What you’ve learned being a beta reader for the dumpster fire of a MS your friend wrote.

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llyralen

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There’s a quote from Traeger barbecue: “Good barbecue comes from experience and experience comes from bad barbecue.”

I think this can be true about good writing so here are some things we learned from our writer’s group. These things got changed and we all learned how to be better writers.


#1. Most reveals are cheap shots. Only do them if the reveal has been in plain sight the whole time, running a parallel story so that you can re-interpret the whole story by knowing this reveal. When you do reveal it should mean something. Otherwise we readers probably are not at the edge of our seats wondering what a character’s name is, for instance.

#2. Readers are there for the ride. We don’t expect to be told every detail and we aren’t thinking that there might be hidden meaning or a back story to every character we meet. If the reader is supposed to be questioning something then the author needs to plant the question into our minds deliberately. For example, magic sword fights are supposed to take a minute or so, right? We as an audience don’t really have a sense of how long a “normal”magic swordfight should take. My author friend assumed that we were all on the edge of our seats wondering about the backstory of a brand new bit character because the Mary Sue MC was taking an extra minute killing him. The following chapter about the character’s tormented childhood was the most interesting in the book, but why did the backstory come after the character had been introduced and killed without me even realizing there was anything out of the ordinary? Because the author was so sure that we would have huge questions about the extra abilities of this character and how hard the character was to fight, but we didn’t know they were extra. It was all magical. But since the fight was boring and meaningless when it came first, just changing the positions of the chapters and made me care about this character before the fight. If you want me to think a certain way, put it in the book. Have the MC thinking “I can’t believe it, this is taking longer than ever before to kill someone. What black magic is this?” Then the question is planted.

#3. Don’t make me hyper aware that basically you’ve done 0 research with something like: “The physicist developed an equation that solved world hunger and ended socialism.” ? ? ?

# A play that is 90% voice-over while sitting in a library and 10% a twist needing animation in order to execute probably shouldn’t be a play.

#5. Maybe most writers who write sex scenes or about flirtation who are wishing they were in that scene might want to consider that their readers might not like that scene one bit. A 40 year old male protagonist gets his groove on with a 20 year old single mom who is in the story only for her body’s sake. The author assumed every man there would love it, and meanwhile it was becoming obvious that he couldn’t quite grasp that women in the room had opinions at all. Part of the fantasy included the 40 year old impressing the 20 year old by offering to change baby’s diaper. The lesson I took home is that what might seem like money in the bank to one writer might be the moment many readers turn away. Writers need feedback to improve.

Okay, really specific lessons, but also really valuable lessons for me and our group. It’s tough to get your reader to care and that is the science I’m interested in.

I hope you share what you’ve learned from dumpster fires and bad barbecue in whatever way you’d like to… and I hope I learn a lot from this thread.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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I unironically like bad media....like I own maybe 15 movies on discs and 3 of them are Troll 2, Cool Cat Saves the Kids and Last Vampire on Earth. I watched Space Jam 2 the other day, full-well knowing that it would be terrible, and I was amazed in just how terrible it was. But I spent several days after thinking about it and why it is the way it is (my theory is that since it's a big nostalgia IP, lots of people would get HBO+ to check it out, since people wouldn't be seeing it in theaters. That's why they pushed the "Warnerverse" angle so hard, so people watching it would go "oh wow they own Austin Powers, too? I gotta check that out!" and keep subscribing to the service. Like they mentioned Harry Potter and flew past the "Harry Potter world" but in the giant crowd scene at the end of the movie, there were no random people in Hogwarts robs, so I'm guessing JKR didn't approve that? Since she has to approve everything. Or maybe Lola Bunny is actually trans and she got mad about that).

There's this one really terrible piece of fanfiction that lives in my head rent-free because the concept is so unique and some of the dialogue just knocks me over it is so on point and yet so bad. Character A says "hi I'm [A] the [thing] I'm not original I don't belong here [character B] is so much better than me" A few paragraphs later character B says "hello I'm the [thing] now please go away" Why am I able to quote it word for word? Because I took screencaps of those scenes and they're in the character sheets for one of my projects. Just the raw power of "I have absolutely 0 self-esteem" vs "yes I know now go away" is such an interesting dynamic that I wanted to explore it more.

Another thing I think about a lot is Birdemic and I really, really wish others did, too, because it is the perfect example of "this is why you don't have a slow-ass opening." The main character gets up, gets dressed, gets into his car and is driving. And driving. Then he gets some gas. And he keeps driving...then he gets to a restaurant and you're greeted with [this]. What in the WORLD is going on with the audio? Why are the cuts so weird? What was the point of seeing the guy go to the restaurant? Why couldn't we start there? Or, you know, start with some birds attacking people like in Jurassic Park. It's really weird and slow and when the birds do finally show up, oh boy, it is ear-shatteringly loud, the CG is terrible, and they're dive-bombing and EXPLODING. There's absolutely 0 build-up to this, it just HAPPENS! It is incredibly funny. There's a lot you can learn in pacing a story by seeing it done so teribly.

Re #5...not everybody is into the same things, and that's fine. As they say on AO3 "read the tags, don't like don't read." Which is a little trickier if it's a group where everyone reads everyone else's things, but one should be able to appreciate a sex scene that's well written even if they're not into the thing in question. If the stuff is REALLY weird then maybe give people a head's up. Like I do not expect t4t/mlm werewolf stuff to be something most people are going to enjoy, or even able to comprehend, so I want to give beta reader's the option to turn it down. The specific example you have seems to be more r/menwritingwomen instead of you not liking age gaps or something. But you don't need to be into that kind of stuff to say "hey this isn't how women work."
 

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As a grizzled veteran of a zillion years of critique group that has at times included people whose skill levels were poor, I'm going to lean another direction with my reply.

What I've learned from giving critique and beta reads to bad manuscripts is that
  • Giving good feedback is a learned skill separate from being able to write well yourself
  • I owe it to the writer to read once without making a mark or comment
  • How I phrase my remarks on every negative aspect is hugely important
  • Praising what works is as important as noting what does not and why
  • Marking outright mistakes is pointless if the writer doesn't understand why they're mistakes in the first place
  • If the writer makes a ton of mistakes of a certain type, marking them all is exhausting for me and demoralizing for them
  • It's okay to stop beta reading a longer work when you see it is not yet beta-ready, relatively free of mistakes
  • A good practice is to read and give feedback on a single chapter before committing to beta reading a novel
  • Beta reading for friends can damage a friendship when your skill levels are not similar
  • It's nice to have handouts and links to instruct writers on their weaknesses
  • Many beginners see their story as a movie in their heads rather than words on a page, which makes it harder to write well
  • Every good critique or beta read incorporates encouragement to try again
  • There are manuscripts that I cannot and should not beta read because of who I am, my opinions, etc.
  • I have no obligation to work harder than the author did to make the manuscript as good as it can be

Maryn, who critiques here occasionally, but more often in private
 

mrsmig

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Absolutely, 100% +1 to what Maryn said above. It's also important that the person wanting the beta read understands up front what your critique style is so they can decide if you're a match or not. Critiquing their first chapter before committing to the whole work can be a great help in determining that.
 

greendragon

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I love those items, Maryn. I'm part of a group where one member consistently brings in work (the 40yo man with the 20yo woman sounds on brand for him... but make her 16, ick) but NEVER and I do mean never, offers critique of others' work. He's had us go through five novels of his now, and is doing a second round for one of them. He doesn't seem to take any critiques, and always gets defensive. 'It's just fiction' or 'it's just a first draft' or 'well, some people might go to sleep right after doing a lot of cocaine. Everyone's different.' I've stopped giving feedback to his work.
 

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My decades-long critique group, which may be in its death throes since I moved away, operates in a way that would not let that situation happen. Yes, some of us presented much more work for critique than others, but no way would we have even begun a member's second novel if they had not yet offered any critique to others. We would have told him why, in writing so as not to have to force our introverted selves to be confrontational, set a hard requirement for what he had to do, and if he again presented work for critique without having met those requirements, we would have removed him from the group.

It's like some people here, who arrive to take but refuse to give. AW doesn't tolerate that, either. That's why we require members be active before posting at SYW or Beta Readers Wanted, rather than taking what we have to offer, then skipping out.

I hope others in your group have also decided not to give their time and expertise to this person. I'm livid in your behalf!

Maryn, tsk-ing under her breath
 

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Giving good feedback is a learned skill separate from being able to write well yourself
I really can’t write good critiques.

I think it stems from still being a newbie writer, and a largely intuitive one — I know what I like, but I can’t always tell you why. I’d probably become a better writer if I could? But unless/until then, I’m not a very helpful critter. I’m grateful for people who are.
 
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I really can’t write good critiques.

I think it stems from still being a newbie writer, and a largely intuitive one — I know what I like, but I can’t always tell you why. I’d probably become a better writer if I could? But unless/until then, I’m not a very helpful critter. I’m grateful for people who are.
Yep, critiquing is a skill you learn, just like writing. They're similar, but separate. It took me years to get past writing critiques that only noted spelling and grammar errors.

In some ways, it's easiest to critique really, really, really bad writing. If a writer is making all of the most basic abysmal mistakes, they're easier to spot and point out. It's bloody hard to critique excellent writing, because there won't be issues with the basics, and they're won't be issues with general craft. You have to dig deep and look at voice, at character consistency, at theme..... and for me that usually means I have to read the piece five or six times to spot anything that's not quite perfect.

And honestly, just saying "yes I loved the main character" or "gosh I want to go live in that setting" is even more helpful than "your character is a dick". If the author is told what works, not only is it a woohoo! feeling, they can analyse how they created that character or setting and then keep using the same successful techniques.
 

Introversion

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And honestly, just saying "yes I loved the main character" or "gosh I want to go live in that setting" is even more helpful than "your character is a dick". If the author is told what works, not only is it a woohoo! feeling, they can analyse how they created that character or setting and then keep using the same successful techniques.

For sure, and on the rare occasion I weigh in on SYW or QLH, I do say what I liked. Just can't usually articulate why.

It may partly be due to how I write, which is very pantser plotting and characterizing, overlaid on a map of world-building? I can't really say exactly where I'm going myself, so I find it hard to articulate a good crit of someone else's work, beyond basic grammar and line-level stuff as you said.

Not complaining. Just happy I've gotten some good crits from people who can do better.
 
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Teresa Nielsen Hayden (senior editor at Tor, probably now long retired) once said "Even the worst story you write is better than the best story you didn't write", and I suspect the same holds true for crits.

I think for a very large proportion of writers, craft light-bulbs go off in their heads not while writing their own stories, or while reading how-to-write books, but when critiquing other people's stuff. Especially if they can then compare their own critique with ten other critiques of the same story.

I critique to keep my hand in. I haven't written a story in nearly a decade, and won't start writing again till I'm able to retire, but meanwhile I want to keep up with the game.
 
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Morning Rainbow

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I've learned that people need to burn their thesauri and flush the ashes down the toilet. Too many new authors try to sound "smart" by using words that haven't appeared in fiction since Nathaniel Hawthorne was a tot, and they find them by plucking them from a thesaurus. Never mind the fact that they don't actually know what those fancy words mean, and their use of them shows this. Just because two words are synonyms doesn't mean they have the same scope, connotation, or even the same purpose in a sentence. For instance, you can't substitute an exclusively transitive verb for an exclusively intransitive one or vice versa, but I see new writers do this all the time.

I've also learned not to critique the work of people I know personally because they're usually looking for a cheerleader instead of honest feedback. I quit cheerleading at the age of 9 because I hated being phony. That hasn't changed.
 

llyralen

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I unironically like bad media....

Just the raw power of "I have absolutely 0 self-esteem" vs "yes I know now go away" is such an interesting dynamic that I wanted to explore it more.

Birdemic

Re #5. something. But you don't need to be into that kind of stuff to say "hey this isn't how women work."
Yes! Thank you for the examples! I haven’t seen Birdemic, but I’m going to look it up tonight! True, looking at what goes wrong with movies and thinking about what I would do instead is a source of learning and inspiration.

I do think that dynamic you saw with the self-esteem sounds interesting. I would be interested to read that if you ever write something with it.

The age gap was tough and annoying, but yes, the “Women… and life.. doesn’t work like that.” How do you tell someone that? There must be some way of getting that point across or helping them improve it anyway in a round-about way? Meaning, I also do need to take a page from the comments on this page about how to give effective critique. It was tough.
 
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llyralen

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As a grizzled veteran of a zillion years of critique group that has at times included people whose skill levels were poor, I'm going to lean another direction with my reply.

What I've learned from giving critique and beta reads to bad manuscripts is that
  • Giving good feedback is a learned skill separate from being able to write well yourself
  • I owe it to the writer to read once without making a mark or comment
  • How I phrase my remarks on every negative aspect is hugely important
  • Praising what works is as important as noting what does not and why
  • Marking outright mistakes is pointless if the writer doesn't understand why they're mistakes in the first place
  • If the writer makes a ton of mistakes of a certain type, marking them all is exhausting for me and demoralizing for them
  • It's okay to stop beta reading a longer work when you see it is not yet beta-ready, relatively free of mistakes
  • A good practice is to read and give feedback on a single chapter before committing to beta reading a novel
  • Beta reading for friends can damage a friendship when your skill levels are not similar
  • It's nice to have handouts and links to instruct writers on their weaknesses
  • Many beginners see their story as a movie in their heads rather than words on a page, which makes it harder to write well
  • Every good critique or beta read incorporates encouragement to try again
  • There are manuscripts that I cannot and should not beta read because of who I am, my opinions, etc.
  • I have no obligation to work harder than the author did to make the manuscript as good as it can be

Maryn, who critiques here occasionally, but more often in private
Ahh! So true! I would be ready to take a class on how to give good critique! And also on how to build a good group. Maybe there are more guidelines somewhere on AW. I followed “Writing Excuses” ideas on it, but always I was the only one giving critique.

I ended our group of 2 years, I got so frustrated. 5 people (my hubby and I were two out of five). One person didn’t even try to act like he cared about anyone else’s work and read his own to himself while the rest of us read. 2 just gave “That’s great” critique and it was helpful in that if they said “Have you got any more about that girl…” then I knew they really did like it. But none of them, including my husband did well with my critique at the meetings, although husband and one other guy have told me they thought about what I’d said later and made changes they hoped I’d like..

I might have been doing a classic no-no?
I will have ideas for them. “Okay what if you did it like… Would it be more conflicting if…”. and I guess that is really a very bad thing to do? But I’m not sure.

I don’t want to put together another group until I feel like I know what I’m doing. But I also know I learned SO much from the experience and my husband’s writing improved by bounds from learning from the group on what not to do and from then being interested enough to start studying the art of suspense.

When my husband has had ideas for me lately of the sort I was dishing out (my husband is my best critique partner) it has blown my mind… basically it will take me several minutes if not hours of running through all the scenes and dialogue in my mind to see how much I would need to change if I added his idea… but then it makes the story so much stronger. He just barely said to me too “I always put up a fight, but you’re usually right and it is usually is the source of new great scenes”. So I don’t know… maybe that’s just something for him and me?

I do want to start again because it’s inspiring and helpful and could be more helpful. Also the group wants to start again… but I think I need to make a different group and definitely I need to be different in it myself because I was feeling like I was banging mh head into a wall.

One thing that is really tough in your list is when I can’t make them understand my concern. For instance, if I would have stopped reading the story due to confusion or lack of compelling elements but the writer takes my questions or bewilderment as proof of high curiosity and keeps saying “All that will get answered in time.” He is the one who sometimes takes my suggestions later. So this makes me think J must sound somewhat combative especially since everyone else is just saying “I like it, is it my turn to read now?”

It seems to me like the main thing a group does is let you know if you’re making them care and if there are places their care slows down and they get bored. I need to know. I want brutal feedback.
 

llyralen

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Teresa Nielsen Hayden (senior editor at Tor, probably now long retired) once said "Even the worst story you write is better than the best story you didn't write", and I suspect the same holds true for crits.

I think for a very large proportion of writers, craft light-bulbs go off in their heads not while writing their own stories, or while reading how-to-write books, but when critiquing other people's stuff. Especially if they can then compare their own critique with ten other critiques of the same story.

I critique to keep my hand in. I haven't written a story in nearly a decade, and won't start writing again till I'm able to retire, but meanwhile I want to keep up with the game.
Definitely true for me that listening to other’s work does launch my mind-fireworks.
 

llyralen

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Yep, critiquing is a skill you learn, just like writing. They're similar, but separate. It took me years to get past writing critiques that only noted spelling and grammar errors.

In some ways, it's easiest to critique really, really, really bad writing. If a writer is making all of the most basic abysmal mistakes, they're easier to spot and point out. It's bloody hard to critique excellent writing, because there won't be issues with the basics, and they're won't be issues with general craft. You have to dig deep and look at voice, at character consistency, at theme..... and for me that usually means I have to read the piece five or six times to spot anything that's not quite perfect.

And honestly, just saying "yes I loved the main character" or "gosh I want to go live in that setting" is even more helpful than "your character is a dick". If the author is told what works, not only is it a woohoo! feeling, they can analyse how they created that character or setting and then keep using the same successful techniques.
Yes, that’s important, that woohoo in feeling that someone read your work through. I’m feeling so grateful these days for anyone who reads my work. The encouragement means so much. It often means j keep going.
 
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My decades-long critique group, which may be in its death throes since I moved away, operates in a way that would not let that situation happen. Yes, some of us presented much more work for critique than others, but no way would we have even begun a member's second novel if they had not yet offered any critique to others. We would have told him why, in writing so as not to have to force our introverted selves to be confrontational, set a hard requirement for what he had to do, and if he again presented work for critique without having met those requirements, we would have removed him from the group.

It's like some people here, who arrive to take but refuse to give. AW doesn't tolerate that, either. That's why we require members be active before posting at SYW or Beta Readers Wanted, rather than taking what we have to offer, then skipping out.

I hope others in your group have also decided not to give their time and expertise to this person. I'm livid in your behalf!

Maryn, tsk-ing under her breath
There are several people in the group who have hearts too kind not to give feedback, so he keeps getting some feedback. (Including the person who runs the group, as part of her job as head of adult services at the library. This is a library-sponsored group, so she feels it's her duty to help all comers). Most others have backed off like me.
 
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greendragon

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So things I learned on how to do critiques (others may be different).

Things that help:
- If you really can't find anything, even grammar and punctuation helps.
- 'this sentence is awkward'.
- 'I wasn't sure who was speaking here.' Or 'I lost track of who was where'
- 'you could cut this' (from single words like 'down' in 'sat down' to a reiteration of something described earlier)
- 'great imagery here!'
- Point out where a scene could use more or less scene description, action, dialogue, etc. if you feel the characters are speaking in an empty white room, they need more scene description and/or action tags, for example.
- where a writer has lots of exposition or narration, point out bits that might make a good scene if fleshed out (we've done this LOTS with the problem writer, but his book is still 60% narration/exposition. To be fair, it's better than the 80% it was before)
- point out where an action or dialogue doesn't fit that character
- 'what if' suggestions are usually fine - it lets the author think of options. They may decide not to change it, of course, but getting them thinking is key.
- 'this doesn't work for me' is entirely valid, even if you don't know why. That's information that helps the author rewrite to refine it.
- X is my favorite character (yes, this really does help!)
- this scene went too fast/too slow

All of these are simple things that we, as readers, can often see more easily than the author, who is neck deep in their story. To me, the biggest tool of a critique group is to offer feedback from readers who don't have the entire story in their head (as the author does) but who have some idea of story crafting techniques and therefore can point out the bits that don't work or work well.

And if anyone has a critique group online they're in that they need another person, I'm on the search for one! I moved to a new state at the beginning of the year, and my old critique group is shifting back toward in-person critiques. We had 20+ people at some points, and we're down to about 7 due to COVID changes.
 

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As a note, we've had several people in our group go from 'rank beginner' to 'ready to publish' over the course of a few years. A few others haven't improved much (like the above guy and another who is only interested in writing rough first drafts but never publishing), but most have. The first draft guy - his stuff is at least high-action and entertaining.
 

llyralen

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As a note, we've had several people in our group go from 'rank beginner' to 'ready to publish' over the course of a few years. A few others haven't improved much (like the above guy and another who is only interested in writing rough first drafts but never publishing), but most have. The first draft guy - his stuff is at least high-action and entertaining.
I do think listening to your beta readers/writing group can improve writing dramatically.
 
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It's been amazingly rewarding over the decades to work one-on-one with writers and watch them go from rank amateurs to talented authors getting agents and publishing contracts. But as llyralen noted, if I repeatedly offer critique about basics of the craft, and my comments are repeatedly ignored, then obviously I am not offering useful commentary to that particular individual, and I will walk away.
 

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A "serious" writer in a good critique group, meaning they write a good bit and learn from valid critique, often goes from rank amateur to trade published in due time. In our larger group, when it was about a dozen, that happened to eight of us. The other four were, to be polite, not serious about it and/or refused or were unable to learn from critique, making the same mistakes without end.

I know I and others have shared "how to critique" posts at AW, and I've shared how my own critique group worked for a quarter century. (I don't know of any that lasted longer, although we're down to a very small number now.)

If it would be helpful, I can either hunt for those old posts or re-post them.

Maryn, who never deletes anything
 

llyralen

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A "serious" writer in a good critique group, meaning they write a good bit and learn from valid critique, often goes from rank amateur to trade published in due time. In our larger group, when it was about a dozen, that happened to eight of us. The other four were, to be polite, not serious about it and/or refused or were unable to learn from critique, making the same mistakes without end.

I know I and others have shared "how to critique" posts at AW, and I've shared how my own critique group worked for a quarter century. (I don't know of any that lasted longer, although we're down to a very small number now.)

If it would be helpful, I can either hunt for those old posts or re-post them.

Maryn, who never deletes anything
Yes, please. It’s valuable experience.
 

llyralen

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So things I learned on how to do critiques (others may be different).

Things that help:
- If you really can't find anything, even grammar and punctuation helps.
- 'this sentence is awkward'.
- 'I wasn't sure who was speaking here.' Or 'I lost track of who was where'
- 'you could cut this' (from single words like 'down' in 'sat down' to a reiteration of something described earlier)
- 'great imagery here!'
- Point out where a scene could use more or less scene description, action, dialogue, etc. if you feel the characters are speaking in an empty white room, they need more scene description and/or action tags, for example.
- where a writer has lots of exposition or narration, point out bits that might make a good scene if fleshed out (we've done this LOTS with the problem writer, but his book is still 60% narration/exposition. To be fair, it's better than the 80% it was before)
- point out where an action or dialogue doesn't fit that character
- 'what if' suggestions are usually fine - it lets the author think of options. They may decide not to change it, of course, but getting them thinking is key.
- 'this doesn't work for me' is entirely valid, even if you don't know why. That's information that helps the author rewrite to refine it.
- X is my favorite character (yes, this really does help!)
- this scene went too fast/too slow

All of these are simple things that we, as readers, can often see more easily than the author, who is neck deep in their story. To me, the biggest tool of a critique group is to offer feedback from readers who don't have the entire story in their head (as the author does) but who have some idea of story crafting techniques and therefore can point out the bits that don't work or work well.

And if anyone has a critique group online they're in that they need another person, I'm on the search for one! I moved to a new state at the beginning of the year, and my old critique group is shifting back toward in-person critiques. We had 20+ people at some points, and we're down to about 7 due to COVID changes.
I need a group… but I think there is as much to know about critiquing and putting together a good critique group as there is to know about writing, most likely. I think joining a group that has been going for a while would be good for me at this point. I don’t know of any. *This is where I hope someone interviews me or something. My instinct is to always create one myself, since I don’t know of any right now and I’m that impatient but there really is a lot to know.
 
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Maryn

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I'd be happy to find the original documents. I suspect that will be easier than finding a post from years ago and bringing it back to life.

Maryn, not adept at bringing back the dead
 

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