15 Tips on Finding Great Critique Partners - #amwriting #getpublished

May 6, 2015


Today, I would like to chat about critique partners, or just referred to as a "CP.” I always find it odd when I meet or chat with other writers who not only don't know what a CP is, but they have never had one.

What is a CP?

Basically, it is another writer with whom you exchange entire manuscripts or portions of your manuscript, or for short "MS," with to obtain honest feedback on the storyline, characterization, plot, pacing, dialogue, etc. You critique (edit and offer feedback) on their work and in exchange they do the same. 

Every serious writer should have a CP (and use a professional editor at some point). Your CP is one of your most valuable allies when venturing into the world of publishing. A CP will tell you when you’re writing is awesome–or when it sucks. A great CP will also encourage you when the rejections start pouring in, and be the one to sympathize with you about publishing woes.

But you need to be really cautious when choosing a CP to share your novel with. You want a critique that works best for you. A great CP should have a similar writing style, goals, and editing/writing skills. Friends and family, and I mean ANYONE who is NOT a writer, should not read or offer feedback on your work. It is nice of them to offer, but I strongly encourage you to say no, thank you. Only other writers will have the knowledge and insight to point out plot holes and other story issues. You mom or brother-in-law or coworker cannot offer solutions to fix any major story problems.

I recently had another writer offer to crit my work. She seemed very nice and had a sincere desire to help. We wrote in completely different genres and our writing styles were vastly dissimilar. In my opinion, it helps to find someone who writes in the same genres that you do. They'll "get" your stories and be able to offer constructive criticism because they obviously read and write in the same genre as you do. So I sent a few pages to this other writer and what I mostly got back in the comments was how much she hated the genre and even somewhat accused me of writing something just to get book sales. Some of her feedback was helpful, but most of it was not. And yes, I was kind of insulted. 


It is critical to find a CP who you connect with. I cannot stress enough how valuable and rewarding and insightful it is to have a good CP. Plus, having someone else edit your work gives you a fresh perspective on ways to improve the storyline. A CP is someone you can brainstorm with and bounce ideas around with.

The best part of having a CP is that you have someone to share the crazy ups and downs of the publishing world with. Someone to cheer you on when you get discouraged, or cry with over a bad review. Or who understands the struggles of rejection by agents or publishers. A writer friend who you can chat with about the creative writing process when your non-writer friends just don't get it.

How to learn from Critique Partners

Looking back, when I first started querying agents my query wasn’t that great and my MS wasn’t ready. Sure, I’d used beta readers, but I'd never had an actual critique partner. By that I mean—another writer. So now I can see why I got so many rejections the first time around. I needed a strong, honest, critique partner. When I finally found one, I was amazed.  

What a difference! 

A good critique partner indicates obvious overlooked errors, and is brutally honest yet respectful in their evaluation of your manuscript. Feedback is crucial to a writer, but in the end, the decisions of what goes into a novel are still the author’s choice. It's helpful in the beginning to tell your potential critique partner exactly what type of critique you're looking for. 
Editing is a long, hard process. It can take even the most experienced writer a great deal of time, effort, and patience, but the end results are well worth it.

When one of my critique partners sent me an email regarding her recent experience with two other writers from a well-known "writers" website, who had read her work and sent her back extremely nasty critiques, I felt the need to blog about it. These comments were so mean I was shocked. Now, I don’t usually visit that forum, I like AgentQuery. Everyone there for the most part is straightforward but considerate in his or her evaluation of sample pages posted. No flaming or nastiness.’

Crit partners are supposed to encourage, support, and help each other find any overlooked mistakes. Which leads me to the topic of my post today…

Critique Etiquette 101

Okay, first off, any writer who “thinks” his/her novel is perfect needs a reality check. Even published authors have critique partners and beta readers—they are called agents and editors! (I personally know quite a few published authors who still use critique partners and groups to review their work before they send it to their agent.)

Why use a crit partner, my mom thinks my writing is great?

Because most of the time a writer cannot be nearly as impartial about their own work to notice its flaws. A great critique partner is firm in his/her belief that you are a good writer, but they are never hesitant to indicate ways for you to improve your craft. It should be objective, and not reflect the personal opinions, likes, dislikes, and biases of the other writer.

Don’t we all want to develop our skills as a writer?

You would think so. As a writer, you should quickly learn that one of the most appreciated gifts you can receive is a candid evaluation of your work. All writers need a “second pair of eyes” because our work is too close to our heart for us to see its weaknesses. If someone wants to exchange chapters with me, I always start with a five-page sample. Never more than that, because I want to see if we are compatible and check out the level of writing.  

A writer friend of mine once mentioned that I was too harsh in my critiques. So, what if they overused certain words or used the “to be” verbs abundantly. Well...

As a critique partner, I just highlighted what I considered common writing mistakes in sentence structure. I’d been taught early on to eliminate weak verb/adverb combinations and to use strong action verbs instead. 

In my own evaluation of other people’s work, I make suggestions on improving scenes, and emotional character development, or advise cutting a section, BUT it’s still up to the writer to disregard the suggestions or revise. 

Now if your CP points out common writing mistakes such as weak verb usage, abusing odd connectives, info-dumps, passive voice, show vs. telling, or dialogue tag overuse, then those simple suggestions should always be taken to heart and revised. These are usually red flags to agents, and readers/book reviewers that your work hasn't been polished.

And that is what a good critique partner does. They show you things that perhaps you’ve overlooked. Or possibly, the writer didn't realize some errors were a universal oversight that many new writers make. That's why so many agents tell newbie writers to read "THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE" by William Strunk and E. B. White, considered the bible for editing. So, take the criticism and be objective. Or try to be. It is still up to YOU to either accept or reject their advice. 

Did I agree with all of my critique partner's suggestions on revising certain sections of my MS? No. I used my own creative judgment when making those kinds of revisions. But I do revise any grammar, typos, or common writing mistakes that they took the time to point out for me. 
Most CPs will comment on:

A line-by-line edit

An evaluation of pace and flow

General feedback about what works on a grand scale and what doesn't

Dialogue and characterization

Redundancy

Point out clich├ęs and overused words

Some CPs will also point out your common crutch words, comment on specific awkward phrasing that yanks the reader out of the story, or make comments such as, "cut this paragraph in half, it's slowing the pace" that might leave you dumbfounded. That’s only because you haven't learned enough yet to see beyond your own writing to the different essentials of editing a novel. But once you realize why they pointed out these overlooked errors, those comments are like finding buried treasure. You can use them to polish your work.

Now when you critique someone else's work try to separate, as best you can, your own preferences and choices from your attempt at an unbiased critique of their story.

Admire what there is to admire, BUT also include constructive comments on important elements such as:

What seems to be missing in the story? 

What doesn’t quite flow together? 

What remains puzzling about the narrative?

Answers to these questions will really help give the other writer a sense of where and what needs improving. The writer needs to know specifically which scenes you thought slowed the pace, or even found repetitive before making the appropriate revisions.

TOUGH LOVE

Personally, I only give tough love in my critiques, which means that if you want someone to only tell you what a wonderful writer you are, but not tell you where your strengths and weaknesses are too, then I would not be the CP for you. My goal as a CP is to suggest ways that could make the manuscript even better. Otherwise, what use is the critique, right? 
Keep in mind, you also reserve the right not to alter your work. Each critique reflects the opinion of the reader, and the author always has the final decision on edits. A wise author, however, considers even negative comments carefully, remembering that if the manuscript cannot stand on its own without verbal defense or explanation, it won’t have much chance with an editor or agent, or with readers if you self-publish.

As a crit partner/editor it is so much easier to see inconspicuous errors in others work, because as the writer we are too close to our own story to see the flaws in pacing, POV, descriptions, tone, and characterization.

But it is not necessary to be cruel

Still, it might be a good idea to develop thicker skin. NOW. If you don’t...just wait until you get reviews.

Try to look at what your CP was commenting on with an open-mind. After receiving a critique, please remember that this is still YOUR story. Not anyone else’s. You may not agree with your crit partners and that’s fine. You know the story better than anyone and you know what works and what doesn’t. But do try to look at it with a critical eye. Like I said, I don’t always change things my crit partner’s remark on. I use my own artistic instincts before making changes.

I don't really mind harsh feedback as long as it's done tactfully. One of my critique partners called my attention to the overuse of the compound “but.” At the time, I hadn’t even realized that I’d been over using it. And I mean, I had abused that word in just about every other sentence.

A few years ago, one CP noticed my misuse of the exclamation point. My MS was riddled with them. I had every character using it to get a point across. Not good. And embarrassing. Unfortunately, these were all signs of an amateur writer, and a big tip off to editors and agents in the publishing field that my writing was in desperate need of revision.

And that is what a good critique partner does.

They give you advice with considerate and honest feedback. Critiques are meant to help, not hurt. Yet, be prepared when you put your work "out there" for the public in these writing forums. You'll get all kinds of unhelpful and hurtful advice...along with some good.

What should you do when you receive an overly offensive critique of your work?

Buy a gallon of ice cream, and vow to never write again.

Ah, no! But don’t make justifications for all the negative feedback you receive either. It can be easy to ignore suggestions we don’t like. Be objective. Be open-minded. Try to see past the negative and use it to grow as a writer. There is ALWAYS room for improvement.

Learn what writing advice to follow, and what to ignore. 

This is a gut instinct that you’ll  eventually develop. Just remember that you (and no one else) are the best judge of your own work.

And be careful of getting too comfortable with a CP. Once I made the mistake of unintentionally insulting one of my long-term CPs when I offered some constructive advice on her current WIP. Sometimes how we word things can be misconstrued in comments or feedback. She was very upset, and although I tried to apologize and explain, the partnership couldn’t be repaired.

I guess, I’m tougher skinned than most writers. I tell my CPs to let it bleed red and don’t be afraid to rip my manuscript’s guts out. Honestly, I’d much rather hear how awful the book is in the privacy of my inbox by a CP than have my Amazon product page splattered with one star reviews, or get repeatedly rejected by agents or publishers. And first drafts are supposed to be messy and error riddled and have plot holes. That’s why we need CPs to help us polish the storyline into something worth reading—worth being proud of.

I always say...SPARE the READER, NOT the WRITER!

So I strongly urge you to find at least two experienced CPs (critique partners) to exchange chapters with on a weekly basis. I rely heavily on my own CPs to help me draft a more comprehensible and engaging storyline before I send my work off to my own editing team. Also, try to get at least three beta readers (NOT friends or family) that read your genre.

Some great blogs about critiquin:
Need a CP? Try: 
Ladies who Critique
This forum for YA writers is awesome. 
redit
Critique Circle or these sites: CPs or try: Review Fuse

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