Being a Critique Partner and trading chapter for chapter is part of the writing game. The benefits are numerous and there are plenty of posts out there that talk about why you should have a CP if you don’t already have one.
But I’m not going to be talking about why you need a CP. You need feedback on your work no matter how great of a writer you are. This is something that goes without saying, it’s one of those obvious facts of life.
Today I’m going to talk about the expectations of critique partners, particularly my own and how you can be a better critique partner for your writing pals.
You see, for me, the topic of critique partners is a little bit of a touchy one. Not only have I committed several of these blunders myself, but I’ve also been at the receiving end of some of the more destructive ones.
There is nothing more demoralizing than putting yourself out there looking for genuine help and getting someone who thinks they’re better than you.
Luckily, I have a wonderful and incredibly supportive team of CP’s to work with now. But as I’ve hinted at before, it was a long road to get here.
I owe inspiration for today’s post to the many writers who’ve shared with me their CP experiences as well as my own cringeworthy missteps. Let’s face it, we’re human. We make mistakes. It happens. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make fun of ourselves every now and then, right? It also doesn’t mean that just because we’ve maybe done some of these things that we can’t strive to improve.
For illustrative purposes in some of my points, we’re going to pretend that you and I are critique partners. So let’s get to it and get right down to the nitty gritty.
1. Be in This for The Right Reasons
Finding a CP is like dating. It’s awkward and there is some chafing to be expected. Figure out why you want a CP and make sure it’s for the right reasons. Don’t go trolling around for someone just so you can try to fish for compliments and boost your self-esteem. You need to be secure in your writing or at least secure in your desire to improve or else the entire critique partner thing is going to be incredibly painful for you.
2. Be Upfront About What You Want
You need to know why you want a CP and exactly what you are going to ask of them. If you need a line–by–line, then say so. If you prefer an overall chapter analysis then tell them that. If you’re looking for someone that is brutally honest, or someone that can see the bigger picture, or just someone to talk about writing with you, then you’re going to have to come out of that little turtle shell of yours and speak up.
There is no worse experience than trying to gel two different expectations.
Know your style and what you bring to the table so you can find someone that is looking for the same thing. Eventually, you’ll find someone who understands your vision and will be able to help you grow.
3. Make Suggestions for Improvement
This is huge! I LOVE it when my CP’s make suggestions for HOW to improve flow, structure, un-stiffen dialogue, etc. A vague comment on the side of my document sans suggestions for how to revise is USELESS to me and frankly a little frustrating. Telling me that you don’t like something means nothing without information and it just makes me feel annoyed.
If I can take the time when I CP your manuscript and think up ways for how you can improve your work, then do me a solid and return the favor. Because what this really means to me is that you genuinely care about my work and hope to see it eventually succeed.
I understand that some people don’t always have the right words for “how to fix” some weakness in another person’s work, but being specific about why you don’t like something should be good enough. Moreover, regardless of whether or not you have a degree and regardless of your knowledge concerning craft, you should be able to point out weaknesses and how these things could be better. You’re a writer too. You do this for yourself, why shouldn’t you extend that courtesy to your critique partner?
4. Be Specific in Your Feedback
This really should go without saying, especially as a follow-up to number three. But when you’re giving negative criticism, you should be as specific as you possibly can as to WHY something isn’t working for you. Vague statements just don’t cut it.
Because I need to understand what I’m doing wrong. If I wrote it, CLEARLY I think it’s fine. But if I’m sending it to you, CLEARLY I want to improve it. Right?
So the next logical step for you is to be specific in telling me where I missed the mark. Then you go back to trait number three and make a valuable suggestion for improvement.
Don’t forget to be reasonable. If you tell me that you hate my cheerleader character just because you HATE cheerleaders…ummm, first off grow up and second off try to be a little more objective.
Rational and fair people, let’s stay classy San Diego.
5. Don’t Be A Yes-Man
This is the worst thing for an author to be surrounded by. Don’t get me wrong. By all means shower me with your unfailing love when I’m doing something right, comment all your fangirling when I’ve hit you right in the feels. But don’t think you have to yes-man me just because you’re afraid to hurt my feelings.
Progress requires honesty.
6. Structure Your Criticism Constructively
The point of Critique Partners is to be constructive. Key word here is CONSTRUCTIVE. That means helpful. What that doesn’t mean is destructive. So don’t be a dick.
Just because you don’t start out knowing your CP well, and just because you think you’ll probably never meet this person in real life doesn’t mean you have the liberty to rip everything of theirs to shreds. The truth of the matter is that sending back chapter by chapter takes time. People have lives. This process can span over a few months if not more. So if you’re an ass, you’re going to burn down some bridges.
7. Have Some Thick Skin
Just because some group of beta readers from however long ago loved some former version of your manuscript, that doesn’t mean I care. Take the critique I gave you now and grow some thick skin. I guarantee that a critique from me is a million times better than you putting your book out there self–published and letting it fall into the hands of some of those teeny bopper reviewers out there who are BRUTAL or the Grinch when she gets going.
Stay level-headed. Remember that as your CP, I’m trying to help you. Remember that I don’t have bad intentions and that it’s not my goal in life to hurt you. So please, do us both a favor and don’t respond as if I’ve just told you that I think your baby is ugly. Don’t attack me with reams of explanations for every comment I send to you. Your defensiveness just comes off as petty and frankly desperate. Remember, trait number five? I’m not your yes-man.
8. Know How to Use What Serves You
On that note though, just because I suggest something that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to heed it. It’s just a suggestion. My word is not the law. It’s your work so use what serves you and move on.
On the converse of that, if you find that you’re always disregarding your CP’s suggestions you may want to consider whether or not the two of you are a good fit. Compare their feedback to other feedback to see if it’s similar. If you don’t have another CP, find one and ask for a second opinion. If there is just a huge discrepancy in opinion between your sources of feedback and you’re not learning anything that serves you from the CP providing the vastly differing feedback, then you should politely cut the ties.
If all else fails, use the 50% rule. If more than half of the feedback you receive shares the same or a similar opinion then you need to change something.
Because here’s the harsh truth, while this is your work and while you don’t have to take other’s opinions above your own, if you are constantly getting negative feedback on the SAME things in your work, then perhaps you need to stop being so stubborn and stop listening to the yes-men who aren’t helping you grow as a writer.
The purpose of a great critique partner to help you improve, not placate you.
9. Be Mindful and Courteous
If you can dedicate your time and energy to being a critique partner then the key to this relationship is to be helpful through suggesting improvement, being courteous and by communicating with your partner to let them know what’s going on with you.
If they send you chapters and you can’t get around to them because LIFE then just say so. Try to get to those chapters done as soon as possible but your critique partner will understand that you can’t do them this week. Just don’t put off your partner’s chapters indefinitely. That’s not cool.
10. Remember That You Are Not a Free Copyeditor
A common misconception about CPs is that they are free copyeditors. Wrong.
If, however, you’ve been blessed by the kind of CP who wants to be an adorable little button and clean up your booboos all on their own, then by all means let them. But definitely be sure to thank them for that because that is not in their job description.
Furthermore, if your writing needs a lot of work in the spelling and grammar department then hire a copy editor. The term is Critique Partner, emphasis on critique. Their job is to help you GROW by suggesting ways to HELP you fix your work. Again, you may luck out and have a super awesome CP who likes to be incredibly helpful and copyedit for you here and there. But you should NEVER expect that from them.
11. Don’t Ghost
This ties in to a few of the aforementioned points. If the relationship isn’t working anymore or the critique you receive from your partner makes you want to stop writing because it’s not constructive, then it’s time to politely step away.
But be an adult about it! Don’t ignore their emails or slowly give less and less critique and try to render yourself useless. You aren’t a teenager trying to get their boy/girlfriend to break up with them by being shitty and distant. You are a professional. So BE professional.
Tell your partner the truth so they don’t waste their time and energy on you. But for the love of everything in this world be polite (DO NOT BURN BRIDGES!).
12. Take Yourself Out of the Game If You Have to
If you can’t put in the kind of time, care, patience, and dedication being a critique partner requires, then take yourself out of the game.
“But I need my book critiqued!” You say.
Then hire someone. Don’t subject someone to your half-assed job and frustrate them to the ends of this earth because you can’t be straight with them. If they took the time to critique half of your manuscript for you, but you can’t even send them back their first chapter, then you need to realize that trading a service for a service isn’t for you. Pay a professional. End of story.
Perhaps I’ve set the bar too high. I mean, I do this for a living; I work for a university and teach college students how to write better. Quite literally, my job is to critique. So I think it’s fair to say that I know a thing or two about the critiquing process.
On the other hand, by no means do I expect people to be perfect. But I do expect a certain level of care and professionalism. Because you know what? I don’t think I’m really asking for much, when it comes down to it. I’m asking for genuineness, for a real relationship built on two people who WANT TO HELP each other. I think we owe it our CPs to be the best we can be.
We’re trading a service for a service here. Be on your A-game and hold your CP to these standards as well. If they can’t cut it, you don’t want to work with them anyway. Excellence begets excellence.
Provide the kind of service that you expect to receive. Half-ass it and don’t be upset when you get half-assed junk in return.
It’s a relationship. A PARTNERSHIP. Hence the term Critique Partner. Being on the same level with each other and communicating with one another is part of the process.
I realize that my expectations for critique partners aren’t standard practice, but they damn well should be.
*Special thanks goes to Tristen van den Berg who beta’d and CP’ed this post.*
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Discussion: What do you think about the critique partner process? What traits would you add to this list?
Until next time!
Keep Reading and Keep Writing,