The Big Nope
The first time I ever handed a manuscript to a total stranger for a critique, I received feedback that left me shaken. My critique partner said, “I don’t believe your inciting incident.” The inciting incident changes the trajectory of the story, sets the whole thing into motion and, according to him, it didn’t work. That meant my story didn’t work. That jarring, specific feedback knocked me off my feet. Friends, I was stressed. I had to take time to ponder what he said, got a little salty about it, reread the email a thousand times. I tried to explain it away to justify what I’d written. And I looked like this.
Because you know what? He was right.
I’d set up a scenario that completely violated my character and the world I’d so carefully curated around her. Changing the inciting incident made cascading effects throughout the entire manuscript that required meticulous rewrites. I had to think really hard about how I wanted to proceed. I took his advice and made the change.
Without his blunt observation, my writing would have gone on steadily unchanged. Was the original manuscript good writing? Sure, it wasn’t bad. Was it my best writing? Not even a little bit. As I shared my work with a more diverse group of readers, I became more critical of my writing style, my habits, and my pitfalls, and made adjustments. I leveled up in my abilities because I learned from my mistakes, mistakes I wouldn’t have noticed if someone hadn’t pointed them out to me.
Nobody Touches My Precious
I’ve seen some debate over on the Twitter machine about whether beta readers or critique partners are a necessary part of the writing process. For non-writers out there, beta readers and critique partners are the trusted few individuals authors pass their work to for reading and feedback prior to publication. There are many different ways to achieve this, and everyone has their preferences. I’ve seen some bold claims that no one needs to see your work at all, only your readers after it’s published.
I’m not an expert, and won’t claim to be, but it’s my belief that not letting anyone read your precious is doing a disservice to you and your readers. Everyone’s process is different, but this is a valuable and necessary part of it. Beta readers and CPs aren’t meant to make you feel inferior about your work or tear it apart. They make your writing better by showing you what they need.
I won’t knock anyone’s process, but it should be noted that it’s almost impossible to be objective about your own work. What’s in a writer’s head may not come across well on paper. In one of my manuscripts, all my beta readers assumed a character was middle aged, then were thrown when my twenty-something main character made out with her–all because I hadn’t described her well. Without their response, I wouldn’t have known that at all. I didn’t see that error because I couldn’t.
“But, K E,” some may reply, “I don’t use readers because of these reasons.” Reasons include:
- I’ve been burned by bad beta readers
- The feedback I’ve received is conflicting
- I don’t want anyone to critique me
- I don’t trust anyone with my precious
- My process is so sacred and special and unable to be grasped by the human mind that I don’t need eyes on my work
To that, I say:
- I’ve been burned too and it sucks. Find a handful of people you can trust and talk to openly. I have readers for different purposes. My CP has seen my shit drafts before anyone else and helps me develop my story and characters alongside me. My brutally honest Canadian counterpart gives it to me straight and forces me to take a critical look at my darlings. My eagle eyed typo catcher grabs missing words and texts them to me in real time. I’m a stronger writer because of them.
- Conflicting feedback can be tricky, especially if it’s all over the place. Art is subjective. Go with what works and what feels right. In the end, you are the authority over your project.
- Critiques are going to happen. Better for them to happen before publication than in the comments section of Goodreads. A reminder, this isn’t about you. It’s about your words and how you use them. (This is what they tell you when agents and publishers reject you, too. Hard to stomach, but true.)
- Not everyone will be compatible with you, your writing style, or your subject matter. Find someone who is. I’m not going to be a helpful resource for middle grade because I don’t read it. Even one pair of objective eyes can make all the difference.
- lol ok. Process doesn’t a successful story make.
Don’t Panic, Sweet Summer Child
There seems to be a negative connotation around having people read your work. I don’t really understand where that comes from, but my guess is a baseline of fear, pride, and ego. This is not comprehensive, but here are some of my favorite things about my readers:
- Receiving the positives! It’s terrifying to share your work, but people are generally kind. They highlight the things they like and that helps me know what’s working.
- I can better understand the emotional resonance of my prose. Does it hit them in the feels? Make them cry? Make them angry? When you read your own work a thousand times it starts to lose its impact and feel flat. Someone with fresh eyes hasn’t seen all your surprises and your twists.
- Being able to bounce ideas off someone when my plot doesn’t work. Brainstorming sessions have been a boon for my writing capabilities. Get you a guy/gal to dump on. Talking out loud does wonders for sticky places.
- Your beta readers/CPs become your greatest allies when you do decide to publish. They know your work, and you, and they’ll be out there cheering you on, giving reviews, and sharing your stuff.
- Getting real time feedback in the form of a DM or email or text. I love when my CP is screaming at me in all caps via DM over a scene. I also love in-text comments and look back on them often, especially when I’m feeling like crap about my writing.
- They tell me the places that drag or feel undercooked. They point out where I have awkward or confusing transitions. Pacing is hard to measure when you manage tens of thousands of words at once. Someone else can get a better feel for it.
- I appreciate when people tell me I’m wrong, especially about a sensitive subject. You have no idea what experiences people have that can help galvanize the realness and representation of your work. If you tackle something big or outside your experience, these people are critical to prevent stereotyping and bias.
- Those little, low risk rejections make the bigger rejections easier to cope with.
Fun Fact: No One Knows What They’re Doing, Everyone Does What Works
Look, I get it. It’s hard to hand something you’ve made to someone else and open yourself up to criticism. Taking feedback with grace is a skill that must be learned, and it’s not just from the art we make. It’s from our employers, our friends, our partners, our children. Because we’re emotionally invested in our work and ourselves, we want to be received well. We won’t always be. And that’s okay.
I’m not here to say “this is the only correct way to do things,” and never will. You do you. However, I often feel like people willing to die on a hill of process, as if theirs is superior to another’s, are so defensive about their position they can’t see the variation that makes the creative process unique and interesting. My advice is to try it out, make it relevant to you, and set your pride aside. You may be surprised by where it leads you.