Being a good critique partner

I went to a liberal arts college, a place that’s supposedly deeply connected to the humanities. In my freshman lit class, we read Beowulf and were asked to re-write the story as part of a final exam. Imagine that! The professor (aka the evil professor) encouraged me to take a creative writing class he offered and of course I jumped at the idea. But day one of class, he learned I wrote romance, did the eye roll we’ve all likely experienced and told me I was wasting my time. No one in the class read, or admitted to reading, romance. I got very little help in my writing other than to know I should keep this a secret. So I did.

Years later I was taking another class on writing and met evil professor’s evil twin, who looked upon romance writers with disdain and eye rolls.  However, I did meet a fellow romance writer who introduced me the local RWA chapter. Here I learned about critique groups, an interesting concept for someone who’d actively hidden the fact that they wrote romance (imagine appropriate eye roll here) and had not let anyone read my work since college.

But into the fray, as they say. I found a critique group and one very patient, very kind mentor. Now, this was before the advent of online collaboration and emailing documents so everything was done via hard copy. The first set of pages I got back was covered in purple as we were not allowed to use red ink because it looked like the pages were “bleeding.” I learned the phrase “purple prose monster” and was introduced to topics like POV and voice.

I learned a tremendous amount about the craft of writing from my CPs. I also learned how to be a valuable critique partner. Here are my take-aways on a good CP relationship:

  • Find a critique partner at a similar point in the road to publication. Being a good CP means being able to share your knowledge, struggle, success, etc. with your partner and the best way to do that is working with someone who shares similar knowledge, struggles, and successes. It doesn’t mean you have to be in the exact same place, or even write the same genre. When the two CPs are at vastly differently places, however, one can always feel like the teacher which means they aren’t learning as much. And if one always feels like the student, they can start to feel like they aren’t contributing valuable suggestions. Critiquing must be a give-and-take.
  • Don’t just tell them the story is wonderful. Everyone wants to know what they do well so tell them often, and highlight it in big, bold colors. Include smiley faces if the mood strikes. But in truth, we go into a critique situation to learn what we can improve. They’re not called a Happy Partners, after all. What doesn’t resonate with you as a reader? What reads awkwardly? Where does the story fail to connect the dots or jumps the shark? My favorite question is “why does the character do this action” if the motivation is not clear. These are things a new set of eyes can give a writer, so give it. Give it kindly, of course. Diplomacy is never wasted, IMO.
  • You can’t teach someone everything there is to know about a particular craft topic, so don’t try. Give a general idea about what you think needs to be improved. Show them an example in the text on what you mean, explain your thoughts about why it doesn’t work, and maybe point out other examples without going into elaborate detail. You don’t need to point out every incident of this particular foible. The writer has to learn to spot these things on their own, after all. Then suggest places to find more information. A book or article or class. As a CP, you’ve done your job. Now let the writer do their job.
  • Not every suggestion has to be incorporated into the work. This was the hardest for me personally. Anytime I got back a critique from a contest or a CP I did everything they suggested. Soon I didn’t recognize the story as mine. And when a fellow CP didn’t take my advice, I wondered if I was wasting my time. How could they not listen to such sage words of wisdom? Ahhh….see the comment about not recognizing the story as mine. It’s not an insult to ignore or be ignored about a piece of advice. Advice is subjective. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be considered. If multiple people give you the same advice, maybe it should be taken more seriously. Take what works for you and your story.
  • Let your CP relationship grow and change. As you get to know the other people in your CP circle, your relationship with them will evolve. Sometimes that means it will go extinct. Hopefully it means what you give and get – knowledge, encouragement, inspiration – will broaden over time. It takes work to maintain any relationship and a CP connection is no different. Even when a CP relationship fails, knowing why means you hopefully won’t make that same mistake again. Communication is key.

I’m sure I could add another few points to ponder and if you talked to other people they would have a different take on the CP relationship. Tell us what you’ve learned from being in a critique group or what you wish you’d done differently.

And don’t forget – one lucky reader will receive a $10 Amazon gift card for commenting or sharing our tweets about the blog and follow-up Q&A! The winner will be announced on Saturday.

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