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Beta readers – the benefits of a critiquing partnership

Writing can be a lonely business when you’re holed up in the attic hammering out your masterpiece. It’s easy to lose perspective if you’re stuck in the third rewrite of your third act. This is where beta readers come into their own – trusted advisors who can offer feedback to help you navigate the plot ahead. I spoke to Ian and Rachel about their critiquing partnership and how it keeps them motivated and on track.

A partnership made in heaven (otherwise known as West Yorkshire)

Rachel and Ian met on a fiction writing course at Arvon’s writing centre Lumb Bank in November 2013. Although the pair talked during the week it wasn’t until they emailed each other after the course that they realised that a writing rapport had been built up – based on being honest about each other’s writing.
“It was clear to me during our week at Lumb Bank that while we were writing very different stories, we shared a similar outlook and perspective” said Rachel. “I was keen to work with Ian as he gave such honest and direct feedback to fellow participants throughout the course so I knew that he’d tell me the truth rather than what I wanted to hear.”

A different perspective

Ian had no qualms about sending his work to Rachel as he already respected her judgement from being on the course with her. “I did have some initial concerns about the level of commitment it might involve – reading and commenting on a lot of writing – but I looked forward to getting comments. I think perhaps to begin with I was careful about making comments but we very quickly established a direct, constructively critical approach,” he said.

Whilst Ian is writing a novel about how being brought up in a strict religious family impacts a person throughout their life, Rachel writes contemporary women’s fiction.

“It’s fascinating to have a male perspective on my writing, but sometimes it can be tempting to ignore feedback I don’t like on the basis that he isn’t my target audience,” said Rachel.

Fear of the first feedback

Despite knowing each other’s writing styles, both experienced some trepidation sending off the first piece of work for review. “I was desperately hoping that he was going to love it and that I wasn’t going to need to make any amendments, but that was obviously completely unrealistic. Ian’s comments are well considered and tactfully put and always helpful.”

Both agree that exchanging comments has been a real boost to their writing. Ian said: “Rachel’s feedback is the most helpful thing I’ve had since I started because she has such an insight into character, sees inconsistencies in fact and characterisation and asks questions about things I take for granted. She also suggests new ways of increasing tension and showing feeling.”

Keeping the momentum going

Indeed it would seem that Rachel’s input has been central to Ian continuing with his writing. He says: “I just don’t think I’d have continued if I hadn’t had Rachel’s input. She’s really kept me going. Other people have read my work but no one else reads it in the same critical way as she does, nor do they have as clear a grip on the story.”

Having a writing partner has also been key to helping Rachel to keep motivated with her work. “The greatest benefit of Ian’s constructive criticism is that it’s kept me writing. Knowing that you have a balanced and interested critic provides a great incentive to keep going as you look forward to sending off your work and receiving that email back from them.”

Advice on working with a critiquing partner

If you’re interested in finding a critiquing partner, you could link up with someone at a writing course, or venture into one of the online matching forums. Check out CP Seek, put a shout out on Twitter, on a writing forum or magazine.

Once you’ve found a partner it takes time to become a good beta reader. Here are a few ideas to help you develop your skills:

Remember you are critiquing the writing not the writer

Be honest, objective and respectful

Offer feedback on strengths and weaknesses

Be specific in your feedback and give examples

Use constructive language, especially when dealing with negatives

Set deadlines for reading and offering feedback

Learn to listen to feedback and take it on board

Give the relationship time to develop as you learn each other’s styles

Ian’s top tip

“You can’t keep in contact with everyone so if you’re able to find just one person on your wavelength and who’s prepared to be a continuing honest, critical friend, then try to maintain a relationship. But only do so if you are sure you’re willing to share your writing with them – and to accept that they might not always like what you’ve written!”

Rachel’s top tip

“Don’t enter into this kind of relationship with someone purely on the basis that you’re both willing to ‘give it a go’. Having a writing buddy requires a great deal of trust and a willingness to be honest about someone else’s work, even when you worry that you’re being brutal. It is also a huge commitment in terms of time – but one that is well worth it.”

This article originally appeared at On The Write Track – a blog about writing habits – exploring research, tips and advice from writers.


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