What Makes a Critique Partner?
Today, I’m going to hop up onto my soap box and discuss my favorite topic for writers at any level – Critique Partnering.
I have only been a writer for a few years now, but I can honestly say that there’s no better way to hone your craft than through the critique partner (CP) process. It’s a give and take. And, by that I mean you only get out of it what you put into it – both in terms of giving and receiving feedback. Allow me to break it down.
The art of giving feedback is important if you want to be a good critique partner. And it is an art, not a science. Remember, the person on the other end of the Ethernet connection from you believes strongly in their work. They’ve poured their heart and soul into it. They labored over it for months (maybe years). When writers send you their manuscript, it can feel like they’re offering up their first born. Handle it with care. Be respectful. Make sure your feedback is constructive – don’t just shred it so you can show off your editorial skills. That’s not what they need (unless, of course, that’s specifically what they ask you to do).
I always begin any new CP relationship by asking specifically what they are looking for in terms of feedback. Perhaps they’ve already received critical feedback and want to see if the changes they made are sufficient to address previously identified gaps. Or maybe they just want to know if it flows or if you can relate to the characters. These are all important nuggets that will help them be successful and that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about you. It’s about your CP. Make them feel good about themselves. I always try to start small – a few chapters max – then build up to a full manuscript if we have good chemistry.
The world has enough negativity in it – be a ray of sunshine for your CP. Even if you don’t feel it’s the best, remember, you’re only one person. Writing is subjective. What speaks to one person may not appeal to another. You are not judge and jury. But your CP may take your feedback that way. Find the good in it and set it up on a pedestal. Shine a giant spotlight on it. Help them celebrate how far they’ve come. Maybe you like the idea, but not the delivery. Maybe you like the story but don’t relate to the protagonist. Whatever it is, sing it from the rooftops, then get down to business.
Giving Negative Constructive Feedback
Most CPs are ready to receive negative feedback when they put their work in your hands. They’re asking for it, but many are not ready for the water to hit them in the face at firehose pressure. And that’s the reality. Their work is good, but good is the enemy of great and you want to help them be great. So what do you do?
Much of being a CP is relationship building. You need to figure out who you’re dealing with. Can they take harsh criticism? After all, if it doesn’t come from you, it will come from someone else down the line. Don’t set them up for failure. But don’t pull the ladder out from under them, either. There is a middle ground. And that middle ground begins and ends with respect.
Start with what they’re looking for. If it’s developmental feedback, give it to them. Start with the positive and end with the opportunities. Notice that I didn’t say “negative” feedback. That’s because there is no such thing. There’s positive feedback and opportunities to improve. Give both. Encourage, don’t discourage. That’s not your job. Life is full of disappointment. Don’t be the source of it for them.
When offering Opportunities to Improve, be honest and fair. If you don’t know something, admit it. They aren’t coming to you for your expertise. Chances are, you’re at a similar writing level. This isn’t the time to puff out your chest and knock someone else down to make yourself feel good. That’s not what the writing community is about. It’s a place for people to lift others up, to help others achieve their goals. Do your part.
Receiving feedback puts you, as the writer, on the receiving end of criticism. Hopefully, you outlined specifically what feedback you were looking for up front so that the response from your CP is the engine that propels you forward and not the anchor that pulls you down. Look through the feedback objectively. If you don’t understand what someone means, ask. After all, it’s for you and you alone.
If the feedback is harsh, sort through the words to derive meaning that will help you. Sometimes, feedback can be like the coach on the sideline who is always yelling at you. If you ignore the volume and listen to the words, you can mine helpful information from what is said. If you focus on the volume, you’ll tune out the words and gain less from the experience.
At its most basic level, a CP is a reader. There are bestsellers that people hate with a burning passion. Just because your book may appeal to one person doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. But criticism is what makes you better. Sure, having someone blow sunshine up your book spine feels good. But, if the agents aren’t waiting on your doorstep with offers of representation, chances are good that you have room to improve. If someone only has positive things to say about your book, that’s great, but beseech them to find 2-3 things that you can improve, no matter how small.
Likewise, remember that a CPs feedback is the opinion of one person. There is no universal standard for all books and there’s no single critique that will fix every hole in your manuscript. Read the feedback multiple times. Chew it multiple times before swallowing. If it upsets you, set it aside for 24 hours and come back to it. Remember, you don’t have to follow all of your CP’s suggestions. Only use the ones that you feel make your manuscript stronger. In the end, it’s your book. Your name (or your pen name) goes on the cover.
How Many CPs Do I Need? Where Do I Find a CP?
Unfortunately, there’s no number scale for CPs. It’s really up to you as the author. Remember, if you ask someone to find faults in your story, they will. Each CP will offer you something. You need to determine if the feedback makes your manuscript better or if it’s just a different perspective.
At some point, you will need to determine whether you require more feedback or if you are satisfied with the product. Some of this will depend on the type of feedback you are receiving. If multiple CPs suggest that you’re “telling” too much (instead of “showing”) or you are info-dumping or your characters are not relatable or you have plot inconsistencies, these are signs that you probably need more revision. If the feedback is consistently nitpicky and isn’t substantive in nature, you may be at a point where you can wrap it up and look to move on to the next phase.
Ultimately, it’s your call. Once you develop your CPs and figure out who consistently you gives you the most helpful feedback, you will have your core group of peeps to go back to time and time again. In order to keep them, you will have to be willing to put equal time into helping them along their writing journeys. My advice, find your tribe and work with them until you all reach your goals. After all, writing is a solitary activity, but you don’t have to go it alone. In fact, you’ll grow at a faster pace and your writing will improve immensely if you engage others along the way.
There are a number of writing communities out there to help you find your peeps. Peruse the writing communities on Twitter, especially leading up to one of the many mentoring contests. Pitch Wars, Author Mentor Match, RevPit, WriteMentor are a few that come to mind, but there are so many more. Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram are great resources to help you interact with writers at all levels. #CPMatch is another way to connect with potential CPs.
David Neuner is a licensed professional engineer with more than two decades of technical writing experience. Over the past several years, David has found his passion in fiction writing and continues to hone his craft through active involvement in several writing communities. David has written two full length novels – FEAR FACTORY, a science-fiction/thriller, and EVERYBODY I LOVE DIES, a dark young adult psychological thriller – and looks forward to a long writing career. David lives in Syracuse, NY with his wife Jennifer and triplet daughters Madison, Jessica, and Emily. @david_neuner