What Makes a Good Critique Buddy?

Finding good beta readers and/or critique buddies is such a difficult thing, honestly. You will also probably get ten different writers saying ten different things about what they want from someone playing this role.
My own opinion on this subject has changed a lot over the years. I was in writing groups for probably the first fifteen years I wrote fiction, and for the most part, that meant giving my books over to other inexperienced writers and having them rip them to shreds based on grammar, plot, character, flow, and so on. I would then lick my wounds, take their feedback home and try to incorporate EVERY LAST ONE of their suggestions into my next draft of the book… even when those suggestions seemed to contradict or cancel one another out (which they often did). Then, the very next week, I would bring that same segment of novel back to the group, and get their feedback on whether they thought I’d ‘fixed’ whatever they had deemed wrong with it.
Sound familiar, writers? This approach is called ‘work-shopping’ and it is considered the norm for getting feedback on your work.
What was the problem with this approach? Well, several things. First of all, not a single one of us knew what the heck we were doing. Worse, we didn’t even know enough yet to know how completely clueless we were. All of us were absolutely certain that we knew exactly what a particular writer needed to do to improve their work. Most of the time, we were expressing our subjective taste, without having a clue that it was subjective, and that, even if it wasn’t and the book had serious structural flaws, we didn’t have a friggin’ clue how to bring that writer or that book to their full potential.
Essentially, we were quoting our high school English teachers and our spotty recollections of college ‘literature’ classes as if that would actually help to make us better writers. We had learned that ‘critiquing’ meant to bludgeon other writers into believing that their stuff needed to look a certain way to be considered ‘good.’ The problem is, most of what we thought we knew was flat-out wrong.
Truthfully, I still don’t have a clue. The difference is, I kind of know that now.
So now, what do I look for in beta readers?
Honestly, I look for readers now, not writers. Some of those readers happen to be writers as well, but we don’t approach one other’s work with the intent of ‘work-shopping’ anymore. Generally, I look for people who read in the genre I write in, and read voraciously. I avoid people who just don’t like my voice for whatever reason, because frankly, they can’t really help me, either, since they won’t really connect with what I’m doing.
That being said, having some variety in beta readers is a huge bonus. Right now, for example, for my Allie’s War series, I have four beta readers. One is super into the plot and loves the world-building but is somewhat ‘meh’ about the love story. I have a second reader who is totally into Revik and Allie’s love story and super attentive to how that unfolds and a third who is way more into the homosexual love story. The fourth reader is into the more fast-paced, adventure aspect of the books, and mostly wants the overall series arc to progress, although she likes the love stories, too, and the sex scenes are important to her.
Only two of the four are writers, the other two just read a ridiculous number of books, and like the genre in which I write.

Do they contradict one another? Heck yes. Do they sometimes love and hate totally different aspects of the books? Definitely. But where they agree and disagree is part of their usefulness to me as beta readers. I think if they all only liked the same exact kinds of books, I wouldn’t be able to see the subjectivity of taste so clearly. On the other hand, if they were overtly hostile to what I’m trying to do, they couldn’t help me, either.

The bottom line is, they read the story as readers, not writers. They read to see if something I do pops them out of the story. They read to make sure ‘the gun is in the drawer’ so to speak, when the character reaches in to grab it and shoot the villain later. They also tell me if they got bored in the first third of the book because the pacing was too slow, or because I didn’t realize I’d repeated the same information in three different ways in three different chapters in my attempt to get it right. They also get annoyed like any other reader if the character does something that feels ‘off’ or unbelievable…or if a scene is just confusing or feels like it’s in the wrong place.
At this point in my development as a writer, that’s exactly what I need, too.
Is that to say that writing groups aren’t helpful for a lot of writers? Heck no. At a certain point, however, I really believe you have to start trusting your own voice, and that’s where work-shopping can become extremely damaging to a writer, if taken too far or indulged in for too long. It’s a nice fantasy to think we can make our work ‘perfect’ if we just pick at it for long enough, but unfortunately, usually all we do is eat our own young.
But what do other writers and readers think? If you are a writer, do you use critique groups or beta readers? What qualities do you look for?
JC Andrijeski
JC Andrijeski has published novels, novellas, serials, graphic novels and short stories, including the Allie's War series, The Slave Girl Chronicles series, and the bestselling novella, The Alien Club. Her short fiction runs the gamut from humorous to apocalyptic, and her nonfiction articles cover subjects from graffiti art, meditation, psychology, journalism, politics and history. Her short works have been published in numerous anthologies, online literary, art and fiction magazines as well as print venues such as NY Press newspaper and holistic health magazines. JC has traveled extensively and lived abroad, including two years spent at the foot of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, India, a location she drew on a fair bit in writing the Allie's War books. She's also lived or spent considerable time in Poland, Prague, Australia, London, Vancouver BC, New York City, Los Angeles, Portland (OR), Albuquerque, Seattle, Eureka (CA) and DeLand, Florida. JC currently lives and works in San Francisco. Please visit JC's blog at jcandrijeski.blogspot.com

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  1. Great ideas! I currently belong to an online critique group, and it's been very helpful, but I think I'm at the point where I need reader's comments more than writer's. I hadn't thought of it that way before now. Thanks!


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