SO WHAT IS A BETA CRITIQUE? IT IS NOT A ROMAN ARENA FOR A THUMBS UP OR THUMBS DOWN.
Agents or editors say to put your manuscript in the hands of a few beta readers, but unless your betas are NY Times best-selling novelists or creative writing professors, there’s a good chance you won’t get the type of feedback needed to boost your story into the hands of an agent. Even if some readers applaud you: “wow,” “it’s really, really good, “it’s riveting,” or “it’s magical.” Someone else will say, “It’s not really that bad.”
DO I LEARN ANYTHING BY CRITIQUING SOMEONE ELSE’S WORK? ANSWER: YES. IT IMPROVES YOUR ABILITY TO APPRECIATE ANY STORY AND GUIDES YOUR OWN WRITING.
HOW DO I PROCEED? GIVE THE WRITER THE GOOD NEWS FIRST: WHAT STOOD OUT, WHAT OR WHO YOU REALLY LIKED AND WHY. AND BE USEFUL/HELPFUL CONCERNING THE GLITCHES YOU NOTICED. TRY TO END ON A POSITIVE NOTE.
ADVICE TO THE WRITER: GROW A THICKER SKIN. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF—BUT NOT TO THE POINT YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE MANUSCRIPT TO MAKE IT BETTER.
Many critiques are done on the computer and that’s more work than scribbling on actual pages. I prefer pages anyway and download a story to critique it. Then I feed the details back into the online version. It’s a lot of work and it helps to read the manuscript twice. A quicker version is typing a page or two of critique by referring to the page number of the manuscript.
GENRE is an important aspect of a critique: make sure that, as a beta reader, you know the age group, male vs. female interest; and actual genre. Fantasy is the most inclusive of all. Google has lists apparently.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE BIG PICTURE AND ITS STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS: Issues to consider:
THEME: Do you recognize an overarching theme (say, revenge, romance, impending doom)? If not, mention that. It should run as a thread through the story.
PLOT/PLOT ARC: Does the story as a whole work? Is there a rising then falling arc? Are there strange gaps in the storyline? Is the action plausible in the context of genre? Is the story being told or is it unfolding through the characters and events?
CHAPTERS AND SCENES: Is there enough ACTION, versus a series of talking heads or a single stream-of-consciousness narrative? Or, is there too much action, and too little REFLECTION so we never quite know what a character is thinking?
CHARACTERS: Is the protagonist (main character) interesting—likable possibly but certainly capable of fascinating us for some reason or other? Do they change (in terms of traits or beliefs or social status) during the course of the story? Are there stereotypes or stick figures? Can some of the characters be deleted or combined with other characters? (The fewer the better.) Is the DIALOGUE sufficiently distinguishable among characters? Do you lose track of who is who? Is there too much give-away physical description (evil sneers) and too little in the way of creating character more subtly through gesture, voice, and language use? Is the villain or antagonist believable, a person (if it is a person) with their own plausible agenda?
SENSORY DETAIL: Do sensory details (the five senses + whatever fantasy/paranormal senses exist) help create a sense of setting, character, atmosphere, mood, tension, foreshadowing?
SETTING: Is there enough detail to give a taste of the physical layout of a scene? Is there too much detail in long-winded description or purple prose? Setting a character/event in its proper place must change frequently unless no one moves from the kitchen table. And action within that setting must be choreographed. Every significant actor must be in place and most likely will be moved somewhere else. Note: moving people is some of the most boring writing. Lots of it can be cut by scene changes.
- LINE EDITS. This means fixing or at least marking all the spots where the writing flunks out.
Spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation mishaps, poor sentence construction, odd word choice (make alternative suggestions), clichés, poor paragraph structure or development, the presence or absence of cliff-hanging chapter endings. And lots more. Don’t volunteer for this unless you’ve got the time and enjoy copy editing.
But if you didn’t sign up for line editing, it’s still helpful to the writer to have a heads up about major glitches, especially if they’re frequent.
THESE ARE A FEW POINTERS. NO DOUBT THEY’RE ALREADY CLEAR TO SOME READERS, AND SOME WRITERS EVIDENTLY DON’T SCREW UP AND THEREFORE DON’T REQUIRE BETA READS.
THAT’S NOT ME.