1. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Critique vs alpha read vs beta read

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by Tenderiser, May 16, 2016.

    I'm interested to see what people think each of these processes involves, and how they differ from each other.

    I've had beta readers that gave me critiques--or what I thought of as critiques. Today I finally realised maybe *my* expectations are the problem. Sure enough, when I googled, I found there are wildly different definitions and expectations for each of these processes.

    So, with the understanding that none of us will be right or wrong because there is no definitive answer... what's your understand of each process?

    For me:

    Critique
    Probably the hardest one to define. Usually given on a short piece of work, or an excerpt from a larger piece.

    Feedback is usually detailed and focuses on both the technical and 'artistic' sides of writing: from SPAG to tone to plot. A request for critique is usually open, with the critic deciding where to focus feedback based on where they think the biggest improvements can be made. The writer may ask for specific areas of critique.

    The critic reads the piece looking for errors and weaknesses. Even if the piece is good, they will find something that can be improved.

    Alpha read
    Reading of a draft. An unpolished draft, if you like a bit of tautology.

    Because the writing isn't polished, feedback will usually be very high-level, brief, and focus only on the 'artistic' side. It will be understood that SPAG and mechanics won't be perfect, but this isn't of concern in a draft.

    The purpose is to ensure the plot and characters are workable before investing time in polishing the actual words. Saves you polishing 100,000 words only for someone to read it and say "Wow, all these characters are arseholes. The writing was bloody great but I had to stop reading on page three because I was so irritated at these cockwombles. Don't give up your day job, dude."

    Beta read
    Reading of a polished piece.

    Feedback will usually focus on the artistic side: their impressions of the characters, the originality of the plot, continuity, plot holes, and other things you might see mentioned in a typical book review.

    Differs from an alpha read because the technical side is of a concern but, just like a book review would say "This was so badly written I returned it for a refund," a beta reader shouldn't have to red-pen the whole thing. They may point out the occasional typo, repeated errors, author quirks that become annoying, and any passages that don't make sense or are hard to read. But they won't, or shouldn't be, correcting basic SPAG. If they need to be doing that, the writing should go back to the critique stage.

    If the writing is technically correct but the reader doesn't like the style (too flowery, too sparse, too much setting description, too little dialogue) they should either say "This isn't my style so I'm unable to finish the beta read" OR mention their preference and then ignore it for the rest of the MS. I don't think it benefits anybody if a beta reader goes through 100,000 words of purple prose and highlights every sentence they think could be pared down.

    ---

    This pondering has clarified the difference between a critique and a beta read, for me. It's that a critic goes in looking for fault, and a beta goes in looking to enjoy the book. The beta only notices the things that jump out at him as he reads. The critic examines every word to find something that could be better.

    Or: A critic is actively looking to find fault. A beta reader is passively forming impressions.

    At least, that's how I want beta readers to approach my work.

    I have some wonderful people who are mixed critiquers and betas: they're not scrutinising every word, but they're being more critical than your average pleasure reader would be.

    What's your view?
     
  2. A.M.P.
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    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Supporter Contributor

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    I dunno.
    I just always called it beta reading.

    Whenever someone sends me their entire MS:
    • I check all SPAG issues
    • I advise any paragraphs that need to be edited, removed, or simply reworked
    • I check for character consistency and logic as well as any internal struggles that can be better presented or more impactful.
    • I give overall impressions on the pacing, the chapter breaks, the plot itself, whether imagery is working or not, etc.
    I think a beta reader is pretty useless if they don't do a bit of everything unless it's literally just a favor asking a specific question like "Do you like this character" or "Does this work for you?"
     
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  3. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    I have no idea anymore what distinguishes a crit from a beta. I know that the critiques which I get are sometimes highly detailed, sometimes browse through and focus on plot and characters. Depends on what the specific one wants to give - I am happy with both so long as they are honest.

    For me, I don't care that much about the difference. But I do know that so far I produce first draft, not a polished piece. Though after going through what these people said/say right this minute the draft looks a mite different - but only a mite ;)
     
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  4. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Yep, that's a beta read.

    Well, could be an alpha, but usually not.
     
  5. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Eeee! now I'm nervous. As I'm Beta Reading your piece, Tenderizer. By the way I started it last night and I'm really enjoying it. It's making me laugh.:)
    I just point out inline whatever trips me up. I don't go overboard. Because at this point it should be pretty polished. And I hope nobody's looking to me to fix commas.
    At the end of a chapter or scene I summarize what worked and what I felt needed work. My most out there suggestion for you Tenderizer, would be to move a certain scene up to the front of the novel. But again a beta read is only suggestions and impressions.
     
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  6. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I did think maybe I shouldn't post this while I was having something beta read. :D

    That sounds exactly like what I do when I beta read. I open it up in Word, start reading, and whenever something makes me smile or makes me laugh or bothers me or confuses me I add a comment to highlight it. If I was correcting SPAG every few sentences I'd give up.
     
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  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I'm not one experienced in beta reading, but I am experienced in critique having been in a serious critique group for more than four years. I tried to beta read once, I didn't think the work was ready. Finding myself needing to critique large sections of it, I sent it back. I think that's the best thing a beta reader can do at that point.

    I think editing is a separate from beta reading and if a piece I chose to read had some SPAG issues, I would just read past those and defer to a professional editor to put the polish on. If the errors were too many to overlook, I'd send the book back and suggest it wasn't ready for a beta read.

    I don't hear many references to alpha readers. From what I see online it's just a beta reader at an earlier stage in the development of the book. If you are confident in your story, I'd skip it. If you were unsure of your plot, it might be a useful step.

    I'm close to needing a beta reader. I would love to trade reads but it has to be a genre and story I'm interested in. I don't think I can do a good job judging a story on its merits that I'm not interested in.
     
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  8. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    @GingerCoffee I concur with all of that.

    Beta reading is fun and I think you'd be good at it. But I also agree it has to be a story you can get into. I agreed to a political thriller for an author (not on WF). I told him I would never pick up a political anything, but I'd give it go. The writing was technically fine but I couldn't get through it--I was so bored. I had to tell him I'd be a useless beta for him and wished him luck. On the other hand I agreed to read a YA fantasy (two strikes for me), with the same proviso that I might not complete it, and it was one of the best stories I've beta read.
     
  9. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm not crazy about critiques returned out of obligation if the critiquer isn't interested in my style or the story. I've gotten too many returned critiques on other sites that came out sounding borderline rude. I feel like saying if politeness is making you read my 'crap' please, do me a favor -- be rude and don't bother. Lol.
     
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  10. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I might use beta reading as a sub-category of critique... a beta read would involve a not-yet-published, full-length MS, while a critique could be that or could be of a published piece, an excerpt, a short story, etc. I think.

    But to me there's also something a bit more academic and maybe intellectual about a critique. Like, I feel as if I should be able to offer a critique on just about any form of writing, but to me a beta read requires more of an emotional investment in the story. It should be something I could, theoretically, choose to read for my own enjoyment. I wouldn't beta read something in a genre I hated, but I might critique it.

    Maybe.
     
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  11. ToDandy
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    ToDandy Contributing Member

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    I think your example are point for point how I use those terms and how I define them.
     
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  12. KokoN
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    KokoN Active Member

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    I'm curious about the whole alpha reader thing. When is it appropriate to ask for alpha readers? Would you send them your whole draft or maybe part of a draft? For example, if I'm stuck partway in my novel and not sure if I should even continue or if it's really dull, would it be appropriate time to ask for "alpha readers" to read what I have and make comments? Even if it was totally not edited at all? I haven't heard people here talk much about alpha readers so I'm quite curious.
     
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  13. Lea`Brooks
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    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

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    Alpha readers often read first drafts, so editing isn't a criteria before sending it to someone. You can send the entire MS, chapter by chapter, or in chunks. If you're worried, I see no reason why you couldn't seek out an alpha reader now before moving forward.
     
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  14. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Thank you. I'm not sure I could be a good beta reader. I'm one of those people that can't put a book down if I like it. But if I don't like it, that doesn't mean it's not a good book.

    My son reads completely different stuff than I do. I try to read the books he raves about (they are not just best sellers, some are acclaimed), but often I can't finish them.

    I would love it if someone beta read my book and couldn't put it down. I'd be in heaven.

    I think my book is past the critique stage, not 100%, but for the most part. What I need now is someone to look at the bigger picture. I've intertwined two timelines together. My main character is at that popular 17-yr-old-YA-age, but a quarter of the book are scenes woven in from her life, age 10 to 14. I love the earlier scenes, but it could be someone wanting to read a sci-fi book about young adults that want to change the world wouldn't care about the earlier years. That's what I think a beta reader can tell me that is hard to get a chapter at a time in a critique group.
     
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  15. Sifunkle
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    I just think of alpha and beta reading as subtypes of critique, based on what stage the MS is at. Whichever I do, I (try to) focus on whatever the writer requests, otherwise just comment on whatever occurs.

    I think I remark less on the technical grammar/punctuation stuff the longer the relationship I've had with the writer. It seems prudent in the early stages because you're less sure of their experience, whether they're concerned about it, whether they've considered the alternatives you can think of and what their preferences are. But as you discuss and see what suggestions are taken on board in later versions, you get a pretty good feel and there's no point continually bringing it up.

    I'd consider feedback on plot & characters more important, and would try to include that in any critique, unless specifically asked only for technical stuff. There's some crossover though, like when a character's voice seems to change because of the way the author is constructing sentences (which can stilt the reader's engagement).

    I'm definitely on the critical side of Tenderiser's definition of a beta. I have trouble just reading for pleasure. It's an annoying catch-22 where whenever I start enjoying something, I get analytical, which isn't as enjoyable (although still is). If I'm time-pressured, I can let that go somewhat.
     
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  16. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I've had that too. Or feedback that wasn't rude, but it was very clear that the person would never have chosen my book to read and were just going through the motions. That's why I'm also leery of swaps now, and prefer to do it on an IOU basis.

    Agreed. I've given technical critiques in pieces that I'd never buy or read for enjoyment. I don't think I could give an artistic critique of them.

    Yes, that's fine, as long as you make it clear that it's an unfinished draft.

    I really think it's all about setting expectations on both sides.
     
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  17. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    The first person I asked to read my MS gave me absolutely nothing to go on, just: It's fine. Polish it a bit and remove the typos (none of which he marked) then submit. And he was a fellow writer. The impression I got was that he thought my writing was too far beneath him for him to bother with.

    The second said he only read the first chapter, decided it was a YA novel (which he no longer reads since his son grew up) and put it aside. I didn't find this out until I contacted him almost two months after he'd stopped reading.

    The next two were better, although still not much help. They both said they loved the story but that was pretty much all they said.

    The fifth (and you know who you are) gave me reams and reams of marked typos, clunky sentences, logic problems and injections of encouragement (loved this bit! Oh, no! Not the knife! — that kind of thing).

    So my conclusions are: a beta reader is someone who gives a writer usable feedback whereas a critic is someone who either holds the writer in contempt or wishes he'd written what the writer wrote.

    But I have limited experience with this process. :)
     
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  18. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm currently reading a John Scalzi novel (one of my favourite authors up 'til now) and he's gone all political on me and I'm bored.

    Since I have nothing else to read ATM, perhaps I could try to return the favour and beta read your novel. I did read a lot of Sydney Sheldon years ago, so I'm not a complete stranger to romance (Am I remembering right that that's what you write?) and since it's also funny (which is right up my alley)...

    Email me if you're interested, okay?
     
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