Saturday, January 22, 2011

Five Things You Should Know About Critique Partners

I'm extremely lucky to have access to a number of other people who will read and offer feedback on my writing.  My best friend, Lea Nolan (that's us over yonder), is also a romance writer, and she is my most trusted critique partner. She reads almost everything I write and gives me her unbridled, no-nonsense thoughts on the pages I put before her.  My RWA chapter just established a monthly critique group, the MRW Critters, and four of the twelve members are up every month to have 12 pages of their current project critted.  The value of these experiences has been immeasurable for my writing, but without question has made me a better writer and my manuscripts better,  more compelling reads.  Next week, I'm back under the critique gun for my group, and that got me thinking about some things others might like to know about critique partners.

1) WHO TO GET TO CRITIQUE: If you're lucky, lots of people might agree to read your writing. Your mom might be an avid reader. Your sister might be your biggest cheerleader. The online readers of your fan fiction stories might love you so much they offer.  A good friend friend from your book club might offer to host a chat about your first chapter. If you're looking for a general "is this a fun read/does it makes sense/does it hold your attention/please tell me I don't totally suck" kind of reassurance, go for it when these folks offer.  But I want to propose to you that just because someone's a reader doesn't mean they're the best fit for you as a critiquer. Readers know what they like to read, but they don't know how to advise you to successfully write.  They probably don't know what you mean if you ask if you're showing or telling. They probably wouldn't really understand what purple prose is, and things you can do to edit it out of your writing. They may not understand the intricacies of consistent verb tense and point of view issues. They've probably never heard of 'head hopping.'  And they probably haven't poured over agents' and editors' blogs seeking advice on what the industry wants. Because readers don't study the craft of writing or the publishing industry.  But writers do.  Writers, especially those pursuing publication professionally, have likely read books on how to write, taken workshops to hone their craft, and received advice from agents/editors/other writers that they've taken to heart and can share with you.  Finding a willing writer can be difficult, but most writers are eager to get other writers to comment on their work, so join a writing organization and get to know people, post an 'In need of a YA romance critique author' message (or whatever your genre is), or join one of the established critique groups that many writing organizations and RWA chapters have. Writers, not readers, make the best critiquers. 

2) HOW CRIT PARTNERS CAN BENEFIT YOU:  Whether individual critique partner, larger critique group, or online workshop partner, critique partners can bring you and your writing multiple benefits.  First, they can help you grow in your craft. Through their feedback writers will force you to take your writing to the next levels.  They'll challenge your use of cliches, point out when you've gone a little adverb crazy, remind you of the puppies you harm every time you overuse exclamation marks or ellipses.  Second, crit partners can offer you encouragement. They know what it is for your manuscript to be rejected, because they've gone through that too.  They know how frustrating it is for your muse to go silent or your real life to eat away all your writing time.  But they also know you have to dust yourself off and get back on the horse--and they'll push you to do it.  Third, crit partners can help hold you accountable.  If you meet monthly, you'll need something new to bring to the table.  Having someone who cares and asks about your writing makes you want to have news to share--whether it's that you've gotten new queries out this week or made your writing goals each week.  Finally, having a critique partner means you're also honing your own critiquing skills.  It's sometimes easier to spot errors and problems in other people's writing than your own, and the more you crit others' writing, the more you learn to identify and revise writing problems, and the more you then apply those lessons to your own projects.  The benefits of having critique partners are numerous.

3)  WHY IT'S IMPORTANT TO ESTABLISH SOME GROUND RULES:  When you take on a new critique partner or join a new critique group, establishing some rule for how things will work is important. One thing writers don't have enough of is time, so to maximize time it helps if everyone knows and follows what's expected.  You don't want to get in a position where you're doing all the critiquing, and your partner blames deadlines and real life crises for never getting to yours.  Do you want a line edit or comments on only the plot arc?  If it's a group you've joined, how many pages will be critiqued, how frequently, and what is the author's role during the actual discussion of your piece? Are there rules for who can join?  Are the members seriously pursuing publishing, or is this a group of hobbyists?  Knowing all this going in will make things smoother, more efficient, and thus more useful to you and your writing. Establishing expectations and rules from the beginning makes critique relationships work best.

4) WHAT TO CONSIDER ABOUT CRITIQUE GROUPS:  If you've found a critique group, whether online or in your area, consider these issues:  How frequently do they critique? What genre do the other members write? How much will you be expected to read of others' work and how often? What proportion of members are novice, pre-published authors versus multi-published veterans.  It's great to have the feedback of the veterans, but this may also intimidate some newbies.  And, while we all should play the role of mentor to the extent time allows, you probably don't want a situation where everyone's fresh out of the gate and below your general level of knowledge.  Make sure the group or partner is the right fit for you.

5) HOW TO OFFER CRITICAL FEEDBACK IN RETURN:  The worst comments I ever received on my writing came via a contest entry.  Two of the judges had enjoyed my work and scored it rather high (25/30 and 28/30).  But the final judge gave it a 17/30.  On the score sheet, she'd marked multiple categories as 1/5, the worst possible option.  She called my story "highly unoriginal" and labeled my characters as "two-dimensional."  The tone of her comments was dismissive and patronizing, and she offered nary a positive comment or suggestion of how to make it right.  This is an example of how not to be a critique partner.  Nothing is all bad.  Start by emphasizing the things that work for you.  When you read through, highlight passages or phrases that really stand out.  When you get to the more critical feedback, be honest (because sugarcoating the problem will not help your partner) but also be kind about it.  Remember that the person whose work you're reading put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into it and probably cares about it like it's her firstborn child.  To the extent that you can, go beyond pointing out the errors to give her a sense of how to fix them.  If passive voice plagues the piece, take the time to show her what an active phrasing might be.  Remember how you feel when someone points out your flaws, and couch your comments the way you would want to receive them.  Be nice.  Have empathy.  But be honest.

Do you have an established critique partner?  How does it work for you?  What other advice might you offer?

Thanks for reading,


Joya Fields said...

Great stuff, Laura. I completely agree that writers are the only ones who can critique well enough to help you get published. That's horrible about your contest experience! Not a critique, a bashing.
For writing purposes, I say an opinion is what you THINK about something and a critique is what you THINK WILL HELP THE PIECE GET PUBLISHED.
Thanks for posting on such an interesting topic. :) Joya

naelany said...

All very good points. And I hear ya on the contest-ouch there... *cringe*

Jenna Howard said...

I miss my critique partner.

A great one is hard to find.

I wonder if I nag enough if she'll come back to writing...hmmm

Laura Kaye said...

Oh, Jenna, that's hard. I don't know what I would do without Lea and I can imagine how difficult it would be to replace her.

Joya--I really like your distinction, and that's key to emphasize--critique partners are there to help you make your writing publishable.

Thanks for stopping by!

Tee said...

Had to stop by and say hello to my fellow critter. Good points. Mutual respect for each others work is so important. When my critique partners tell me a plot point, a scene, or characterization is crap, I want to know it was said with love.

Laura Kaye said...

Oh, so true! Tough love is good, just so long as you've got the trust and familiarity to know the love is true!

Nina said...

Excellent points Laura. You're very luck to have your critique partner. Wow, that contest judge was... lol

aarbaugh said...

Wow, that's a great post on crit groups. I've never been part of one and was considering it for the very near future. This gives me a clearer picture of what to expect. Thanks. Guess I need to talk to Joya about the Critters.

LTM said...

this is so true, Laura! I have two faithful critters I could not live without. They give such valuable insight. And it's so so important to remember the whole empathy, kindness rule! Thanks~ :o) <3

Laura Kaye said...

Critters rock! :)

Thanks all!

Sharon Buchbinder said...

Great post, Laura! Thanks for reminding me about all the writing and reading I need to do this week! LOL!

Laura Kaye said...

Ah, yes, Sharon. You and me both!