Critique Partners vs Beta Readers
Writers need other writers. I could tattoo that statement anywhere on my body with total confidence. As Madeleine L’Engle said, “Facts change. Truth doesn’t.” And the truth is, writers are forever on their own when it comes to the writing itself, but revision, brainstorming, and encouragement require a village of writers.
There’s always an exception. Perhaps you are that exception. You don’t need anyone but your cat, your coffee, and your laptop. Congrats! This post is not for you, the 1% of writers who do not need to be told that their chapter is not, in fact, total poop.
The rest of us need writer friends because when our normal (aka not writer) friends ask, “How is your writing going?” they probably don’t want a half-hour discussion about your struggles with story arc and word choice and UGH WHY WON’T THAT CHAPTER BE NOT-TERRIBLE.
You know who absolutely does want to hear about that?
I love to talk about writing. I love daydreaming about other people’s worlds. I get waaaaay too excited when a writer friend has an epiphany about their character/plot/future earnings all because we talked it through.
I’m also an extrovert. I literally need other people to feel like myself. Which is why I’m a member of three critique groups (one that meets monthly and two online), and I have multiple writing date buddies, critique partners, and beta readers. Some of those groups overlap, a lot of them don’t.
So it took me by surprise when one of my good friends and critique partners didn’t know the phrase “CP.” He has his MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, same as me. We’re both on twitter. And, more importantly, he’s my CP! But he’d never heard the term.
Maybe you haven’t either. CP is short for Critique Partner, and also, Classy Person (in my opinion) who will read your work and figure out what’s not working but also tell you that you’re amazing and maybe you left out five commas and it’s all gonna be okay.
My CP was also unfamiliar with the term beta readers, and he asked what the difference was.
AND THAT’S SUCH AN INTERESTING QUESTION. Here’s my opinion. It’s just my opinion. Other people may use these terms differently, but this is how I think about it.
A CRITIQUE PARTNER is someone you work with consistently. You may show them the same pages a thousand times or send them a new chapter once a month. Either way, because they’re familiar with your work, they can give suggestions that are in line with the goals for your book. They can also comment on changes you’ve made and how those are/aren’t working in the story. They’re invaluable because their feedback is grounded in knowing the world and the characters and you. They’re fully invested in the progress of your draft. It’s also their one big drawback, which is that they eventually know you and the story really well, and they may read things into your words that aren’t actually there.
Which is where BETA READERS shine.
Beta readers are your go-to people when you have a full draft. They may have one or multiple great qualities including: 1) familiarity with the genre you’re writing, 2) an avid love for reading, 3) copy editing skills, 4) a brilliant brain for plotting, or 5) a great sense of story structure and pacing. The only quality that is absolutely required is 6) an enthusiasm for you and your work.
Beta readers inhale the whole manuscript and then tell you in more general terms what works and what doesn’t. Which character they loved, who they hated, where they got confused or bored, when they couldn’t put it down, etc. They are your own personal goodreads. They may or may not tell you that you used the word “fluttered” five times on a page because they’re not reading for word choice. They’re looking at the big picture.
Can a critique partner read your novel and give you a beta reader-esque sense of the whole? Of course.
Can a beta reader read your manuscript and line edit for you? Of course.
It’s up to you and your awesome arsenal of friends. There are no rules. Well, if there was one, and it’s really more of a recommendation, I’d say make sure your critique partners are also writers. Beta readers can come from all walks of life. My most recent beta readers for my middle-grade novel West of the Sea were a children’s librarian, a theater director, and a YA writer who’d only seen a few excerpts of the whole.
ALSO, and this is across the board, make sure your readers are not going to tear you down. Writing is hard enough without someone telling you to throw in the towel or asking why you’re writing the story at all. For those reasons, family is not always a good choice. Your partner is not always a good choice. Respect your gut.
And you don’t have to put a ring on it. If a manuscript swap doesn’t work out well for you, don’t do it again. Find someone who helps you succeed.
Be clear with what you want from your readers. Sometimes I hand my husband a page and tell him he's my "alpha reader." That's less of an official term, but he knows his job in that moment is to tell me that the writing is AWESOME. It's just what I need in that moment to get me back to the desk and keep writing.
Huge thanks to all my CP's, betas, and alphas who keep me going!
Thoughts? Comments? Strongly worded rebuttals? Comment below!