Working with a Critique Partner

June 9, 2011

I started thinking about finding a critique partner years ago. I read countless posts from seasoned writers who advised “newbies” to join critique lists and groups. So I thought about it…

And I thought about it some more…

One day when I was lurking at the Harlequin message boards, I read a post from a writer of contemporary romance who was looking for a critique partner. And as they say, “the rest is history.”

Nicole and I have been working together for months now. (Actually, it feels like I’ve been working with her for years.) In the beginning, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I even Google searched “how to work with a critique partner.” Nothing appeared, so I learned as I went.

If you’re thinking about working with a critique partner, here are a few things I think you should know.

1. Finding a critique partner isn’t hard, but working together may be.

If you belong to Romance Writers of America, then you have access to email lists and local chapters where talk about finding critique partners is plentiful. Online, Harlequin and other sites for writers post requests for critique partners too. Finding one isn’t hard. But once you find a willing writer, what do you do?

Make sure you know how you like to work/write. Do you want chapter-by-chapter encouragement as you’re constructing your first draft? Or would you rather have three drafts down before you offer your work to your partner?

How you work matters, because it impacts the flow of interactions with your partner. You both need to be aware of how the other person works.

Nicole is a very steady writer, and she uses feedback to make sure she’s on course with her original intent. She sends me each chapter, often as she writes it. Knowing this about her allows me to temper my critiques so that I’m not overreaching and molding the story to my personal specifications.

On the other hand, I need to write my story, sit with it, rewrite and know the characters and plot like I know my own name before I send a chapter to her. She makes me think by asking a lot of questions that I can’t answer if I haven’t written the entire manuscript first. Knowing this about me, she is patient and yet encouraging as she keeps me writing without even reading a word.

If you expect to exchange one chapter at a time but your critique partner wants to exchange whole manuscripts, working together could be a little difficult. Be prepared for different work styles. Be flexible.

2. Suggestions are suggestions, not demands.

Nicole and I “track changes” and “add comment” in each Word-saved chapter we critique. By now she knows I think by writing comment notes in the margin of her chapter. The comments include random dialogue, rhetorical questions, basic critiques or gushing about a yummy hero. Sometimes these comments run the better part of a page. Often these comments end with, “Holy Hemingway, I rambled, didn’t I? Sorry.”

Do I expect Nicole to take action on every word I write? Of course not. And on the flip side, I don’t always make the changes she’s suggested. (Mostly I do, though. Because mostly, she’s right.) And we don’t explain our decisions to each other, unless not making the change is something that impacts the next chapter enough to warrant a discussion. In the end, Nicole is telling her story her way, and I am telling my story my way.

Be open to suggestions and make helpful suggestions, but don’t lose sleep over advice untaken.

3. She’s more than critique partner…she’s a friend. (Or he, sorry guys!)

This is particularly true with critique partnerships that form online. We all know something is lost without face-to-face contact, and usually that something is compassion. The result is an edge to our written words we never intended:

“Yuck! Would he really say that? Lord, I don’t think he’s very nice right now. Maybe if you changed ‘ugly’ to ‘odd’ he’d seem like less of a jerk.”

Imagine someone writing something like that about your hero. Now imagine it’s also being said about one of your favorite lines in your manuscript. Harsh, huh?

After working together on a couple manuscripts each, Nicole and I have developed a comfortable and honest approach to critiquing. Still, when I read her comments on something she blatantly has problems with, I’m a little stunned. (And I know she feels the same when she reads the same from me.) It can take an hour or two—more even—until I’m seeing things clearly enough to take action or respond.

You know what helps sooth the sting even more than time? Being friends.

Nicole and I have things in common aside from writing. I enjoy hearing about her life, not just the life of the characters she creates.

I like her…I’m not just using her to get published. And that makes all the difference in the world.

You can’t celebrate the successes of someone you don’t like. And you sure as heck can’t take constructive criticism from someone you don’t respect. So while you’re trading chapters, trade a bit of information about your personal lives. Get to know the person behind the writing.

You’ll gain more than writing skills and a polished manuscript…

You’ll gain a friend.


3 Responses to “Working with a Critique Partner”

  1. Tari Says:

    This is great advice! I’ve been thinking more and more about looking for a critique partner lately. Hubby of course reads every word and is my sounding board, but I’m due for some fresh unbiased eyes to look at my work. I’ve thought about asking my friend Cindy, who is a college English teacher….to look at it, but YIKES!!

    Maybe I’ll check with RWA, thanks for sharing your experience!!

  2. Nicole Says:

    I think it’s very underrated but VERY important, like you said, to genuinely like your CP. I’m very lucky that I do!

  3. […] week my CP wrote this great post about Critique Partners. She made a lot of great points on working with a critique partner, and it got me thinking about […]

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