't,
the wisdom to know the difference
[or at least the sheer dumb luck to get it right]
and judicious insight to pay it forward

Amen, and a big thank you to beta readers--the salt of the earth.


  1. Hands off the manuscript...ah. Hm. I should probably start doing that.

    1. Yes. It frustrates me to no end when I spend 40 or more hours brushing up a manuscript with a flea comb ... only to learn the writer changed major stuff. Or got impatient and self-published. Or subbed it to an agent (and got picked up by an agent [only for the manuscript to never reach a publisher because it wasn't strong enough]). It's even worse when the writer didn't tell me directly that they did any of these things, and I learn about it by happenstance on some forum or on their blog. In such cases, I can't help but feel my time was treated with utter disregard. Time, which I could have used polishing one of my own works. Or making money. Or playing Skyrim. You know?

  2. Thanks for this post. I am going to share it with my writing partners, but I am really lucky. I like the prayer too.

  3. Another thing to remember is if you are a beta reader yourself not to sit on something too long. If you're crunched for time, apologize and say you just can't do it. If your beta reader tells you the same thing, accept the apology and move on. Life happens.

  4. Good post, Michael. Will share it with my writing students tonight--who are about to be launched into the big wide world of getting critiqued. And good reminder for me too--I've been sitting on a friend's manuscript way too long.

  5. Good advice!!

  6. For some reason Micheal wasn't able to leave a comment, but he wanted me to say:

    Thanks all for the kind words!

    Hope your students found it useful, Carol.

  7. I am a newbie at writing and would like to try out Beta Readers. Could you suggest a few contacts please. Thanks

    1. On January 2, I'm opening up my Critique Connection Yahoo group for the winter session. It's a place for writers to find beta readers and critique partners.

      Here's the link: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2018/07/are-you-looking-for-critique-group-or.html

      Here's another posts with suggestions on where to find readers: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2009/09/youve-got-to-have-friends.html