By Alex Shvartsman
Every writer has an opinion about critiques. Some avoid them altogether; they trust in their ability to self-edit and prefer a submissions editor to be the first person who sees their work. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I find the reactions from beta readers to be insightful, helpful, and almost addicting.
Price of Allegiance, my space opera tale in Penumbra’s July issue, benefited from several rounds of critiques. I rewrote it, changing elements of the story and fixing problems identified by my readers. Over the course of receiving feedback on this and other stories, I learned that getting the best mileage out of critiques is an important skill in itself.
A crucial thing to keep in mind when reviewing a critique is that fiction is subjective. If you let ten people read your story, you will likely end up with eleven different opinions on how to make it better. Don’t default to making changes because a particular reader was unhappy with some aspect of your story. Listen to what they have to say, but weigh it against others’ opinions and especially against your own. Striking a balance between willingness to accept advice from others and knowing when to trust your gut is a key element to getting the most from your beta readers.
In my case the most commonly ignored beta reader comments are the staples. Often well-intentioned readers will default to familiar warnings: Cut the adverbs! Avoid exposition! Only ever use “said” in dialog tags!
No great story has been told entirely without adverbs or exposition. Those elements are like salt: you need a little to cook the dish, but too much will ruin it. If you’ve advanced beyond the beginner stage as a writer then you already know this, and eliminating the few adverbs you chose to use isn’t overly helpful.
The most useful comments, on the other hand, are reactions to the plot and structure of the story. Does it work for the reader emotionally? Are the characters well fleshed out and sympathetic, or wooden and distant? Is the dialog lively and realistic?
As an author, you know more about the scene you’re writing than you will put down in words. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the reader knows what you do, but often that’s not the case. Beta readers can alert you about the confusing spots and they can often be fixed by adding a sentence or two.
It’s especially important to look for patterns. You may love a certain scene or paragraph, but if reader after reader stumble over the same part of the story, something may be wrong.
A reader sees your story with a fresh eye. Often they can identify simple errors you’ve missed, even after going over the manuscript numerous times. It can be something as important as a contradiction (character has blond hair in one scene, red hair in another), an unintentional POV shift, or merely a missing comma. Let them help you make the manuscript as clean and presentable as possible, before you send it off to an editor.
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, be generous in returning the favor. If someone has been kind enough to read and comment on your early story draft, be sure to offer them the same courtesy in return.
Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer whose fiction appeared in Nature Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Buzzy Magazine and many others. He's currently editing Unidentified Funny Objects -- an anthology of humor science fiction and fantasy.
Learn more about Alex Shvartsman on his blog and on Twitter.