Leveling Up Together: Critique Partners and Beta Readers
By Sarah Burnard and Maggie North
One of the more enduring pieces of advice in the writing world is: Find Your People. Great advice, but sometimes it feels like everyone has already Been Found, and they’re not looking for more writing partnerships. A lot of us have struggled, or are struggling, to find the CPs and beta readers we’ve been told we need, for writing craft, cheerleading, support, and life-giving gifs in your DMs. So we wrote this guide to demystify the process of Finding Your People! You’re still going to have to put yourself out there (ugh), but we hope these suggestions help you in your search. We’ll cover the different types of critiquing relationships, finding critique partners, giving and getting feedback, maintaining your critiquing relationships, and even ending them in the case they’re not working.
What’s the difference between CPs, betas, and alphas?
Critiquing relationships can land anywhere on a spectrum from highly involved writing bestie to casual one-time reader. But in general, there are three types:
Critique Partners: A good CP is priceless, especially when you’re starting out. They may read your book before or after you finish, early drafts or polished ones, in chunks or all at once – whatever you agree on. You might brainstorm plot issues with them or send them a messy chapter that you just can’t untangle. The relationship is often closer and more long-lived than other types.
Betas: They most likely read your whole book when it's close to a final draft and provide overall feedback. Betas might come and go, and probably won’t be as involved as critique partners. You may want several beta readers, so you can flag issues that crop up in more than one review.
Alpha readers: More involved than a beta, less than a CP; they often read a very early draft. Sometimes alpha readers are trusted friends, whereas betas are usually other writers or readers who know the genre well.
Do I have to find a CP/beta?
No! Some writers do well without them. But if you find yourself stuck, unable to level up, and continually getting the same sort of feedback from agents and/or editors, then you may want to consider finding someone.
Getting ready to search for CPs and Betas:
First, take time to reflect on your feedback needs. Even if you’re new to the game, do your best to analyze the weaknesses in your writing – this is a skill you’ll need time and again. Do you need help with pacing? Characters? Be honest with yourself about what kind of feedback you can take, too – some people take pride in asking for unvarnished criticism, but there’s no shame in needing a gentler approach. Just like any relationship, you need to know what you want going in.
Likewise, think about what you can offer in return. Are you a GMC whiz? A line edit champ? Do you believe compliment sandwiches are the only way to go? Keep in mind any content warnings for your work, and what topics are no-go’s for you.
It’s tempting to look for CPs and betas who are further along in their writing journey than you are. After all, why not learn from people who’ve already been there? We don’t recommend this, for two reasons:
A huge mismatch in writing/critiquing experience is unlikely to make for a good mutual relationship with healthy power dynamics; and
Mentoring relationships – i.e. experienced writers matching with newer ones for a defined, largely one-way critiquing experience – are a whole different game and should be treated as such.
Our advice: look for people at your own level (from brand new, to getting ready to query, to published author and beyond), whose strengths complement your weaknesses.
How to find the CP/beta of your dreams?
ask writing friends if they can recommend anyone
FridayKiss has a spreadsheet where you can connect with others looking for CPs/betas!
Twitter offers lots of opportunities to connect. Look for specific hashtags/events (like #CPMatch), or get to know people through pitching parties, mentorship contests like KissPitch or RevPit (great for finding community whether or not you are selected!), or mass writing events like NaNoWriMo or CampNaNo. Or you could do things the old-fashioned way and offer to beta read manuscripts that sound good, or chat up people whose circles you move in. If there’s interest, ask about swapping. Finding a strong match might take a few tries, but there are lots of writers out there.
Test drive the relationship first! Swap a couple of chapters to see whether you fit. When the two of us met through the Friday Kiss spreadsheet, we exchanged some chapters, loved each other’s writing styles, and ALSO saw places we could suggest improvements - a perfect fit!
Okay, I’ve arranged a swap with a CP/Beta, now what?
DO THE WORK. CP-ing and beta reading are a fantastic way to level up your own writing game, especially when it comes to structure. Learning to spot where things go wrong and how things go right will help you.
Make sure you’re on the same page with the type of feedback you’re expecting (edit letter? In-line comments? Both?) and how you like that feedback, from kitteny-soft to flamethrower. Someone asking for a positivity pass doesn’t want to open a 7-page edit letter! On the flip side, someone who knows their rough draft needs help wants more than gushing comments in the margins.
Agree on a date to swap feedback; if you’re behind schedule, let them know when to expect your comments.
Tell them you’re open to hearing whether you’ve unintentionally written something problematic, if they’re comfortable giving you that kind of feedback.
Put together a list of content considerations for your work, and let potential betas know up front. Tell readers they don’t have to finish your book if it’s not for them!
And unless people have spontaneously offered their expertise to you specifically, don’t seek out beta readers with the goal of getting feedback from a BIPOC, LGBTQ2+, disabled, or otherwise marginalized person. Pay a professional sensitivity reader to do that work.
That said, if you find yourself facing an 85k manuscript that is problematic or toxic (or just has content that you personally need to avoid), you don’t need to traumatize yourself. Tell the person you can’t provide feedback (if you want, tell them why). Don’t expect them to give you feedback – end the relationship and move on.
What should I look for when I’m beta reading or critiquing?
It’s possible you’ll be asked to look out for certain things, but in general, watch out for:
The Opening (Does it begin with a strong hook, does it begin in the right place, is there too much infodumping, etc)
Characters (Can the reader invest in them emotionally, is there a clear lesson they need to learn, does dialogue sound true, is the GMC clear, are POV transitions smooth, are the arcs neatly tied up at the end, etc)
Plot (Any scenes that don’t move the story forward, anything unclear or inconsistent, pacing/beats, is plot driven by the character arcs and vice versa, etc)
Mechanics (Show vs Tell, scenes and sequels, grammar, spelling, filler/filter words, use of white space, passive voice, too many dialogue tags, too many adverbs, etc)
How to give good feedback?
Our definition of good feedback is:
Comes from a trustworthy source (eg. someone who knows and enjoys romance, and wants to promote your growth as a writer)
Criticizes the writing, not the writer
Reinforces key points done well
Identifies key points to do better
Uses concrete examples
Explores actionable solutions, wherever possible
Invites discussion, allows reflection
It can be tempting to unleash your editing genius on an unsuspecting new beta! But our recommended best practice is: Give the feedback you are asked to give, in the manner you are asked to give it, within the agreed-upon time frame.
Remember: This is THEIR story, not yours. You can point out areas that need work, and offer suggestions, but don’t tell someone they HAVE to do something a certain way.
Don’t assume what someone wants to learn, why someone is struggling, or whether someone wants feedback they didn’t ask for.
Be kind. Tell them what you love about their story, too.
Turn on those track changes, especially if you’re making in-line suggestions. This is especially good if you’re dealing with punctuation/formatting stuff. In Google Docs, look for the pencil icon at the far right side of the toolbar - click it to change your permissions from “Editing” to “Suggesting” and you’re good to go.
The edit letter: some people prefer putting all their feedback into a single document, especially if they use a Kindle/e-reader. An email talking about what worked and what didn’t, with specific examples pulled from the manuscript, will suffice. Try organizing it with headings to make it easy to digest, maybe big issues to small. And don’t forget the positives!
In-margin comments: Definitely do these for CP-ing, but save them for line-level issues (or swooning!). If you’re noticing big picture stuff, or repetitive stuff, instead of flagging it each and every time, point out one or two instances and let the writer know to watch for this throughout the manuscript (in an edit letter–it will save you time and keep them from wanting to strangle you when you point out paragraph after paragraph of tell where it should be show).
How to accept feedback?
Feedback is HARD. Even if we know in our heads that no book is perfect, in our hearts, a lot of us secretly hope that all our beta feedback reads “10/10, no notes, enjoy your 7-figure deal!!!” A couple of suggestions to help you make the most of your reader feedback:
Read; take time off from the project to digest; reread a couple of days later. Getting feedback is emotional, and you want to make sure your first burst of panic has time to settle before you get into your MS with the electric hedge clippers. Good quality feedback always, always looks less scary two days later. We promise.
Don’t argue with the reader, at least not within the first 24 to 48 hours when you’re in your feels about it. But if you need to ask for clarification, go for it.
You don’t have to accept all feedback that comes your way, but try to understand why the beta/CP made the comments they did. If more than one person flags the same thing, it’s likely you need to make changes.
At the end of the day, it’s your project. The other person has done all they can; it is now up to you to decide what to do with that feedback.
IF the feedback is careless, inaccurate, problematic or exceptionally harsh, just do yourself a favor and end the relationship. Only take feedback from people who demonstrably have the best interests of you and your MS in mind.
Care and Feeding of Critiquing Relationships
Every once in a while, take stock of your long-term CP and beta relationships. Is everyone – including you! – giving them what they need to survive and thrive?
Are you and your partners able to provide necessary feedback and support the other person’s needs as their writing skill grows/changes? This probably won’t be the type of feedback you needed at first! Both of you may need to actively work on leveling up your critiquing skill, in the same way you’re striving to level up your writing skill.
Does the relationship feel mutually satisfying (lol, you all knew we couldn’t resist slipping some innuendo in there), or does it feel unbalanced in terms of enthusiasm, expectations, and/or work?
Do you feel comfortable asking the other person to change the type of feedback they give? If yes, are they able to flex to meet your needs, and vice versa?
Your writing careers will almost certainly progress at different rates. Someone will get an agent/book deal first; someone’s deal will be bigger; someone will go indie; sometimes the slower one will suddenly leapfrog way ahead! Are you able to manage the feelings of professional jealousy, competition, and survivor’s guilt that can happen between CPs, and keep your eyes on your own paper?
It’s normal for CP and beta relationships to go through times of (sometimes uncomfortable) readjustment and change! It means you’re both leveling up as you intended, and your relationship needs to level up with you.
The day may come when you and your CP/long-term beta reader simply aren’t compatible anymore. Maybe you’ve learned all you can from each other; maybe the relationship has soured; perhaps someone is no longer able to put in the time and effort. It’s okay. Be honest and up-front if you can, and know that it’s okay to end it with someone and seek out fresh perspectives. Some of your CPs may end up being amazing writing friends long after you stop swapping work - the key is moving on as respectfully as possible once you know for sure the relationship isn’t working for you.
We hope this guide has helped you in your quest to find your CP besties! Drop a comment or question, and the two of us will answer as best we can.