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Peer Reviews: Seek Quality in Your Beta Readers, Not Quantity

Is there value in peer reviews and beta readers? Or will they just muddy the waters? Journalist Katya Cengel addresses these questions and more in this post about her experiences (good and not-so good) with outside criticism.

I have never been scared of showing others my writing. I have just never really found great value in it, until recently. In writing workshops back in college, I made the mandatory copies and distributed them to my classmates. The comments I received tended to reflect my peers’ personalities more than their writing craft. Their suggestions were almost all stylistic and almost all different. 

(The 7 Deadly Sins of Editors According to Novelists.)

Reading them I became lost, unsure which direction to take. My solution was to employ their suggestions only on the rare occasion when several students had the same comment. I came to consider the whole exercise a waste of paper and as I continued my writing career avoided writing workshops and groups.

Peer Reviews: Seek Quality in Your Beta Readers, Not Quantity

NO ONE AGREES ON ANYTHING

As a journalist, I became adept at self-editing and even more convinced of the uselessness of outside criticism. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some great editors and they have done a stellar job in helping to craft my stories. But I have also witnessed what happens when a story is edited by several different editors, each of them determined to leave their mark. 

(When Is My Novel Ready to Read: 7 Self-Editing Processes for Writers.)

I have had one editor remove a section only to have another put it back in. I have read stories so thick with markings that I once again lost track of what I was originally trying to say. I developed strategies to avoid multiple editors, turning work in close to the deadline so there was less time for it to be passed around. In my personal writing I sent my work to two close relatives who I knew would challenge me but also trust my skills.

Then my publisher sent my original manuscript for Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life to two of my peers for review. The first review was glowing, the second damning. Both came from authors of books on Minor League baseball. They had experience crafting similar manuscripts and understood who my audience was and what I was trying to accomplish. I considered their recommendations carefully, employing the ones I felt would enhance the story I wanted to tell.

THE PEER REVIEWS HELPED MY WRITING

When the book was finally released in summer 2012, it received positive reviews, a fact I credit partially to the insights provided by those two peer reviewers. Nevertheless, I was not fully won over by the process until I started teaching.

Around the same time Bluegrass Baseball was released, I took a position as a journalism workshop instructor at U.C. Berkeley Extension. During the workshop, I led group critiques of my students’ work, allowing me to see the merits and shortcomings of peer reviews from an outside perspective. The students had many suggestions for their peers, but the ones that proved most helpful were those that came from writers who understood their classmates’ subject matter and style. 

It may seem obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me before that I needed to share my writing with a peer who understood my style and subject matter. And that that person would probably be different for different projects.

SEEK QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY

I understand now that reviewers are best when picked for quality not quantity. And just as you would not submit your writing to an agent or publisher without researching them first, you must research the reviewer you want to read your work. You have to find a fellow writer who understands at core what you are trying to do and can help you accomplish it. 

You don’t need a bunch of people who will tell you what they would do. You need one or two people who can help you do what you want to do in the best way possible. So I guess I am still not convinced of the merit of mass peer reviews, but I do believe in the value of targeted peer reviews. The key is to take the time to find and identify your reviewers.

*****

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