Seeking feedback: the importance of critique partners

(Original photo from wiki commons.)

Writer’s toolbox: an artist’s impression. (Original photo from wiki commons.)

Stephen King—who is pretty much the god of writing as far as I’m concerned—said writers should write with the door closed, and edit with the door open. In other words, once you’ve done your first draft, you need to let a few people, people you trust to be honest without being cruel, read it and give you some feedback. These crit partners are often referred to as “beta readers”.

The way you might choose to approach getting that feedback, though, is up to you. There are two basic approaches.

The perfectionist writer lets the drafted manuscript percolate for a month or so, then re-reads it and does a first-round edit on it before letting anyone else lay eyes on it.

Pros: This is a great approach if you want to make sure that your beta readers aren’t going to be distracted by random typos or plot holes you could drive a semitrailer through.

Cons: It’s possible to get stuck in a cycle of editing and re-editing—possibly induced by fear, the mother of procrastination—and never actually let go of your baby enough to give it to someone else.

The sharer is a writer who completes their first draft and then sends it straight out to all their beta readers.

Pros: You can get an idea of where the weaknesses are early, so when you do your first edit you can fix them straight away, rather than tinkering around the edges, working on things that may have bigger problems—the writing equivalent of putting a coat of paint on a car whose engine doesn’t work.

Cons: There will be problems with the first draft—and many of them will be problems you could have fixed if you’d taken the time. That means your beta readers will have a lot more to criticise, which can be a blow to the ego—potentially a fatal one if you’re a new writer struggling with self-doubt.

Both of these approaches work for people, and both have things to offer. But I have writing friends who actually use a middle ground approach, by using an alpha reader.

The alpha reader is the one person you trust to give you the feedback on your raw work. They see it before you edit, and help you shape the direction of your work, but without stomping your heart into the floor. A lot of people use their significant others for this. I know of some that actually give their chapters to their alpha reader as they are completed, before the entire work is finished. This has the benefit of egging them on to write, but you’d want to choose your alpha reader even more carefully in this case, to make sure you don’t get sucked into doing revisions when you should be drafting in the first place.

My boyfriend is my alpha reader. I wouldn’t show him, or anyone, an incomplete manuscript—I’ve feel like I’ve only just become brave enough to share it with others in the first place!—but I do brainstorm with him when I come up against a difficulty in the plot.

For example, I realised recently that my current work in progress was going to run short if I continued to follow my outline. It’s an adult (or possibly new adult) manuscript, and it was looking like tapering out at about 50k words—around 30k shorter than I was aiming for. I explained where the story was up to and what the antagonist’s resources and plans were, and he came up with a few suggestions for things the antagonist could do to throw spanners in the works—even more spanners than I already had. A whole toolbox of spanners.

It helps that my boyfriend is an evil genius, of course.

What is your approach to getting feedback on your writing? Do you fall into any of the camps I’ve described, or is your approach different again? I’d love to hear from you!