How to Treat Your Critique Partner: 5 Simple Guidelines that Will Dramatically Change Your Relationship

Image courtesy of bandrat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net"
Image courtesy of bandrat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It happens to all of us.

You have finally finished writing something.  You put your life-blood into it.  It is your baby.  Your precious baby.

Only, it isn’t so precious.  Once you start looking at it analytically, you realize that it needs more work.  And the longer you look, the more work you think it needs.  Suddenly, that precious baby is this ugly monster that you’re responsible for.

Don’t fret, Dr. Frankenstein, I’m here to help.

What you need is a critique partner.  If you don’t have one, you can find one online.

Once you find someone to critique your work, you want to go about it the right way.  You want to be polite and come off as a person who has it all together.  You don’t want to upload a weird file type that opens in German or email your work five days late.

You need some guidelines.  Which is where I come in.  I’ve been a critique partner for several writers in my area.  I’ve also been in creative writing and poetry courses, where a major part of our grade was the quality of our critiques.  I’ve worked with writers of all kinds: the over-eager, the procrastinator, the defensive.  I know what makes critiquing a smooth process, and I know what writers should do if they want to secure a critique partner long-term.

The following guidelines will help you.

1.  Ask the right person.

This is a biggie.  Do a bit of research.  What does this person read?  What genres are they familiar with?

This does both of you a favor.  They won’t have to muddle through something they hate, and you will have someone who is familiar with your genre.  Win-win.

2. Communicate.

There are things that you need to discuss before you accept this person.   When do they want you to send the work?  When will they give you their feedback?  What file type do they prefer?

And, most importantly, what kind of comments do you need?

Let me tell you a little story here.  I’ve been in several critique groups, and it never fails.  When I was in school, I was in a different critique group every semester.   Each time I sent a submission, I would get at least one copy back edited.

I did use the comments.  But, that’s not what I was after.   I wanted to know if my plot was plausible, if my characters were realistic, if my dialogue was believable.  So, you need to be specific about what you want.

But, don’t go overboard.  When I was thirteen, I was writing a novel.  At the end of each chapter, I would write fifteen questions for my first reader, my lovely mother.  And she answered those questions, and they helped, but what was better was her personal reaction and commentary.

So, you don’t need to issue a questionnaire.   Just let your partner know what you’re after.  “I’d prefer you to focus on the big picture and any plot holes.”  Simple as that.

3.  Give them your work.

This may seem obvious, but I’ve worked with people before who put me off.  “Oh!  You wanted it this Monday.  Oh, this is embarrassing.  I thought you meant next Monday.”  There were a lot of Mondays like these.

Make sure you give them what they want.  Double-check the file type.  Make sure you send it on time.  Include a happy little note in the email thanking them for their time (even if you’re paying them).

4.  Respond to their comments.

THIS is where things can get out of hand.  I advise not even opening their response for a very, very long time.  Let the project hang until you are less invested.

Then, with an air of caution, open their response.  Read everything.  Then, close it.  DO NOT RESPOND THEN.  Come back to it.  Read it again.  Consider what they were trying to convey.

To be honest, a lot of people are going to make you mad about your work.  They’re going to tell you that such-and-such shouldn’t have died.  Or that your voice isn’t fitting.  Your plot doesn’t go anywhere.  Whatever.

Once, I was in a critique group for an editing and publishing class.  We decided to workshop some pieces that we felt could be published.  I didn’t have much, so I just picked the first chapter of my novel, which is YA SF.  It’s fun and different, and written from the POV of someone who just doesn’t care what people think.

Some people loved it.  Some hated it.

But, one person gave me a 1 (on a scale of 1-5).  A 1, in that class, was a 10/100.  A failing grade.  A 1 meant that the writer demonstrated no effort whatsoever, the writing was very poor, it was done last-minute, incomplete, and full of grammatical errors.  I was the only person in that class to make a 1.  Her comment?  “I don’t like zombies.”

Glorious comment, that.  Wonderful reasoning behind your dropping my project average from a 4-5 (90) to an 80.

The point is, people can be aloof.  Some don’t get it.  Some will never, ever, ever get it.  Some will go through life thinking that only the traditional writers are real writers and that YA doesn’t exist and that if a woman publishes it’s “chick lit” and if a man publishes it must be read and circulated immediately.

You cannot change this Order of Things by writing an angry comment.  You can just endure.  In my class, I did not cry or demand a different score.  I was frustrated.  But, I remained civil.  Because she had at least taken the time to realize that it had zombies in it.  Which meant she read line one.  Which is more than some.

5.  Follow-Up

This is where you can make your comments.

Once you’ve accepted that people are dumb and not everyone will get your art, you’re ready to respond!

Just kidding.  You’ll never fully accept it.  But, once you know you can write a well-reasoned, civil reaction to their comments, write away.

Keep it brief and to the point.  Unless it is absolutely necessary, do not argue with them.  Do not say, “I get what you mean by ________, but what you must have missed was ______.”

Or even, “And I knew _______ needed work when I sent it.”

Do not belittle their input.  If you knew something was wrong before you sent it, you should have changed it beforehand.  If they only told you what you already knew, that was your fault, not theirs, and they still deserve respect and gratitude.  After all, they did read your beautiful little monster.

After you respond, ask if they’d be interested in seeing more, at a later time.  If you like they way they do their thing, try to build a relationship with them.

That’s all, my friends.  Stick to those basic guidelines, and you will be well on your way to securing a long-term critique partner.  Or, at the very least, you will know how to get your work critiqued without coming off as rude, aloof, or unappreciative.

Do you have any guidelines to add?

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6 thoughts on “How to Treat Your Critique Partner: 5 Simple Guidelines that Will Dramatically Change Your Relationship”

  1. I think your first point, asking the right person, is huge. Like romance, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of toads to find the right crit buddy. Another thing is to remember that it is your story, and that it is up to you to pick and choose which comments/suggestions you want to use. Just because someone says something critical about your ms doesn’t mean you have to change it to please them.

  2. I’m so fortunate to have found and kept my CPs I can trust them absolutely for their honest opinion, and that is priceless. I met two of them in a writers meet up and the other through friends, so keep your eyes open. You can find a good CP almost anywhere.

    1. You are very fortunate! It can be tough to find the right CP, but you’re completely right in that they are almost anywhere. I met one of mine in drivers ed in high school of all places! 🙂

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