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
- Ask questions
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!)
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.