Sunday, March 16, 2014

Being a Good Critique Partner 101

I've been at this writing thing for a while now. Eight years ago I had an idea and I ran with it. It wasn't until later that I realized I had to (*gulp*) let someone else read my manuscript. And thus, I found out about this critique partner thing.

If you're serious about having your work published one day, there is a vital key ingredient to this ever happening -- you need to eventually have a small group of writers just as serious as you are read your work and be willing to give an objective critique on what you've written.

This, my friends, is crucial.

Now, I've heard stories, read stories, have my own stories as a matter of fact, on what goes into being a good critique partner. And each story (much like a written story in real life) contains key elements as to why a critiquing partnership has held together as strong as super glue, has unravelled at the seams, or why it became just a struggle to keep. In case you didn't already know, for the past few years I've been blessed to have two of the best critiquers I could ever ask for -- the other two lovely sisters who participate in this blog, Lorena and Stephanie. I have a couple of fringe readers who may or may not read my work if the mood strikes them, but at the core I know I have these two. (You guys are awesome by the way!)

You might be asking how I managed to snag two great critiquers. Well, I'm going to give you a few pointers on how to go about looking for someone who matches what you're looking for. It's kind of like dating, but the expectations are very different (i.e. no small talk necessary, no dinners to be bought, and no wondering if he/she will call you the next day).

  • Are they even a writer? -- You might think this is an easy one to pick up on and, yeah, why wouldn't you choose a writer to read your work. Surprisingly enough, there are many unpublished writers out there who do anything but let writers read their work. I think, especially in the beginning, there's a lot of anxiety attached to having anyone read your book, let alone someone who really knows the craft. One way to ease out of those anxiety-filled thoughts is to enter a few contests that give you some sort of feedback. Any small amount of feedback will be helpful, plus it will help you get over that I-can't-let-a-soul-read-my-work hump.
  • What's a good number of readers? -- Like that saying about too many cooks in a kitchen, the same goes for critiquers. If you have so many, all with differing input, then you will be forever lost in the swirling typhoon of revisions. You won't know who to believe or what is the best route. For me, three is a good number. Why three? Well, if two partners have different opinions about an important scene, then the third will usually lean one way or the other. Anything beyond three and there's too much input for me to properly digest. Personally, I need information that will lead me in a solid direction and so far I've been fortunate enough with the readers I have.
  • Is it a good idea to have family members as critique partners? -- This one is a slippery-slope, my friends. At first, you might be inclined to have a mother, brother, or sister read your masterpiece because, hey, don't we all want our ego stroked once in a while! The fact of the matter is that you need objective readers. Family members tend not to be objective. They tend to be nice. They don't want to see you fail, so why not be a cheerleader instead. This can be one of the most harmful things for your writing. You will fail to grow if all you hear is loving feedback and that, yeah, your work is perfect, perfect, perfect!
  • Does a critique partner have to write in your genre? -- Better yet, do they even like to READ in your genre? Let's say you write horror. You meet a new friend at a writing meeting/conference/on the bus who loves inspirational romance. She finds out you're a writer and BAM! wants to read your work. You're so excited that you forget to mention you write horror. After you hand your book over to her, a day later she calls you and says she can't read such a dark, horrific storyline. You're crestfallen. The first thing you want to find out is if a critiquer has the ability to even make it through your book. Don't waste your time with grabbing up the first person willing to take a look at what you've written. Ask the pertinent questions first.
  • Do I really have to read their work in return? -- Um...yeah! That's the whole point in the critique partner relationship. After all, you're PARTNERS. This means you read what they have and they read what you have. Not that you both have to be finishing a novel at the same time to make it even-Stephen, but you do need to always be willing to take on what they've written. But don't act like they have to constantly make time in their schedules every week to read the newest novel you've started. There is a natural ebb and flow to any partnership. It's good to feel out the group, see what is expected of everyone, and make plans accordingly. As time goes by, the rules may get looser, since every writer works at his/her own pace. Never throw a snit fit if someone has to put off reading your work due to other circumstances. If you feel at some point that they are deliberately avoiding reading your work, then it's probably time to look elsewhere for a new critique partner.
  • What if I don't like the advice my partner(s) gives me? -- After any critique, you should first listen to what your partner has to say concerning your work. Don't get argumentative with them, just listen. Take it in and give it time to process. Chances are you won't agree with everything your partner says (after all, a lot of writing is subjective), but really take in what they've told you. If it's crucial critique pertaining to your plot (Is it messy? Does it flow? Is it too boring, too fast, too blah, etc.), to your main characters (Are they fleshed out properly? Does the conflict match up with them internally and externally? Are descriptions off or don't make sense?), or even dialogue (Is it boring? Is it realistic?) then pay attention! They're trying to show you where the main work needs to be done. If someone has gone to all that work to thoroughly read your manuscript, don't blow them off! Even if you hate your own book and never want to see it again. Always listen to your critiquer. Don't waste their time. After all, you chose him/her to read this book for a reason.
  • Should I follow through with changes? -- The simple answer here is yes. If you've done your homework properly and have chosen critique partners who enjoy your genre, are good at finding your problem spots in the manuscript, and aren't patting you on the back and giving you nothing useful in return, then take into account everything he/she has told you. If you have multiple critiquers telling you changes need to be made concerning the same problem spots, then you definitely should be making changes. The little bits can come later, but if you have a definite issue with plot structure, then sit down, chart out your plot, look at the critiques you've been given, and work it out accordingly. If you turn around and have that same partner read your manuscript again and you've done nothing to heed his/her advice then they will only be annoyed and chances are not have any interest in reading your work again. Don't burn your bridges!
  • How do I leave a bad partnership? -- I guess it depends on the maturity level of the other writer(s) in your partnership. Personally, I feel it's best to be straight with the individual. Don't be mean or angry about ending your critiquing partnership (you can still be friends, right?), but make sure he/she understands that this is a partnership that just isn't working. If you feel your work isn't progressing, or maybe there's more give than there is take on the other's end, then you need to move on. Eventually, though, you need to know what's best for your writing.
I was fortunate enough to meet both Lorena and Stephanie through a local writer's association. I didn't know if I would hit it off with either one of them. With my first critique group, I was the new one in the group, but that group eventually dissolved and a new one formed. Again, a member left and a new friend joined. Critique groups aren't written in stone. We all take different paths with our writing. Be willing to be flexible in your search for the right mix. If you feel damaged or thoroughly pissed off you are no longer part of a partnership, then take some time to rethink this writing thing. As writers willing to share our work, we have to be able to take on the tasks I listed above -- share your work, give productive feedback, take the advice given you, and rework your manuscript accordingly. After all, the point is to grow, and not be stuck in novice mode!


  1. It took me ten years to find a great critique partner. No kidding. And now I have two who like to tear my pages to shreds before handing them back with an evil grin. Met both through blogging.

    So often, though, you do run into people who aren't ready to hear anything negative about their writing. They tend to expect only praise, and it's those people I've always found it the hardest to work with. And usually don't again. :)

    1. Hey, if they don't tear your manuscript to shreds, then what are they good for, right? :)

      As writers willing to grow, we definitely have to be willing to hear the bad. Honestly, I prefer that over any praise they would want to give it. I always want to know how to make it better.

  2. These are very useful tips, Sister Mary. When I first started critiquing other people's work I didn't realize how important it was to read and like the genre you're critiquing and there I was, trying to critique my friend's historical fantasy when I knew almost nothing of the genre! (I now think I did a disservice to her :()

    Thanks for the compliment, I also think you guys are awesome partners!!

    1. I'm sure you didn't do her a disservice. You're a pretty tough critiquer! I think it is definitely a MUST that someone enjoy reading your genre.

  3. Dawww! That is sweet, and I think you and Lorena are pretty awesome, too. I was so happy when Sandra put me in contact with you guys ... even going to those meetings and asking around for crit partners, I wasn't finding what I needed. But she was a workshop leader and saw my style in depth and knew you guys would be a good fit.

    There are some really great points here. As you said, I think it's crucial not to wait too long as a writer to submit your work to critiques, but it's also crucial not to submit an individual piece too early. If you're still fleshing it out (as I learned) then early feedback can be super confusing. That part needs to be done alone, imho. Once you've got a solid first draft, then you can ask for feedback.

    I always hear about endlessly-supportive family members ... my own are my strongest critics! Even when I was like, 6, and drawing little picture books, my Dad was like ... "This needs work. Start with your protagonist here ..." My husband is the same way. :P

    1. You're welcome, Stephanie! And Lorena! You guys have been great for my writing!

      It's true that a solid rough draft has to be finished before you pass it onto readers. If you don't know how your story ends, then it just makes the whole thing confusing for everyone involved.

      Yes, family can also be your strongest critics. My mother has read some of my work in the past, and let's just say she rarely has anything good to say about it. She knows how to point out my writing flaws. If I do have her read anything anymore, I make sure to tell her what exactly I'm looking for and it usually has to do with historical accuracy because she's good at spotting those ones!

      6 years old and your work still needed work...Well, at least he let you know early on! :)

    2. My husband is a pretty tough critiquer, too! My brother once read a short story I wrote and teased me about it for years. After that, I haven't sent any family members my work even though many of them have asked (!) I actually feel bad for not sending it.

  4. You are indeed fortunate to have great critique partners. I've struggled with this, but have had some really good CPs in the past. However, family...Can be good. I have a daughter who offers such sharp observations. She sat with me when I was asked to trim my synopsis to 500 words from 2,000 words. She was a cracker and I'm so proud of her. She is enthusiastically reading my romance, and really knows what she wants as an avid reader, so her comments are invaluable. I think I've found a helpful writing buddy. We worked together on her university thesis for a year, so know how we operate.

    1. I'm glad that you trust your daughter with your work. When I first started out, I went to family. Two problems cropped up for me: 1) I come from an overly critical family, so that's all I got. Not a lot of encouraging words. 2) Disinterest. I found out quickly that if someone doesn't make critiquing a priority then they really don't care. I've heard stories on the whole spectrum -- those who say nothing but nice things, those who are actually helpful, and those who tear down anything you write. Writing is a serious job and writers need to treat it that way. If someone could care less and never find the time to read your work, then you know they aren't a right fit for you.

      It's good to hear encouraging stories like yours, Denise!

  5. Writing is such a solitary enterprise. I think the Sisterhood is very lucky to have found each other for both critique and comradery.


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