What’s the difference between a manuscript critique and a beta read?

A few months ago, I wrote a thread on Twitter about how beta reading a book differed from a manuscript critique. It just so happened that I’d read three manuscripts that week. Two were books by established writers, which I was beta reading and one was a manuscript by a new writer, for which I was doing a critique/assessment report.

The two experiences were very different. The two beta reads I read quickly – reading them as a story and making the odd note to myself as if I came across something that needed attention. They were both authors I enjoyed reading (and in one case I’d read the whole of the series up to that point, so I could point out any series inconsistencies because I’d enjoyed the other books and remembered things from them).
The other was a newer writer, so needed a lot more notes. My notes ranged from small things like incorrect usage of words or minor instances of head hopping to bigger structural issues.
I wrote up all three sets of notes over a weekend. The beta reads took me about 30 mins each to check notes and write up. The critique took me several hours. The other main difference is that I would charge for the critique, but the beta read was for free (those authors would do the same for mine another time).

All this got me thinking about the time a newish author asked for a sample edit of one chapter (which I did). They then asked for a full manuscript critique. But a few days later, they cancelled because they didn’t want to pay for ‘a very expensive beta read’. I didn’t argue at the time – I hadn’t started work on it – but there is a big difference between a beta read and a critique.

Notes on a beta Read

When I beta read for a writer who knows what they’re doing, my notes tend to be short – ‘needs more tension here’ or ‘this subplot doesn’t tie in’, ‘the ending doesn’t work’. I’m telling them what’s wrong, but I can trust that they will know how to fix it.
Similarly, that’s the sort of note I get from my beta readers. I have rewritten an entire 20K ending based on ‘this ending doesn’t work’. They only had to tell me what was not working. I would then do the work to figure out how to change it. This is the sort of editorial note you’d get from a structural editor in a publishing house.

Notes on a manuscript critique

My notes on manuscript critiques for newer writers run to several pages because ‘this doesn’t work’ is a useless note to give someone who doesn’t know what to do to fix it. I have to unpick WHY things don’t work (sometimes it’s easy to work out, because it’s a beginner mistake I’ve seen before, sometimes it’s not). I have to explain my observations. I have to suggest ways they could fix it. I have to be careful to tell them exactly what is wrong, but not tell them exactly, word for word, how to fix it – because that interferes with their voice and if there’s one thing we’ve heard from editors it is that they don’t want critique services to interfere with the voice of a writer

You need notes that are specific to that book and where the author is in their journey. If their 100K book only has 70K of story in it, you need to work out what that core story is and tell them which bits to cut (and maybe explain story structure). If their book is too short, you have to give them guidance as to where to expand it. You can’t say ‘add a subplot’. You have to suggest places in the book where a potential subplot might be hiding. Sometimes this means reading the manuscript several times.

And THEN, you need to go through and work out if you’re hitting the right balance in your feedback. Too negative and you risk putting the writer off writing. I remember all too well the pain/horror of my first manuscript critique. But once I’d stopped crying and eating all the chocolate I could find, I realised that they had a point. I made the changes they suggested and it improved the book. But that was only because I was in the right frame of mind to accept the criticism that I’d asked for. If I’d been earlier in my writing journey, I might have given up. I’d hate for that to happen.

On the other hand, if you’re too positive, you risk giving the writer a false sense of safety. They will think you’re a lovely person, but the report won’t help them improve their book or get closer to finding a publisher. Plus, I feel that telling people what they want to hear rather than doing what they paid you to do is ethically dubious … even if it is nicer.

So you have to read an re-read the wording of the feedback, all the while thinking ‘is this too harsh? Is this sugar coating it?’.

Reading a manuscript that needs a lot of work is not fun. It’s time consuming and it’s hard work. (And I should be spending that time writing!)
So yeah. A manuscript critique is different to a beta read. One is work. The other is fun.

Which is why we charge for the one that is hard work [and take great care about whom we extend the beta reading offers to!].

In case you hadn’t already guessed, I do manuscript critiques and mentoring. Details are under the Resources for Writers tab, or just click here to go to the manuscript critiques page.

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