Constructive criticism is something any writer or aspiring author must learn to endure. Good writers not only endure it, they understand it is critical to the process of writing. One tool many writers use to obtain this type of feedback is the use of critique partners or critique groups.
To date, I’ve participated in a whopping two critique group sessions and one official meeting with my critique partner. Of course, as is now commonplace, despite my limited experience, I suddenly think I’m an expert.
Let’s be clear. I’m not an expert in anything, except maybe complaining about how I have too much work and then taking on more. Oh and accidentally starting fires in the toaster oven. (I really shouldn’t be allowed in a kitchen.)
What I am is a writer who realized after just a handful of critique interactions the extent to which a critique partner can fill a unique and important role in the development of my work.
First, what exactly is a critique partner (or partners)?
Critique partner: An intelligent, helpful person (writing and reading background preferred) with whom one can trade manuscripts for the express purpose of reviewing each other’s work and providing feedback (constructively) on where it sucks, where it needs a little work and places where it’s awesome.
This is not an official definition. I just came up with it. See! Limited experience = expert! This is what all those “I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night” commercials taught me. Who says commercials can’t be educational?
What are these so-called benefits of a critique partner?
Disclaimer: The benefits of the critique partner relationship I will outline are specific to me and my circumstances. But, I have a sneaking suspicion they can be pretty universal.
Benefit 1: My critique partner makes me excited to revise.
Many writers love to write, but when it comes to revising and editing this love can cool to a mild regard or even outright disdain. Revising requires putting the creative free flow of ideas aside and looking at the work critically. During the revision stage, writers must wield their pens like a knife to cut away parts of the story, even parts they love.
These aspects make the act of revising, sometimes equal parts difficult, tedious and daunting. But a (good) critique partner, who provides helpful feedback, can actually make the editing process exciting.
The momentum and excitement I felt after meeting with my critique partner made me want to go back to my computer and not leave it until I’d input all the great thoughts and changes she provided.
Benefit 2: My critique partner helps me get out of the corner.
As I write, there are times I write myself into a corner, so to speak. And then I break down a wall and open the story up into another room, convincing myself I’ve solved the problem even though I’ve left behind the metaphorical equivalent of exposed electrical wires, jagged boards and cracked drywall.
A critique partner will see right through this brute force method and other imperfections writers know deep down are there but secretly hope no one else notices. A good critique partner will not just notice these flaws, but help you work through them to get out of that corner in a way that doesn’t require a breakdown of the narrative.
Benefit 3: My critique partner doesn’t know me well.
This may seem like an odd “benefit.” But having people who know you well review and critique your writing can also come with certain limitations. For example, such people may be reticent to provide criticism and may couch their thoughts in excessive platitudes, diluting or completely obscuring what may have been a helpful comment.
A critique partner, however, has the same goals and expectations for writing—improve, improve, improve—without the drawback of worrying about ruining a friendship or close relationship.
Benefit 4: My critique partner understands the writing process.
Oftentimes people who review our work are friends, family or beta readers (i.e., people who comprise the audience of our books who read work and provide feedback.) It’s rare that these groups of people are also writers.
My husband is a “computer nerd.” (Read: I can’t explain in great detail what he does because it’s way over my head but it’s very technical and complicated and involves a lot more than fixing my computer.) My best friend, while a wonderful editor who knows how to write well, is best described as a visual artist. My sister is a marketer and training facilitator. My parents are ex-government workers. None of them have written a novel. They can tell me what they like and don’t like or what works and doesn’t, but not always how to fix it.
My critique partner, on the other hand, sees the holes in my plot. She notices the issues with my tone, narrative, voice and flow. And, she comes with suggestions of how to improve them.
Another writer understands the process, and frustrations, of writing in a way non-writers cannot. This doesn’t mean any one person’s feedback is more or less important to the overall development of a manuscript, it just opens up new options for bettering the work.
In the end, I find all these different perspectives and feedback from various types of people critical to the success of a manuscript.
If critique partners are so great, why haven’t I done this earlier?
I have been a published author for almost two years and have written much of my life. But it wasn’t until recently that I delved into the world of critique partners. In fact, it took me years to show my work even to my closest friends. Why did I wait so long? That answer is easy. Fear. Duh. It’s always fear.
Fear is like this little terrible bird sitting on my shoulder, pecking away at my self-confidence. (Because even though they’re pretty, we all know birds are mean and out to get humans. Hitchcock was definitely onto something…)
But getting over that fear helped open me up to an entirely new aspect of writing that I wish I’d discovered sooner because constructive criticism made me a better writer.
What makes a good critique partner?
Now that we’ve established I am not an expert, let’s review, in my experience, what I found has made a good critique partner.
In this instance, it might help to first list the people who likely will NOT make a good critique partner…
People who don’t make good critique partners include
Your close friends
Your significant other
Please note the above people make EXCELLENT alpha/beta readers and editors for books, but that is not the same thing as a critique partner. As described above, a good critique partner will have certain qualities not often found in family and friends. The two most critical aspects are
- They are fellow writers.
- They are genuinely fine with the prospect of crushing your little heart into itty bitty pieces in the name of constructive criticism.
Characteristics of a good critique partner
Note: Based on actual human (my critique partner) + general common sense.
- Strangers (or people you’re not very close with)
- Writers (particularly in your genre)
- People who are honest
- People who are well read in your genre
- Professional editors (BONUS POINTS!!)
Tips for working with critique partners
If you’re lucky enough to find a critique partner, here are some tips for working with him or her or them.
#1 Tip – Do your homework.
Come to each meeting prepared. It’s important to read and assess your critique partner (or partners) material. Like a teacher, your critique partner will know if you haven’t done your work and you don’t want to let him or her down.
#2 Tip – It’s a two-way street.
Remember you’ve entered into this group or partnership with the understanding you will give and receive constructive criticism. That means you need to hold up your side of this unstated bargain. Basically, if you expect to get something out of this, you need to put something in. No critique partner is going to stick around if she doesn’t feel it is an equal relationship.
#3 Tip (perhaps the most critical) – Never forget the compliment sandwich!
If you have not heard of the compliment sandwich, let me introduce you. It is tactic which works well both in critiquing writing and in life!
First, you give a compliment. Then you give a critique. Then you end with a compliment.
And, there you have it! Compliment sandwich.
It works in so many places.
Oh hello, husband, you look very handsome today. By the way, do you think you could try to refrain from leaving all those dirty dishes in the sink overnight? That jacket makes you look a lot like Brad Pitt.
Boom! Compliment sandwich. You’re welcome.
The most important part of a critique partner
All of my insight is well and good, but really the most important part of getting a critique partner is getting one. Go out there and find one! Scour the internet, check with writers groups and organizations. Go to social media. Look on Facebook groups. Post on Twitter. The perfect critique partner is out there somewhere, you just have to find him or her.
Anyone else have advice for finding (and keeping) a good critique partner?