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Manuscript critiques vs. beta reads

Three brown eggs and three white eggs on a textured kitchen towel

At long last, you’ve put the final words on the closing page of your manuscript. You’ve stuck it in the proverbial drawer for a bit, but your eyes still cross every time you look at the pages. Congrats! That mild headache is the sign you’re ready for outside advice on your revisions.

Some writers choose to invest in a full developmental edit when finalizing the structure and content of their book. There are other routes for feedback as well, either to supplement a developmental edit or to stretch your publishing budget. In general, you have two options: beta reads and professional manuscript critiques. So what’s the difference - and which kind of feedback do you need?

(Note that we’re not talking about copyediting yet; that’s the next step in the revision process.)

Generally, beta readers aren’t publishing professionals (unless you’re lucky and have some friends in the business). The main difference between the typical beta reader and a manuscript editor is that betas are often great at feeling out problems, but not as good at identifying and expressing what’s actually causing the problems.

Beta read feedback

Let’s say, totally hypothetically, that you get a beta comment next to one of your paragraphs that reads: “These lines are so boring!”

(Okay, fine. This was a comment on my own novel manuscript, made by a friend* who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty.)

Once you get over the tone of delivery, what do you make of this comment? Let’s also say the boring passage is part of a narrative summary, covering a few hours while your main character tries to find somewhere to stay for the night in a crowded, unfamiliar city. Is your beta reader bored because your character needs sleep? (If so, maybe you just need less sadistic friends.) Are they bored by the brief description of the inn?

Unless you can find an obvious problem in the paragraph, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth bugging your beta reader for an elaboration – assuming they’re available for follow-up and remember what scene you’re going on about.

Manuscript critique feedback

Now let’s say you have a comment on that same paragraph from an editorial critique. That comment reads: “This section covers a necessary jump in time, but doesn’t tell us how Owen is feeling after the previous scene, so it comes across as perfunctory; Owen also seems too stoic.”

The editorial letter references this comment as an example of a problem that pops up a lot in the manuscript – you know when to use summary, but the language is often emotionally flat, dragging down the book’s narrative pacing.

Armed with that feedback, you go through your book and revise the exposition sections. Not only have you fixed the original boring sentences, you’ve also learned something to look out for when revising future work (and you’ve started learning how to avoid the flaw in the first place).

Different reads for different needs

This excavation of my old WIP is definitely not intended to knock beta reads. When you’ve been fussing with the same pages for weeks or months (or longer), there’s nothing more valuable than new, un-crossed eyes to catch that supporting character with three different names or the giant plot hole in Chapter 20.

Beta reads help you find and correct the problems you already know how to fix, or can figure out with a little effort. Manuscript critiques illuminate the stickier problems that remain after your initial round(s) of revision, and they give you specific suggestions to expand your craft skills. That doesn’t just help your current manuscript – it helps everything you’ll write after.

So, in summary: use beta reads as well as manuscript critiques! And if you’re planning on paying for a critique, consider getting your beta reads and doing those revisions first. That way, the pro editor can spend all their energy on the trickiest stuff, so you’ll get the most for your money.

Oh yeah, and don’t hate your betas if they tell you you’re boring. They probably mean well, and after all, you did ask.

*Yes, we’re still friends. I may even ask her to beta read again someday.

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