I strongly believe in the value of crit partners and beta readers. I also believe in gaining alignment and setting expectations upfront. Especially when those of us in the writerly world occasionally exchange reads, what’s needed in a critique varies from author to author.
Here’s a few insights into what I’m looking for in a beta read or critique. YMMV.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive
In my day job, I’m often gathering user requirements and communicating the use case to our product team and software developers. I’m very careful to present what a user is trying to do and what their experience is using the software and how the software isn’t meeting the user’s needs. What I don’t do is tell the product team or software developers how to fix the issue. They write the code, not me, and I would break a whole lot of things in the software if I tried to tell them how to fix a thing.
When I look at my writing, I find Mary Robinette Kowal‘s take on critique very handy. She describes three types of feedback:
- Symptoms – This made me feel this way.
- Diagnosis – This made me feel this way and I think this is why.
- Prescriptions – This made me feel this way, I think this is why, and this is how I think you should fix it.
When I have beta readers looking at my story, I am specifically looking for Symptoms. In particular, I’m looking for Symptoms that can be expressed as:
I didn’t believe this. It just wasn’t plausible to me.
I didn’t care about this or I skimmed this section.
I didn’t understand this.
I highly recommend checking out Mary Robinette’s post and video on both providing and receiving critique. She goes into even more detail on giving critiques and also receiving them.
The compliment sandwich
When I first started providing crits, I was told to always give a compliment sandwich, in which I start with something positive then follow with constructive critical feedback and finally end on a positive note again.
This is a useful tool for those learning to critique. It’s potentially useful forever. Receiving constructive feedback is not just hard, it’s brutal, and balancing the critical commentary with positive or encouraging comments can be incredibly helpful. A danger here is the recipient who focuses only on the compliments in the compliment sandwich and mentally dodges the critical feedback which is essentially the meat of the sandwich. Another challenge is when the complimentary and critical elements conflict, leaving the recipient confused.
Me? I do best with a sort of open-faced sandwich, if that’s not taking the metaphor too far. If you’re ever beta reading for me, please lead with the critical feedback. Don’t hold back calling it out as it happens throughout the text. Go ahead and tell me when something pisses you off or when something confused you. I am happy to hear when you think something is not plausible or if something seems out of character. I definitely want to know and be able to address when I might have written something problematic.
At the same time, I do want to know when something in my book makes you smile or laugh out loud. Bonus points to us both if a foodie moment makes you hungry enough to go get a snack. I need to know about those reactions. I need to know if my emotional elements worked or if they fell flat or were too subtle.
And so, dear crit partners and beta readers…
When it comes to what I’m looking for from crit partners and beta readers, that’s about it. Trust me, that’s already a lot. There might be more I’d be looking for from a subject matter expert or sensitivity reader, yes, and that’s probably an entirely different topic for another day.
I truly appreciate those who take the time to work with me to beta read my work. I hope this was helpful to you too.