Two women looking at a computer.
Photo by CoWomen

You’ve found a critical reader or a story to read! How can you ensure that working with the reader or the writer is a positive, productive experience? I’d like to say the hard part is finding each other and from now on it will all be sunshine and rainbows, but I’ve heard stories of critical reader feedback such as, “This is wrong” or “That was poorly done” and even “You’re such a bad writer.” Or maybe you agreed to read a novel, you get it and… it’s not your cup of tea, or so raw that just re-reading to figure out what’s happening will take more time than you want to give it. To help you create effective partnerships (and pull out of ineffective or negative ones), here’s 6 critical reader tips for positive partnerships, and 6 tips for productive partnerships.

6 Tips for Positive Partnerships

1. Ensure feedback is given with the aim of improving the quality of the writing

Ideally, feedback will indicate where the writing can be clearer, easier to follow and a more engaging read. It will spell out when the reader gets confused, when they start to lose interest, what they want more of and what they really enjoy. It won’t be, “This is wrong/ rubbish/ you should never…” Aside from being negative, all that really says is, “I think something here doesn’t work.” That’s of limited help. Whereas feedback like, “This scene was a bit slow for me,” suggests the problem and a solution -editing to accelerate pace and keep the reader engaged.

General positive statements can also help with editing. Its easy to lose sight of whether your writing is any good when you edit, so as a reader, commenting on things you find effective, entertaining or which really impact on you can help writers identify what’s working –and to not lose sight of and accidentally edit it out.

2. Ensure Feedback accounts for the reader’s personal bias.

If you want to make a suggestion but can’t cite an objective reason, its good to let the writer know, “This might just be my preference but…. ” Objective statements like “This should…” can make the writer feel that ‘everyone’ sees it that way and they ‘must’ change something, when reading can be very subjective and it may only be some readers who find it that way.

3. Feedback Is Honest.

Holding back to ‘spare the writer’s feelings’ does not improve the quality of the writing. Yes, feedback can be painful, especially if the writer in question sees every observation or suggestion as something they ‘did wrong’, as opposed to something they ‘can do more effectively.’ But the writer is asking for feedback because they believe comments about how a reader sees their story can help them tell their story more effectively, so denying them feedback isn’t helpful. If you’re inclined to hold back because of prior experience with giving a writer feedback, no. 4 might be the problem.

4. The Writer Must Be Receptive to Feedback.

No, I don’t mean ‘the writer has to edit everything the critical reader says.’ A critical reader may love that character and want to know more about their backstory, or for the book to delve deeper into theme x. They may suggest the writer do so and the writer may disregard that feedback, because it doesn’t fit with what they’re trying to do with their story.

I’m talking about writers who are consistently defensive or argumentative in the face of feedback. Writers who seem unwilling to receive constructive feedback, let alone act upon it. I’m also talking about writers I’ve seen tweets about, who appear to think a critical reader’s job is to shower them with praise, not to indicate that they have work to do. If either description matches the writer you’re reading for -your time may be wasted on them.

Writers, I’m not saying you can’t wince or flinch when you get feedback, especially on your first book (and you’re more likely to do so if you see suggestions as ‘I did something wrong,’ as opposed to, ‘here’s a potential opportunity to make my writing more effective for readers’). Nor am I saying the reader won’t make occasional comments about your story that are incorrect. What I’m saying is if your standard reaction to feedback is to defend yourself -you’re not being attacked, the reader is trying to help you improve your writing- or to argue -yes, a reader may make mistakes, but arguing with most things they say is essentially sticking your fingers in your ears- then you need to step back, and figure out why you respond this way to constructive criticism before seeking more of it.

Is Feedback Positively Phrased?

Is it “This is poorly done” and “Why are you doing that?” Or is it, “This word is repeated 5 times in 2 lines”? Or “I’m not convinced by the character doing x because y”. There is a line between being honest and direct and being arrogant, talking down to people or constantly telling them they’re doing it wrong. It can be hard to spot, and different people may perceive it as lying at different points. But if you’re finding feedback stressful, if it’s eroding your confidence or negatively impacting on your wellbeing or writing, it may be that you need to part with your critical reader because their feedback is too negative. (It may also be that you’re not in the right frame of mind to work with critical readers at that point, because life is negatively impacting how you respond to constructive, as opposed to negative feedback -especially during covid times.)

If you still find negative feedback helpful, bear in mind that constant negativity can wear anyone out -so try to phrase your feedback in terms of how the writing impacted on you as a reader- not ‘objectively’ judging what’s ‘wrong’ with the writing.

6. Does Feedback speak to the writer or reader as an equal, or lecture them?

Have you ever asked someone a question about a particular topic, and they assume you know nothing and start explaining everything about it? Don’t be the writer who assumes the reader has completely misunderstood your character and begins explaining things the reader’s other comments tell you they already know. Don’t be the writer who spots a potential gap in your critique partner’s craft and starts lecturing them in crafting that aspect 101, when -as is likely- you’ve just found one of their many author bias blindspots, or they thought that was a problem but they didn’t realise how big a problem it was.

If you aren’t sure what was unclear to the reader, ask a clarifying question. Eg. “Were you unsure how Barry’s relationship with Fred impacted on Barry’s decision, or why Barry made the choice he made or about something else?” Don’t lecture your critique partner about pacing, just say, “I’m wanting the story to move on now.” Or, “I think you could cut this paragraph without the story losing anything.” Starting a conversation with a reader or writer this way gives them a chance to respond and show you what they know or what they’re thinking, as well as being clear and effective communication. (As a primary school teacher by trade, I’m very conscious of this, because its how I make a living.)

6 Tips for Productive Partnerships

Man and woman high fiving over laptop.
Photo by krakenimages

1. Only agree to read (or swap) the first 1-3 chapters initially.

As a Reader You may find that the book isn’t your cup of tea. That you don’t want to read the whole thing. Or perhaps you find it interesting, but so much isn’t working for you, and or commenting on this novel would be a bigger time commitment than you’re prepared to make.

As a Writer You may find critical reader feedback unhelpful. If you’ve asked the reader to comment on character and plot development and how they find the overall story, and they mostly comment on your punctuation, I’d be saying, “Sorry, I don’t think we’re well-matched.” If this happens, here’s some places to find more critical readers.

2. Talk about how much you can read/ edit and over what time period upfront.

How many chapters are you aiming to read a day/ week/ fortnight? Don’t assume you have a similar balance of day job, family life, reading/ writing etc as your reader/ critique partner. Some of my initial CPs finished editing their whole books with other CPs while we were only up to commenting on each other’s chapter 6-9. Knowing what your goal is helps you have realistic expectations about what to expect from each other, and when.

3. Tell the reader what you’d like them to focus on, or tell the writer what you’re likely to notice and comment on.

As a Reader: the writer may be grateful for any and all feedback, but they may also want feedback on particular things. If, for example, you’re passionate about world building and the writer is desperate for feedback on their characters -you may identify from the outset that you’re not the right match. Or (as is probably more likely) -knowing that world building is your thing- the writer may also seek another beta reader who’s passionate about characters.

As a Writer: if you don’t ask your critical readers to comment on anything in particular, they may not happen to comment on things your editing focused on, leaving you no idea whether those edits did enough to support or engage the reader. You may also find that your critical reader comments only on what they like, or don’t like, or -if they’re also a writer- on aspects of craft which happen to be their personal strengths. This can leave you without an overall impression of how readers see your character, plot or tone and can mean missed editing opportunities. Yes, these impressions are subjective, but I recently noticed that one of my battle scenes may be far darker than I intended for a YA Fantasy, and that kind of overall impression is useful for a writer to know.

For ideas on what to ask your critical readers to look for, see my Act 1 Critical Reader Checklist.

4. Critique Partners: Allow for Stylistic Differences

I was conscious of this from the first as a critique partner, because one of the writers I was reading for favoured longer phrasing and descriptive writing, while my style is more concise. I had to think carefully about whether his style was slowing the pace and losing story tension at a chapter level, or whether I was getting hung up on his sentences because I didn’t like their style. As a CP -style isn’t your concern- but things like losing interest because of drawn out sentences slowing the pace is. So if your CP’s writing style is different -respect it- and try to only comment on it when it poses problems for you as a reader.

5. When you’ve Given/ Received Feedback 

As a reader if you’ve given feedback, eg. you can’t visualise the scene, and you see from the writer’s reply, revised chapters or Google docs that the writer has ignored that feedback, I suggest just commenting on what they are editing at that time, as they may only focus on certain things during each edit. However, if the writer appears to be editing hardly anything -again you may have a writer unwilling to take on feedback, best parted with.

As a Writer Don’t hesitate to ask the reader if they could comment a bit less or a bit more about certain things. I have a tendency to get hung up on sentence structure, but some of my CPs have been more interested in my thoughts and feelings on characters and how engaged I am in the story. So if you want less feedback of one kind or more of another: ask for it. 

If you get feedback you think is helpful, but you’d like to know more -ask a follow up question. When I interviewed Halla Williams recently, she said that when she got feedback on her query letter, “I really interrogated it.” She asked follow up questions based on reader comments, then revised certain things and asked if people could take another look. As one of her critical readers, I saw how much her drafts developed and how much stronger her query letter became from one revision to the next, which asking follow up questions clearly helped with.

6. Be Flexible

Even if a critical reader wants to read the whole book, or both critique partners are invested in commenting on each other’s books till the end, life happens. Circumstances can differ and vary across time. During my country’s second lock down, I had a few restless days where I wanted to escape and I smashed through half my CP’s novel. Then I reached a point where I was so emotionally drained and exhausted that I couldn’t write comments which made sense, and I had to stop reading for her for 3 months. During covid times more than ever, I’d see timeframes you agree on as aspirational.

As a writer, you can have critical readers or CPs pull out for one reason or other at any time. During covid times, this is more likely. So don’t rely on one or two critical readers. Have at least three and ideally more. If someone can only comment on your first 3 chapters when you’d really like feedback on the entire book -take them up on the offer for three. It all helps.