A long time ago, two enthusiastic yet green writers met on an online critiquing site called The Critique Circle. They wrote stories riddled with hollow characters and cliched plots, but that didn’t stop them from becoming fast friends. Through practice, critiquing literally thousands of submissions, and spending untold hours reading and responding to forum conversations on writing, these two eventually learned a thing or three about the craft. Eventually, they even penned a few books with the word “thesaurus” in the title. Who knows, maybe you’ve seen one hanging out on a writer’s desk somewhere.
Here’s one of the BIG lessons these two scruff-and-tumble writers learned: having a critique partner can really shorten your learning curve. The eyes, knowledge and experience of another writerly human being can give the insight and distance an author lacks. Of course, it’s all about finding the right critique partners who are a perfect fit, and understanding how to best work together. Becca and I still are going strong well over 10 years after we first met, and there’s no one I’d rather hand my work over to than her. So please help me welcome author Dee Romito who has a few “rules” to make sure our critique partner relationships stay healthy and function as they should.
Six Rules that Keep Critique Partnerships Golden
Good critique partners (affectionately known as CPs) are invaluable on your publishing journey. They will be your go-to sources for questions, support along the way, and much-needed feedback.
I checked in with a few of my most trusted writing friends to get their thoughts on what makes a great critique partner. Here are six things you can do to be a helpful critiquer and what you might be looking for in a critique partner.
Offer suggestions. Blunt comments are not the same thing as constructive feedback.
There’s a line between being honest and being helpful. Try to explain why you think a change should be made or make a suggestion as to how to improve it.
“Something I make sure I don’t do (or at least try not to) is to simply say I don’t like something. That is never helpful information. If there is something that I think is off, I try to explain why I think that. For example, ‘This sentence felt repetitive because you gave the same information above.’” – Janet Sumner Johnson, author of THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURE OF THE PB&J SOCIETY
“I once had a reader who crossed out whole pages of my manuscript and rewrote sections and, knowing how that made me feel, I will never change anything in anyone else’s document. I won’t even add a comma or correct spelling in the ms itself- I drop a note in the ‘insert comments’ instead.” – Jen Malone, author of MG and YA novels, including THE SLEEPOVER and YOU’RE INVITED
If there’s something you don’t understand or you feel like something’s missing or unclear, ask about it. Writers are sometimes too close to their own work to see it.
“I really love receiving critiques where the CP has asked questions instead of making comments (example: ‘Do you think she’d be feeling this right here?’ instead of ‘I don’t like the way she’s feeling sad here- she should be mad!’)” – Jen Malone
“I like critique partners who ask a lot of questions. This always helps me think about different paths I can take a manuscript.” – Jen Maschari, author of THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF CHARLIE PRICE
Point out what works, as well as what doesn’t work
This might sound like a no-brainer, but you need to make a conscious effort to point out both the weaknesses and the strengths of a piece.
“My go-to critique partners aren’t afraid to tell me what I need to fix . . . even when they know I won’t be happy to hear it, but at the same time, they are nice. They point out the things they liked, too, and somehow this makes the hard stuff much, much, much easier to swallow.” – Janet
“I always try to point out things I love or that made me laugh, in addition to the things I didn’t connect with quite as much- I have one CP who highlights lines or sections she loves in green highlighter. For me, it definitely keeps my spirits up amid digesting all the things I need to address in revisions.” – Jen Malone
“Many times, writing can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, so those hearts or ‘I love this’ comments or even a smiley face can go a long way to cheering me on as I tackle the bigger stuff.” – Jen Maschari
Know what the author is looking for. Overall, line edits, voice, consistency, something specific.
At various points in the process, writers need different kinds of critiques. Know what the goal is.
“I make sure I know what the person is looking for. Did they want a big picture critique? Did they want me to fix grammar mistakes? That can make a big difference in how I read.” – Janet
“I always make sure I get a sense of what my critique partner wants first. What big questions do they have? Do they want me to look at the larger picture or do they want a sentence level look?” – Jen Maschari
Offer to clarify, answer more questions, talk it through, brainstorm.
A CP is meant to be a sounding board and someone who can help you work through the sticking points.
“Now that I’ve worked on some co-writing projects and realized how much more quickly a plot/outline comes together with joint brainstorming sessions, I’ve recently begun asking my CPs if they would be up for helping at the earliest stages of something new.” – Jen Malone
“Sometimes I’ll send a few scenes out to get a first reaction or a sense of what’s working and what’s not early on.” – Jen Maschari
CPs will go to you for your strengths. Know what they are.
Okay, so you might not know them yet. But you will. Do you notice every punctuation mistake? Do you find inconsistencies in manuscripts? Are you a plotting wizard?
“I definitely choose my beta readers based on what type of critique I’m looking for. For example, when I send a second draft out (I never send a 1st draft, just fyi), I look for someone who is good at plotting and seeing holes and how to improve that. When I’m further in the process and need someone who is good at making smooth prose or catching detail errors, I choose someone who is good at that. I have found that they each have their strengths. And it always makes sense to play to someone’s strengths.” – Janet
“I have a CP whose strengths are my weaknesses- I tend to focus on dialogue and plot more than the interior character arc and she’s always making notes that say “But what is she feeeeeeeling here?”– I really need that push!” – Jen Malone
These ladies have definitely helped me along the way and were essential in fine-tuning my middle grade debut, THE BFF BUCKET LIST. I trust their feedback and value their opinions. Without a doubt, having critique partners has been one of the most important pieces in my path to becoming a published author.
Whether you’re just starting out and are in the midst of searching for critique partners or you’re a seasoned veteran, these simple reminders help make critique partner relationships ones that will last through many manuscripts, all the ups and downs, and hopefully, lots of publishing deals.
Dee has a new book out, a terrific middle grade called the BFF Bucket List, and a killer blurb:
Two best friends. Twelve challenges.
Can the BFF Bucket List save their friendship or will that get crossed off too?
(Love it? I do!)
If you like, follow this link for a closer look, or add it to your Goodreads list!
And do hook up with Dee online–visit her blog or website, hang out on Facebook or throw tweets her way on Twitter. She’s super friendly, is always around chatting it up, and would love to hear from you.
Do you have a great critique partner? What rules would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
LoLo Paige says
I had a critique partner I found on that same site. For about a year we got along great, supporting each other and trading chapters. Then last month, I became overly fatigued after launching my first book. I had to step back from all things writing to sleep and rest. She had sent me a chapter at the same time I released my book and I had emailed back, saying I wasn’t sure when I could get to it. She didn’t respond. Then a few weeks ago she emailed asking if I read it. I told her no, I hadn’t had the chance yet and explained why. She went from zero to 90 on the rage scale and said it was inexcusable and unacceptable. I told her if she needed it right away she should have contacted me sooner. Then she said never contact her again and unfriended me on social media. I was stunned. And sad… that she chose to sever our working relationship and what had felt like a friendship over my not meeting her unspecified timeline. Instead I plan to stick to my local critique group, all of whom I know personally.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
That’s unfortunate, ugh. Not every critique partner is a good match. Thankfully most people wouldn’t behave this way!
Thanks. I learned a big lesson just by reading this.
Celia Lewis says
Oh so timely! I have a critique partner – yeah!! And I like and respect her, she’s funny and careful. Me, I’m a mess of mistakes and low self-esteem, so took a very long time to request a CP at my writing group meeting. Yeah, that trust issue.
Shortening the learning curve? Umhm, I already see some basic errors in the plotting. I’m quite good in spelling, grammar, and syntax, but how to get more emotion into the story, the emotional arc, the other’s POV – challenges.
Thanks – so useful to read this and the comments as well.
Bernadette Maycock says
Loved your intro;) Great post and all very true, great when you just click with someone like that:)
Traci Kenworth says
It’s so important to have trust. That way when they point out the errors, you know they’re not just trying to be mean. It always helps, like said, to say what’s working. This reinforces the good vibes between you.
I completely agree, Traci. And yes, trust is a really important factor!
Patricia Nozell says
I’ve just joined a new online critique group after being “group less” for the past few years. I can’t wait to share this with them, as we explore each other’s needs, desires, strengths & weaknesses. Thank you!
Thanks so much for sharing the post, Patricia! Best of luck to you with your new group. 🙂
Thank you for this post. Critique partners rock my work.
Thanks for stopping by, Dawn!
Sherri Jones Rivers says
Some of these tips are things I already do, but several ideas were new to me. I think we can all learn to be better critiquers. A stellar post.
Thanks so much, Sherri. The great thing is that we can learn to get better by paying attention to what works (or doesn’t work) for us when we get notes from someone. 🙂
Heather Kelly says
Yes, yes, and yes!!
Kathy Halsey says
I will be sharing this post w/ my CPs. TY.
Thanks, Kathy! Good CPs are gems. 🙂
Sara L. says
Great post, Dee! I try my best to offer constructive, carefully worded feedback, too. I always look at beta-reading and critiquing as a chance to help another writer improve their work – but I also don’t want to hurt their feelings. So I try to balance things by commenting on what I liked and what could use more work.
I liked your point about rewording some comments into questions. It gives the writer a chance to think more deeply about the area in question, and I hadn’t thought of that “technique” before.
Thanks, Sara. 🙂 Sounds like you’re doing a great job! Yes, questions are a great tool and really help a writer to see when something is confusing or sounds off to a reader.
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tips, Dee. I so agree that we have to be careful not to rewrite someone’s manuscript (or nitpick it to death) when we critique. I’ve had that done too and really try to avoid it when critiquing other’s works. Congrats on your book!
Thanks, Natalie! Yes, definitely. Sometimes a general comment guiding the writer to focus on a particular thing to improve it is enough. It’s his/her job to make the changes.