Wednesday, 15 May 2013

How do you guys do it?

My manuscript and my cat
I have a confession: I don't know the difference between a CP and a beta reader... In fact, I don't even know whether there is a difference.

I've only ever critiqued for one author, and it wasn't so much of a critique as me just saying "That was good" about fifty times.

The problem is, I can read through my own work and spot the moments when the ideas are muddled, or the pacing is wrong, or I've accidentally mentioned that my tee-total bridesmaid is happily downing whiskey. I know what just doesn't feel right.

But - but! - if I read your book, my thoughts will fall into two categories: good and bad. If it's good, I'll happily tell you and shout it from the rooftops. If it's bad, I'd probably rather change my name and make new Facebook and Twitter accounts than actually mention it to you. And that's if I actually notice the problems in the first place. I just don't analyse other people's work the way I do myself - I accept that that's how you want the story to go, especially in genres that I don't usually read.

Second confession: I've read more out-of-comfort-zone novels since I met you guys and started blogging than I ever did before. Because of that, something that I don't think works might be the key feature of the genre you're writing in. And I don't want to show off my ignorance!

So, my plea today is: tell me how you get so great at critiquing, please, because I'll probably need to trade favours soon!


69 comments:

  1. Well that makes two of us Annalisa. I'm not really sure what's the difference between CP and beta...
    My guess is that the CP reads the ms before it's completed and the beta reads the completed story? Something along those lines?

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    1. Keep reading below, some of my awesome followers have explained it all and made it sound simple :-)

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  2. I've never offered to critique anyone's work before because I know I'd be rubbish at it and would just sing its praises. Which is great and ego-boosting for the author but not so good if there are problems that need ironing out.

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    1. I know! Wouldn't it be awful if there were major problems that a potential agent pointed out that you'd completely overlooked? There's so much responsibility attached... unless I'm reading too much into it?

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  3. Beta's look at the big picture stuff. They don't need to point out awkward sentences or typos. Critique partners will nail you at the line edit level and hopefully catch the big picture stuff. Often crit partners get your novel in chunks, which is why they might miss the big picture things. But they can tell you when a character acts out of character or if something doesn't make sense.

    Depending on the state of the writing, I tend to catch typos and awkward sentences when I beta read. But if the writing is really off, then I skip on that. Though, because I'm super in demand when it comes to beta reading, if the novel is a mess in terms of writing, I will read the first 50 pages and return it when my list of suggestions of things the writer needs to work on. Usually this is an element that will effect the entire novel (e.g. lack of inner thoughts).

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    1. Thanks for such a thorough answer - the distinctions make so much sense now :-) Now I just have to practise doing them...

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  4. Sometimes a crit partner will ask me to keep an eye out for something specific - is there enough tension in the scene, do I like the main character, etc. - but otherwise, I usually just go with my gut. What works for me, what doesn't, and I always try to explain WHY. After that, it's up to the writer to do with my opinion what he or she will. No hard feelings on my end and hopefully not on theirs! :)

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    1. Hmm, it's the 'why' that I can't sometimes pin down. Sometimes I just want to pull a funny face instead. Is a photo of me pulling a confused face an acceptable form of critique?... Maybe not :-)

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  5. I have no idea either, I just write my poems and that is that.
    Most interesting post though.
    Yvonne.

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    1. I imagine poetry works differently to fiction, so much more of it comes from your own heart.

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  6. I cross my fingers and hope and pray whenever I give my opinion or a critique it will help and not hurt my CPS or betas. I know we can get so caught up in our own work it's hard to see it objectively sometimes. But I don't hold back a thought, because I think it might hurt someone's feelings. I try to be as honest as possible. I think there is a way of wording that critique so it doesn't crush someone though. And usually, at least in my case, nothing I've read from my CPs has ever been out right bad, it just needed a little tweaking to make it better. :)

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    1. I suppose it does make it easier if you know the standard of the work that your CPs normally produce.

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  7. I usually just say what I think as I'm reading it. I have a lot of practice with critiques, though. As a speech coach/judge we give tons of critiques to kids every Saturday at the meets. Usually twenty or so a meet. So (I think) I've gotten pretty good at giving my thoughts in a way that sounds like a suggestion, something to think about, rather than telling them what they're doing is wrong.

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  8. I've had my work critiqued and I've been a CP and beta for a couple different books. I've done really badly at it (please forgive me those of you who know who you are who are reading this and crossing your arms at my response because you know I was a really bad or overly critical CP). Truth is, I'm learning- both by how people CPd for me that were helpful (and damaging), and as I offer to read for other people.

    I'm learning too that having a conversation ahead of time to find out what a writer wants from me, what she is looking for and needs, helps guide my reading and commenting.

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    1. That's a great tip about checking what the writer is actually looking for from the critique - I'll definitely remember that, thanks Julie :-)

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  9. I usually ask if there's anything specific a writer is looking for feedback on, but, in general, I just offer my honest opinion, along with the disclaimer that this feedback is my opinion and my opinion only and they are welcome to do what they will with it.

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    1. Julie just above you also mentioned the specificity of the critique (it's late, that sentence may or may not make sense!) My opinion is what worries me, because sometimes I don't know why I like or dislike something, and I get into a tangle trying to explain it.

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  10. To me a beta says "I like" or "don't like"...a CP goes deeper and brings the red pen and high liters.

    I worry as I beta...will I offend or if I don;t mention things, will I hurt the writer by not being honest. It's hard. And I agree with you too, there are some genres I'm just not that into and I don't want my boredom to be given too much weight. (I feel the same about reviews...I am not going to rake someone for writing a sci-fi that doesn't hold my attention...I mean it's not my preferred read to begin with!)

    On a side note, finally reading "That Sadie Thing". Irish Green? LOVE, LOVE, LOVED it.

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    1. I had you down as a natural critiquer, Elizabeth! I assumed those opinions would just come flowing... in the nicest possible way!

      :-D :-D :-D Oh you've just made my day. So glad you loved my story!! I just checked, and that's the story I was planning to post on your blog for my tour (truly!) :-)

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  11. I have a friend who has a great beta critique form. It has questions like Did I get bored? If so, where? Did I believe in the characters? Did I find them relatable? That kind of thing.

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    1. That sounds like a great thing to be in possession of. I need that! :-)

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  12. I guess just by doing it a lot.
    Beta/test readers are those who may not be writers but they read my genre. My two test readers see my manuscripts after only a couple edits and they are looking at the overall story. My critique partners see it after I've perfected it the best I can. (Until they get a hold of it of course.) They look more at the mechanics and flow.

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    1. Practise is key, I guess. But I'd feel bad for the people I was practising on! BTW I tried to comment on your blog earlier, and it wouldn't let me. I tried three times then gave up. Hopefully just a blip on my part!

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  13. Practice, practice, practice! I learned a lot from my local critique group too. I know I've grown as a critic over the past few years. Usually beta readers focus on the story part of your manuscript rather than all the technical parts. CPs critique all aspects. Though my betas are super duper and critique like CPs. :)

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    1. I'm finally getting my head around this but still not sure I'd be any good!

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  14. I don't know much about this either, so I'm glad you posted. I'm learning a lot from the comments.

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    1. The comments have been awesome haven't they? I know some brilliant people :-)

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  15. I just don't do it because it's like any kind of art - a writer has to hear her/his own voice. Just because I may not get it, doesn't mean it isn't awesome. I live by Mom's rule: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything. If I like I book, I'll give it a good review. If I don't Mum's the Word.

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    1. I completely agree with you about the reviews. I cannot bring myself to make a bad review public, but I'd share with the author... if they asked.

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  16. Thanks for this post, Annalisa, I learned a lot from the comments.

    I've done my share of critiquing and getting critiqued and I agree, you get better through practice, practice and more practice. My big advice is 1. Give your honest opinion in the kindest way possible, but do be honest it is how a writer grows. 2. Chose your CP's carefully, they can take you forward or backward.

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    1. Thanks for making the point of choosing your CPs wisely. That seems very important. I'm so glad I wrote this post too, I love learning!

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  17. Well, I don't know who all has mentioned it yet, but first of all, if you are going to critique someone's work, be prepared to be honest! I warn people up front. I have the tact of a brick wall. I don't mean to be... well, mean, but I am honest and I try to offer up the good with the bad. That spoonful of sugar for that nasty medicine which is my opinion. ;) Beta readers are basically another set of eyes going over everything and making sure the flow is good, what works, what doesn't. CP's get a little more in depth, I think. More along the lines of, "What the hell were you thinking?" Kidding. Kind of. :) I usually go line by line. So it's a good thing when you don't get a lot of comments from me. Good luck!

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    1. I get that the honesty thing is the most important. But if I don't notice that you've used the word 'little' 10,000 in a 80,000 MS I can't mention it. That's part of my problem.

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  18. I have learnt a lot here today, Annalisa. Thanks for posing this question as I too have been a little confused in the past. It is probably something I should do more of.

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    1. You're welcome Suzanne - I'm glad other people are benefiting too. It's something I really need to get my head around.

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  19. My local crit group has been meeting a long time and it took us a long time to get good at critiguing each other. We learn by reading each other's work as much as getting feedback. Over time, you learn to look for different things. Over time as the receiver, you learn to ignore what isn't applicable. That's an art too, learning what doesn't apply.

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    1. A great point from the opposite side - learning how to translate the critique!

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  20. I haven't had much practice with the "big picture" critiquing, i.e. I think I suck at that kind of critique but am pretty good at being a nitpicker. So I'm not sure how I'm going to go when it's time to send out work to betas, because I don't know how well I can return the favour. I will sure try though!

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    1. Sorry for the late reply, Trisha, you ended up in my spam. I think being a nit-picker is the perfect attribute!

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  21. I haven't reached the point where I have critique partners/groups yet, but I do critique students' papers for a living. One thing that a lot of teachers do when they critique students' essays is they single out a few strengths in the students' writing; they write down the praise first. Then they move in on the stuff that needs to be edited/changed/improved. That way, you can balance the good and the not-so-good.

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    1. Praise first - very good tip. Unless it's "Well done, you spelt your name right, Annalisa" :-)

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  22. I LOVE critiquing. I am not a good "please glance over this and tell me what you think" beta type, though LOL. I like to be in depth with my comments!

    To be a good CP, you have to be honest... but nicely. You should be able to spot repeated words and phrases, or if a character does something that doesn't make sense next to the rest of their behaviour when you're reading someone else's work. Isn't that how you decide whether or not you like a book? If you don't, there has to be a reason why. Analyse that, and see if there's anything in your thoughts that might help the writer. :D

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    1. I don't know how I decide if I like a book... actually there's a three point list: books I read in one sitting, books that take a few days, books I throw across the room. Can I critique by just giving a rating like that? "I threw your book away"?

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  23. I have a very patient friend who is always eager to read me and she has no problems in critiquing the heck out of me, which is amazing. .An honest friend is the best way, if you ask me :)>

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    1. It's great that you've found someone you trust :-)

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  24. Wow - what a lot of amazingly helpful comments! I've learned so much today! I was planning on having one beta reader who is a friend who enjoys reading the same sort of stuff as me and is also likely to be honest, and I was going to also ask a writer because they'll look at it differently. I'd love to beta read for someone but I can't lie to save my life, so I'd be hoping to be objective and honest. Whatever the genre, I'm thinking that if you don't understand why a story has gone a certain way, it probably hasn't been done quite right. When my manuscript is eventually ready for beta readers, I'd be looking for comments on whether the characters and plot are believable and whether it is lacking flow anywhere.

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    1. I think you might be right about genre issue - the plot should make sense whatever the genre. I'm glad these comments have helped you too :-)

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  25. This was great! I learned so much - great comments! My WIP isn't ready for anyone else to see it, but when it is, now I know what to ask for, and expect. Thanks SO much.
    Tina @ Life is Good

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    1. I'm really glad I'm not the only one who didn't quite understand this stuff :-)

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  26. I feel like I could have written this myself as I feel the same way. It was great to read these comments, I learned a lot! But I still think I would suck at critiquing someone's work. I've always been an "if you can't say something nice don't say anything at all" kind of person, which I know is not at all helpful for a critique!

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    1. No, I think you have to point out the problems, but in a nice way... :-)

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  27. I am so glad that I'm not the only person who is routinely confused by that. I'm about to read through all the comments to see the answers. :)

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    1. I hope you'll pick up a lot of tips, I certainly have!

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  28. Wow, you have gotten a lot of great advice here. The only thing I can add is that beta readers generally like or don't like the story and characters. They may also find plot holes by letting you know where they get confused. CPs are much more in-depth. They've generally read lots of books/blogs about the technique of writing. They know what makes a good hook, if the character arc needs work, and if the world-building is up to snuff. They also point out over-used words, redundant parts (no need to re-state the same thing in five different ways!), and if the descriptions contain details from the five-senses. Some of them are grammar masters, too.

    If you want to be a good beta, just be honest and polite. If you want to be a good CP, read books/blogs about technique. Good luck! :-)

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    1. Brilliant, thanks Lexa - just when I thought all bases had been covered, you managed to find another level. I'm not sure I have the concentration to be a good CP!

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  29. I've never written a critique in my life so I can't help you. All I know is that since I started writing my own novels I read other people's books differently, and I am sorry to say, am much harder to please!

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    1. Yep, that's the first step to full-on critiquing :-)

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  30. Hahaha! I'm an English teacher and it is often painful to read first drafts of papers. I ask a lot of questions and mention where I am confused or want to know more. It's just feedback from the reader's perspective. :) Happy reading and writing!

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    1. Thanks Tara. You must be very well practised at critiquing.

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  31. I've taken editing courses which have no doubt helped, but I think just doing it is how to get better! I never knew the difference between CP and Beta Reader either--some good answers here though to distinguish them!

    Allison (Geek Banter)

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    1. The answers have been awesome. I bet the editing course was really interesting and useful. I like being a grammar rebel though :-)

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  32. The comments preceding have done a good job of explaining the differences and all I can add is that I've done both and I'm much better at being a CP when the manuscript is in my genre and I'm interested in the premise. I cannot maintain that level of attention for work that I'm not really into...but that's not what a Beta does so I'm fine providing over-arching analysis. :)

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    1. Yes, apparently - after reading all these comments - I'd be a great Beta reader :-)

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  33. Hi Annalisa,

    I didn't even know what a CP and a beta reader were. This might surprise you, but a number of authors have sent me manuscripts to critique. Usually though, it's more in relation to their errors in actual location places etc. I was working with somebody who was writing a book about England and I pointed out that an English person would most likely say, "mobile phone", as opposed to, "cell phone". And "torch" instead of, "flashlight".

    Cheers, Annalisa.

    Gary

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    1. There's such a difference in the words we use - important differences if you want to be accurate.

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  34. I don't normally read the comments on a post, but I needed to with this one and I'm glad I did. I learnt something new today. Thanks Annalisa!

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  35. Finally, someone who gets where I'm coming from...it's tough to read and critique people you know! Nice post, Annalisa:)

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Please comment - I love a good chat!