So you hop into a shiny new writing community and the first question you ask is: where do I go to get some eyes on my writing?
First, that's pretty rude. We don't know you! But more importantly, it's too broad. We don't know what type of eyes you want on your writing. What sort of feedback you're after. What stage of the writing process you're in.
So let's take a step back:
You step into a shiny new writing community, talk a bit, and then pop the question.
"I'm looking for an Alpha reader for my <insert fancy novel pitch that makes everyone jealous here>"
Or: "Anybody around to take a look at my latest chapter? I feel like the dialogue is weak and need some feedback."
Or: "I'm looking for a writing partner, anyone writing fantasy up for regular exchanges?"
Hopefully, you're seeing how each of those questions are different. If not, I'm about to explain! Congratulations, you're about to learn about different methods of critique.
As a quick disclaimer, a lot of these terms are interchangeable. A lot of people don't know that they're different things, or don't consider them different things in the first place. I, personally, consider them all different types of exchanges because they result in different types of feedback, and from different people. I'm also defining these terms how I, personally, use and experience them.
Chapter and Isolated Critiques
"Hey guys! Anyone want to read my first chapter? I just finished it and want some feedback!"
Couple of things with this question:
- Many of us will tell you straight up: don't seek feedback on your very first chapter, immediately after finishing, and before having, you know, written the rest of the book. Critique at the early stages can easily lead to discouragement, or the feeling that your project isn't good enough. Trust me, it (probably) is, you're just sharing a very rough first draft that will need some work.
- Okay, we tell you "not a good idea" and you don't care. You post anyway! What you're going to get is an isolated chapter critique.
For a first chapter, this is pretty easy. Nobody reading it is familiar with the story or the characters. Yay! We're all on the same page!
But when your question is "Hey guys! Who wants to look at my latest chapter? It's near the end of the book and doesn't feel right to me." There's going to be a few more problems:
- We don't know the characters! So that'll make it hard to tell if the characters are acting as they're supposed to or not.
- We don't know the plot! Yes, you can give us a brief summary, but we're still not going to know all the little details that might be referenced and feel random to someone who hasn't read the past 17 chapters.
- We don't know the world! Is magic supposed to act that way? Are the laws really that strict? We have no sense of what's consistent and what's a plot hole.
That being said, with specific questions and a quick summary at the start, Chapter Critiques can still be very useful. How do you get useful responses? By being specific. I know, I know, repetition. Hopefully you're listening.
"So, Mary broke up with her girlfriend in the last chapter. She was the one to call it off, and I'm having trouble getting her internals right in this chapter. Anyone mind taking a look? Mary tends to be one of those tough-love characters, the type who put up a front and don't like showing their emotions, but now she's regretting her actions."
"I'm at the climax of my story and the epic battle just feels...flat. I've done some research on sieges, but I feel like the details read off. Can anyone take a look and offer any advice? I'm not worried about the characters here, just all the moving pieces and it being clear what's happening!"
"I'm working on my third chapter, trying to introduce the main antagonist. MC knows them from their childhood, but I'm struggling with how to portray that sudden recognition, and where it would work best. Should MC realize who the Villain is at the start? Or would it work better at the end, as their conversation wraps up? Opinions?"
Hopefully you're getting the gist. The key to getting a good critique, is being specific on what you're struggling with. And yes, that means you need to know where your weak points are, or what you don't think is working.
Yes, you can say "Point out everything." But then your critiques are going to be all over the place, different people focus on different things. You might be worried about plot, but unless you say that, then there's a fair chance half your critiques will be about grammar and the rest about characters and your main concern never gets addressed.
tl;dr Chapter or isolated critiques work best when you have a specific problem that you want to get some feedback on. Ideally, you should have tried addressing this problem on your own, first. Broad critiques can be helpful, but you can also end up with a ton of contradicting opinions that touch on various aspect of your story that you may or may not find useful. Don't be afraid to throw up a single chapter for critique! But ask some guiding questions to address your weak points so you get the most out of it.
Critique Partners and ongoing exchanges
So you post up a first chapter for some feedback, and get some awesome critiques thanks to specific questions. You post up your second. Maybe the third, too. And there's one or two people who offer critiques every time. You've read a few of their chapters too, because exchanging critique is the right thing to do.
So you send them a message. "Hey! I've been really enjoying your story, and noticed you always critique mine as well. Would you be up for being critique partners?"
Now, you might be asking, what is a critique partner? How is this different from posting singular chapters in a public space?
Critique partners often do chapter critiques, but it's an ongoing exchange. With a critique partner, there's a fair chance you'll work your way through both books, chapter by chapter. This means that you have a steady opinion that you trust, and someone who's familiar with your work.
Critique or writing partners often become more than just offering chapter critiques. These people are great for brainstorming together, for working out plot holes and untying character arc knots. A good one is like a writing-best-friend, who you can go and cry to when you have to kill off their favorite character.
Of course, Critique Partners can also take on a much more professional tone. It can just be trading a chapter each week, and discussing the critiques. It can be strictly limited to your novels, and not touch on anything beyond the words already written.
However, at least in my experience, sharing your story chapter-by-chapter (often as you're writing it!) can be a very intimate experience. You're sharing a piece of your soul with someone else, often a rough piece, and you're trusting them to take good care of it. And to tell you how to fix that giant mess you made in chapter seven.
You've finished your first draft! Congratulations!! Of course, your first instinct is to get someone to read it. It's done! Now you can unabashedly ask for feedback, right?
Well, yes, you can. That's where an Alpha reader comes in. Alphas are your first readers: they often go through the first draft, but not always. I personally give my Alpha my 2nd draft, because my first tends to be a hot mess and I don't want to inflict that full story upon anyone.
So how does an Alpha differ from a critique partner? For a lot of people, they don't. For me, I consider an Alpha someone who reads the full manuscript once it's complete, and not just a chapter at a time while I'm writing it.
So what does an Alpha do? Why are they useful? Are they necessary?
What they do: an Alpha reader knows this is a rougher draft. They're going to be okay ignoring all the typos, the rough prose, the weird formatting you did when trying to turn that one chapter into a letter. An Alpha is, generally, going to be focused on the story itself: the plot and characters. They're going to help you figure out when a character motivation just isn't cutting it, when a plot is too complex to follow or, conversely, too boring to intrigue them. They're going to help you nail down the developmental issues before you go into edits, so you have some idea what you should be focusing on.
Why are they useful? Because, as writers, we're often eager and impatient. You finish your first draft and want to dive right into the next one! Well, that might work, but most people are going to tell you to let it sit for a little bit first. Why? Distance. Getting away from the story will reveal a lot more problems, because you won't be filling in those holes with information from your subconscious that isn't actually on the page.
An Alpha reader also has distance, because they don't know the story like you do. A good one will be able to pick apart a lot of those problems before you go into revisions.
Most of you are probably familiar with the term Beta Reader. If any term for critique is most ubiquitous, it's this one. I've seen people ask for beta reads on single chapters in their first draft, all the way up to what is, essentially, an ARC. So, what's the best definition of a beta reader?
For me, and for a lot of other writers I've encountered, a Beta reader is someone who gets a complete, polished draft of your novel. An Alpha reader might be fine looking at all those typos and weird formats. A beta reader? They expect you to have gone through revisions. Maybe multiple times.
You bring in a Beta reader when you think your novel is complete, as good as it can get, ready to be put out to the public. There's nothing else you can do to fix it.
And then your Beta reader destroys every one of those beliefs.
Maybe. Sometimes. Sometimes your story really is great, strong, polished, and ready to go out there. And sometimes it isn't.
The thing with Beta readers is, this is the one stage of critique that all Authors either should go through, or will go through. Not everyone has a critique partner. Not everyone has a writing group to post singular chapters up. Not everybody finds an Alpha reader useful.
But everybody should put their novel through Beta readers. Why? Because, at one point or another, you should get feedback on your story. And whether you do earlier critiques or not, it's a good idea to get a few more eyes on the piece before you hit publish. Or start querying. Or decide it's absolute garbage and shove it in a drawer never to see the light of day again.
Who do you get to be your beta readers?
Well, this will be a blog post in and of itself, so I'll keep it short here. You have a few different options, and a lot of places to find them. Your main choices are going to be:
- Family and friends (I'll address why this isn't always a good idea in Part 2)
- Other writers (have some huge advantages, and some huge disadvantages)
- Readers (Probably the trickiest to find, but can offer the best realistic feedback. They can also miss a lot of things that might strengthen your story, too.)
Why Critique is Important
So you hop into a new writing server, and ask to get some eyes on your work. Someone else pops up, questioning what type of feedback you're after. You have your answers ready. You give them an awesome pitch, and the person wants to read more, so you throw up a chapter and get some feedback.
Maybe it reaffirms that you've been doing a great job. Maybe it makes you question why you picked up this hobby in the first place. Either way, know two things:
- When someone gives you feedback, they are not attacking you as a person. They're not trying to be mean. They want your story to be the absolute best it can be. Sometimes that means pointing out all the problems—because if you don't know they're problems, you can't fix them.
- Everyone, at one point or another, will need to receive feedback. Sure, you can go self pub without ever going through beta readers. Is it a good idea? No. So almost every writer out there has gone through the same thing you're about to. We've all experienced the nervousness as someone is reading through our doc, waiting to hear what they say. We've all been thrilled when they love a passage, and upset when they tell us our plot has a major hole we didn't see.
All this is to say: you're not in it alone. Don't be afraid of critiques, don't worry that someone might hate your work. Or that they might love it. But hopefully you now have a better understanding of what your options are for seeking feedback, and which one is best for your current stage.