We All Need Community: The Benefits of Critique Partners and Beta Readers

I talk myself out of editing jobs all the time. A new writer will approach me about a project. We’ll get to talking. And I’ll end up advising that writer to wait to spend money on a professional editor. I’ve blogged about this before in various ways, I suppose. And now I’m going to do it again because it bears restating. Writers are stubborn. Sometimes we need to be beaten with an idea for a bit to grok it.

These writers I talk to shouldn’t be spending money on editing yet. A lot of times their contact with me is the first they’ve had with a fellow writer. Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve shared their work at all, which is a monumental moment. They’ve figured out they can’t do the writing thing on their own like they once believed. They’re beginning to understand they need a community.

I usually tell them to seek out critique partners and/or beta readers. And if they’re not already reading in their genre, I strongly advise them to do that, too. So far I haven’t heard back from any of them. I take that as a good sign, a sign they got the deeper message: they need to build themselves a place in a writing community.

I’m talking about more than a writer’s need for critical, constructive feedback here. Or the need for mentors and compatriots, fellow writers who are discovering or have discovered how to make a go of the writing life. A writer needs a few fans, even at the beginning. Maybe it’s just one coworker who stops him in the hall to say how much he loves reading the writer’s blog. However it takes place, that kind of out of the blue validation helps build much needed self-confidence. And knowing there are people reading what you write makes it harder to justify blowing it off.

By the way, I’m deliberately leaving family out of this discussion because family is different. The people who live with writers have to buy in on a whole other level.

I recently had one of these quasi-fan experiences. As you may know, I’m a theater technician as well as a writer and editor. One of my day jobs is as a carpenter at the Texas State Performing Arts Center Shop. Not only do I build scenery there, I usually work on my writing and editing projects during my breaks, sitting on an air-compressor in a secluded corner of the tool cage. While I was gone on my recent vacation (if you want pictures, click here), the scenic painting professor made and installed a sign above my little space between the shelves.

She’s not a writer. As far as I know she’s never even read my writing. I’ve known her for less than a year. But she sees me in there with my computer in my lap. And she’s an artist; she understands. She gets the yen to make something as good as it can be. So she surprised me with her little sign. What I don’t think she understands is how much that small act inspires me every day, how it makes it easier to go into the noisy solitude of the tool cage and write, how she’s a big part of my writing community. I should probably tell her all that, huh?

And that’s why I talk myself out of so much editing work. There’s a lot of great things a freelance editor can offer a writer. But a hired editor can’t offer that fundamental, made-to-fit writing community every writer needs. We writers have to build that kind of support network for ourselves.