Partners In Crime: The Case for Critique Groups, Beta Readers, and Faith

I recently read an article by a writer who joined an MFA, (master of fine arts grad degree) peer-group for short fiction to get critiques on her novel. The group critiqued her work, (a chapter at a time) every once-in-a-blue-moon Sunday. As you might imagine, the resulting critiques were conflicting, confusing, and the writer ultimately abandoned the project. 

Of course there are multiple takeaways from this experience. My take is you have to know what level you are as a writer and match up with with the support you need. Square pegs will not fit in a round hole.

“Too many cooks ruin the soup,” Joe Lansdale

I once asked multi-genre writer Joe Lansdale what he thought about critique (or crit) groups. He was less than enthusiastic. From personal experience, I can tell you that they are imperative. The crit group is typically made up of aspiring writers who exchange work and provide feedback. When the feedback is honest and constructive, the group can help one another learn genre norms, (from tropes down to paragraph/chapter/book length) the query processes, and, yes, even feedback on tone, plot, and character development. 

However from experience, I can also tell you that crit groups can be petty, cliquish, and discouraging. A poorly led group can also devolve into a mutual-admiration society, aka a circlejerk. As I’ve written previously, many new writers have a bad experience in a crit group and never put creative thought to medium again. 

Even when everything “clicks” for the writer, the crit group is not your destination. Under the best circumstances, groups have a short shelf life. Your skills should grow, your writing should improve, and you should level up—and out of the crit group.

“The best way to get something is to ask for it.” Morgan Hazelwood

In my journey, I went from the crit group straight to querying, with mixed results. After a number of rejection emails, I landed an agent for 15 minutes, (different rant different time). The agent pointed out that there was something wrong with the pacing in my story and that we needed to work on it. And then I never heard from the agent again. 

Since then I’ve run my story through a different kind of group: beta readers. Beta readers read your entire work as they would any other book. They give you broad feedback on tone, character development, plot, and pacing. Your friends, family, that coworker who once thought about writing a book will tell you “oh, it’s good, I liked it…” The beta reader will tell you when your ending fails, when your beginning underwhelms, and/or when your middle sags, (common in writers my age). Often the beta reader is also a writer but this is not as important as that they are SERIOUS READERS. They understand the genre you write in. They understand story structure, pace, and story/plot arc. Literally, they are worth their weight in gold. Morgan Hazelwood has an EXCELLENT primer for you to consider when approaching a beta reader to get the feedback you need, here.

Beta readers are simply the best help you can get short of a development editor and much more economical.  

Caveat: if not implicit, the beta reader is the person you go to when you have a completed manuscript and have done all the diligence you possibly can—and not before. You only get to waste a person’s time once. 

Caveat part two, the sequel: not every syllable of feedback will be helpful or even relevant. Thank them for their time and consideration. You are not required by law to implement the suggestions or argue the point. The most important lesson a crit group teaches will serve you well here: NO DEFENSE OF WORK. If you have to defend it, it doesn’t work.

Write a check.

The MFA peer review thingy is great…if you’re an MFA candidate. But if you’re at the point where you’ve done crit groups and beta readers but still need help, this would be when you seek out professional help. A development editor has been in the publishing game. They know your genre, the industry, and will fine-tune your writing skills. What a development editor is not is a writing instructor. Like the beta reader, you need to have a completed story, written to the very limit of your ability and thoughtfully revised. Otherwise you’re wasting their time and your money. 

In the end, all the hand-holding, guidance, and instruction does not change the fact that, eventually, you have to step out on your skills and trust your story. The crit group is to help you build your self-editing skills. The beta reader is the mirror that shows you the blindspots in your writing. The development editor is a diamond polisher who works your story into a shining gem. 

Nothing will improve your writing more than writing and ruthlessly self-editing. All the help in the world will not overcome self-doubt. Just know that if you found the story compelling enough to re-read it, (to rewrite it) dozens of times, there’s a good chance someone else will find your story just as compelling. But none of us will ever know unless you push on and get it out there.

The photo above is PurrC D’Kat McClellan in his natural habitat—where he’s not supposed to be.

2 thoughts on “Partners In Crime: The Case for Critique Groups, Beta Readers, and Faith

  1. Excellent read, good points. Most I agree with, some are new to me and need to taken to heart, and a few I can’t fully buy-into, but will consider. I use beta readers and find them invaluable, but recognize that once in a while they will offer feedback not in keeping with others completing the same read. Just like any audience. My first improvement following your suggestions is that I will recognize the general failure of “social” sites and groups to result in honest opinion and constructive criticism. Thank you for these insights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! I’ve read your stuff and your instincts are spot-on. Most of these resources are for folks who are unsure their instincts feel too close to the story to see issues. I think beta readers are good for tone/coherency beginning to end and you’re absolutely right about conflicting opinions. What I look for is a point that multiple readers didn’t “get.”

    Liked by 1 person

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