Critique Group or Beta Readers?

With all the self-publishing going on right now, and the consequent tutting about “floods of unedited crap” being inflicted on potential readers, we writers are obligated to expose our creations to eyes and minds other than our own before turning them loose.

For years, I have relied on a critique group of three or four other writers. We meet monthly to comment on 10,000 word sections from our novels. It works fairly well, but not perfectly.

The main problem is the gap of several weeks between meetings. Granted, we read each piece quite closely, on the alert for details that few casual readers would notice (unless their effect is such that the reader finds the book confusing, which is why we agonize over them), but in the weeks between reading sessions, continuity is broken. In meetings, we critiquers often take each other to task for inexplicable and confusing references to incidents and characters that appeared earlier in the novel. Invariably, we suggest recaps or explanatory hints that would not be needed for someone who sits down and reads the whole book over the period of a month, instead of 10,000 words (about 30 pages). Discussing these situations can be a waste of time and (in my case) a source of annoyance, as I have a tendency to argue. (Yes, but it wouldn’t be confusing if you were a normal reader… blah, blah, blah). Even without these diversions, working through a novel of 100,000 words takes many months.

Another problem with critique groups is that, inevitably, their membership changes. People leave. Other people join. The optimal size for such a group, in my opinion, is four people. That number produces a variety of opinions without burdening each member with too much reading every month. But incorporating a new member can be tricky. Suppose the rest of the group is 3/4 of the way through someone’s novel. The new member comes in without the context provided by having read the first 75%, which necessarily colours their comments. It’s too much to expect that they take the time to read the opus from the beginning, so aids such as detailed synopses and timelines may be necessary. Although helpful, these are no substitute for the atmosphere and nuances acquired by reading the entire work.

Critique groups are at their best when dealing with short stories or possibly discrete parts of longer works. A single scene, for example, may be presented for critique of specific details. Is the dialogue realistic? Does the scene convey a feeling of horror? Does this work better in present or past tense? That sort of thing. For novels, beta readers may be a better option.

Beta readers, for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who read an entire manuscript in “real time” and convey their impressions and suggestions to the writer. They should be people accustomed to reading, but not friends or family members of the writer. Members of writers’ societies, or for that matter, of critique groups, may be ideal beta readers. At least three readers would be optimal; any comments made by all three would definitely be worth following up on.

The main problem with beta readers is finding them. People are busy, busy, busy. Here young writers may be at an advantage. By middle age, everyone is locked into ironbound schedules. A manuscript swap — you read mine and I’ll read yours — can work, but if you want to swap with three different people, it’s an intense reading commitment. Or you do three swaps one after the other — which, like the critique group, can take months.

Good, Fast, Cheap.  Pick two. In writing, as in so many other things, this is the dismal truth.

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