Hey there guys, I am doing this blog post for two reasons. The first is to provide a way for new people in my writing group to see how ours will work, and the second is to give all of you some ideas for your own. If you are a beta or alpha reader this post might be a useful way to figure out what to look for in the manuscript that you are reading.
1. If your work is being critiqued, do not defend yourself. This is the absolute most important rule of them all. Writing groups exist to help a writer become better, not as a way to earn new fans. If a reader has something negative to say about your work your only response should be some variation of, “Thank you for your feedback,” unless you do not understand what they did not like. At that point, you are asking for clarification not trying to give them a justification.
As the author of a piece, you have complete control over the content. If you do not agree with that guy/gal’s opinion then you do not have to follow his or her advice. A reader is entitled to their opinion, so if they think a character is two-dimensional it will help the author more to figure out why they think that, rather than argue that their writing is awesome.
2. Give descriptions, not prescriptions in regards to feedback. When you are giving feedback, you need to realize that you are not the writer. Even if you are a fantastic writer, this is not your work. You should not tell the author what you would do, because they may not have the same style as you. A reader can describe symptoms of a bad novel, but only the author (or the editor) of that novel is qualified to fix those problems.
It will help more to point out areas that you found were boring, unbelievable, or confusing and tell the author why you thought this way. Once the author knows about their problem areas, then they can figure out how to fix it while keeping it within their own style. That guy/gal might an awesome writer, but that does not mean everyone else’s writing needs to be exactly like his in order to be good.
3. Read it, don’t Edit it. When you first pick up a manuscript, you should not be reading it with the intention of finding every little thing wrong with it. Most work that is in the workshop phase is not going to be perfect. It is much more important to figure out problems with pacing, characterization, and plot in the earlier stages in the revision process than to check for typos, grammar, or fine tuning sentences. Most people are not copyeditors so don’t try to act like one unless that is the specific goal of the revision in question.
The first read should be approached like a reader, not someone who is critiquing. If you find areas that are not working, mark them and move on. Once you have finished the piece and have a feel for the story, write some notes regarding the big stuff, then go back to the areas you flagged and try to figure out why you didn’t get it the first time.
4. Be Courteous to both the Reader and Writer. Feedback is the meat that makes a writer stronger. Feedback shouldn’t be so hard that the writer chokes while swallowing it. Great advice can be lost when it has bad delivery. Maybe some writing actually does stink worse than a steaming pile of crap, but it probably won’t help that much to point it out. Criticism should not be all sunshine and rainbows either. In fact, it will do more damage to pretend nothing is wrong than to be extra harsh. It is always better to get some bad feedback than bad reviews.
Alpha and Beta Readers are often giving feedback for free, or maybe for a trade of services. Either way, they are not getting paid to do it. You should be lenient on deadlines, but if it is obvious that they are not getting around to your piece then you may want to look for someone else. If you are reader, then help out your author and at the bare minimum give them an update every now and then.
5. Don’t skim and act like you read it. I started off writing, “don’t skim when doing an alpha or beta read,” but I changed my mind. It is fine if you skim some areas of the manuscript, but you definitely need to mark the areas you skipped over. When you are talking about the work at the end, it is not fair to say that anything was confusing, because you might have missed the important explanation during the section that you didn’t actually read.
Skimming is a great indication of a boring part of the story, but if that guy/gal acted like they read the whole thing and then said they didn’t understand something, they are hurting the writer more than if they said everything was great. The actual problem was that certain sections were not interesting, but the feedback that guy/gal gave the writer was that they needed to have better clarification. Rather than cutting the boring parts, the writer will add in details to try to make the, “confusing,” part crystal clear. In reality, they added to the problem by creating more boring content.
6. Keep your political/religious/etc. beliefs to yourself. If you are reading a story that is focused on Christian beliefs, but you are atheist, it is not fair to destroy their writing because you do not see the world through the same lens. It takes skill to evaluate prose from an objective viewpoint, so no matter what happens there will always be bias. If you find yourself bashing aspects of the story that in no way relate to plot, character, or setting then you need to politely tell the writer that you no longer wish to give feedback.
I absolutely hate the book Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, not because it is poorly written, but because it is beautifully written. His characters struck a nerve with me that made me upset enough that I had to force myself to finish it. I disagreed with the content of his book, but his writing was incredible.
I am sure that there are plenty of other rules that should be in here, but as for right now, I’m drawing a blank. I hope everyone is having a wonderful time and I look forward to talking to you guys in the comments.