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What’s the difference between a beta reader and a critique partner?

June 11, 2012

Beta reading is a subject near and dear to my heart. Not only are beta readers an important part of my own writing process, but I also beta read for several authors, so I decided to do a series of blog posts on beta readers and beta reading.

Let me start by explaining what “beta reader” means to me and what the difference is between a beta reader and a critique partner. Every writer has his or her own terms for their “creative staff.” Personally, I make the following distinction:

A critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you trade chapters or whole stories. The crit partner (beta) reads and critiques your story while you comment your partner’s (not necessarily at the same time, though). Critique partners give detailed feedback on not just plot and characterization, but on the craft aspects of writing—lack of conflict, violations of POV, etc.

Beta readers don’t need to be writers. A well-read reader’s feedback can be just as valuable. They give feedback on their subjective impressions: Did they like the characters? Did the plot capture and keep their attention? Was the end satisfying? What worked and what didn’t? Some beta readers are good with spelling and grammar and can point out mistakes in that area too. If the beta reader is also a writer or someone who beta reads a lot, you’ll also get the same kind of detailed feedback that you get from critique partners, but the beta reading just goes in one direction—they beta read for you, but you don’t beta read for them.

I prefer my beta readers and critique partners to read the story chapter-wise and provide me with feedback while I’m still working on the novel. Most of them do two or more read-throughs of the novel. Some read as much as six different versions of each chapter. So after I finish the final draft of a novel, I need a fresh pair of eyes.

That’s where test readers come in. Test readers are readers who have never seen the manuscript before. They are not expected to be writers or to give craft advice (though that is always welcome, of course). Some give just their overall impression about what worked and what didn’t, while others go into more detail. At this point, the manuscript should be pretty “clean,” so I mostly need the test readers to tell me if the changes I made in the last draft work and the story reads smoothly.

Right now, I work with a team of two beta readers, three critique partners, and about five test readers, but it varies a bit with every novel.

One more distinction: Some writers would benefit more from a mentor than from a beta reader. Every once in a while, I agree to beta read for a writer and after reading just a few sentences of her or his work, I realize that I’m dealing with someone who is just starting out as a writer and makes a lot of the typical beginner’s mistakes. If I went ahead and beta read their manuscript, I would overwhelm them with a sea of red corrections and comments. So instead, I offer them a mentorship and explain the basics of plot, dialogue, point of view, pacing, and everything else they need to know. Based on my explanations, they revise their manuscript and then we start the beta-reading process.

How about you? What does your “creative staff” look like?

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