The Writing Zone: Stage 11 - Critique Partners
Writing, as many of us know, can be - and usually is - a lonely adventure. It's like the protagonist in The Legend of Zelda for the NES - you may interact with a handful of people, but the moment you start your quest you are alone.
It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.
You obtained a CRITIQUE PARTNER!
...Okay, it's not that easy, but a critique partner is as important as the story you're crafting, and understanding what a critique partner can do for you even more so. As I've learned in the months following the meeting of my own critique partner, it can be a decision that's as influential as the editor or agent you choose to work with.
"But Trevor, I already have beta readers. Isn't a critique partner the same thing?"
Kinda, but not really.
"Get outta here!"
I'm serious! Let's get into the nitty-gritty of critique partners, why you want one, and why they're awesome.
As a writer, you are likely familiar with beta readers - people that review your manuscript and provide feedback based on the criteria you've established for them. You may even be aware of the less-common alpha readers - similar to beta readers, but read your manuscript as it's being written, providing feedback on a chapter by chapter basis. Both of these groups, I believe, are integral to the success of your story as it will give you a sense of how others outside of the writing community will perceive your work once it's in the wild. Since alpha and beta readers are reviewing your book ahead of it being scooped up by an agent, let alone published, you are able to act upon their feedback and make changes accordingly.
What is a Critique Partner
If you take all the traits of your ideal alpha/beta reader and crank them to eleven, you'll get a critique partner. A critique partner (CP) is another writer who not only is there to provide feedback on the work you submit to them, but is someone you can go to on a regular basis for writing advice, share story concepts before setting pen to paper, and to hold you accountable for your writing goals.
Critique partners are special because of the level of investment the two of you commit as part of the relationship. A healthy CP relationship can take many forms, but generally speaking these relationships require much more than what is expected of beta readers.
Benefits of a Critique Partner
There are many positives to having at least one critique partner on your writing team.
- You aren't alone. Whether you meet online or in person, having a CP means that there's someone you're actively working with that understands the challenges, the struggles, and the pain behind writing stories. It is a far more personal connection than working with beta readers, and they'll learn more about you than anyone that follows your musings via Facebook or Twitter. Knowing that someone is there to hear you out whenever something is on your mind or when you hit a writing roadblock... knowing that you are always a text message or phone call away from your CP makes a big difference.
- Writing advice at the ready. Because your critique partner is also writing their own stories (or maybe they're already published), they will bring their own "writer's toolbox" to the table, along with all of their experience. Being able to have lengthy conversations with someone that can provide meaningful advice on your writing and your stories can be invaluable, even if it means you find yourself tossing out some of your work as a result.
- Writer's Block-Breakers! One of the biggest benefits I've found with my CP is keeping my motivation levels strong. Let's face it: There will be more than one occasion where you'll find yourself in a rut, unable to write a single word, let alone a whole chapter's worth. There are so many obstacles that can find their way in front of you, their sole purpose to derail your creativity and get you to beat yourself up for all sorts of reasons. I spoke at length about the fear and doubt that can cloud your mind as you're writing, but one way to combat those thoughts is with kind (and sometimes firm) words from your critique partner. They will bring you back down to Earth, being able to inform you when you need to take a step back from what you're doing and take a break, or to be the drill sergeant that you really need and tell you what you have to hear in order to break the spell that's taken you over.
- Potential for new friendships. The final form of any lasting critique partner relationship. Writers can sometimes be annoying (how many people really want to hear you talk for days about all the minor changes you've made to Chapter 24?); we all have our quirks. All the more reason why a CP is so awesome: They not only will understand where you're coming from, but will reciprocate their own brand of enthusiasm that you'll likely enjoy. We're in this together, and finding a new friend out of the experience will only make your writing experience that much better in the long-run.
What to Look For
I've heard quite a few horror stories regarding critique partnerships that went south. The reasons for these failed relationships vary, but they do provide a benchmark for what you should consider when wanting to establish a formal CP relationship.
By the way, it's worth noting that these traits apply to you as well - critique partnerships are a two-way street, after all!
- Constructive Criticism. There's being honest, and then there's being unnecessarily cruel or offensive. You want someone that is not only willing to be completely honest with you in their thoughts regarding your stories, but able to convey their responses such that they aren't attacking or otherwise making you feel like crap for what they read. We all have rough spots in our work, especially in first, second, and third drafts. Your CP is there to be honest with you, but be able to point out the issues in a constructive manner - that way you can address them as you see fit.
- Provide Specifics On Your Work. The last thing you want in a CP is someone that gives "general" feedback. "This chapter was decent, though I felt it could be better." ...If that's where the feedback ends, they aren't doing their job. If a paragraph or block of dialogue could stand to be improved, your CP should get into the weeds and point out what they feel should be changed and why. For me, the more information shared is always better. My CP and I are all about dropping comments in shared Word docs, writing up summary documents and having post-mortem conversations that lasted hours.
- R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Above all else, your critique partner should treat you as an equal. We all have our own expectations that come from our experiences as readers, but when it comes to critiquing another's work, one should aim to provide feedback that will help realize the vision of their partner. You are not there to take over their book or otherwise change their vision to match your own.
Where to find critique partners
Just like meeting folks for any other endeavor, there are two ways one can find a potential critique partner.
- Online. I met my CP via Twitter. She posted a request for anyone that would be interested in reading and critiquing one of her short stories, to which I responded. After giving her my feedback via email we continued chatting via Twitter messages, which was when she eventually asked me if I had a CP and if I was looking for one. I wasn't at the time, but I didn't see a reason to decline. We hammered out our initial goals and expectations before signing on the virtual dotted line. A few hours after that, we exchanged our novels. After that... well, the rest is history. =)
- Anyway, I digress. Twitter and other social media platforms are easy places to potentially find other writers that may be interested in becoming your critique partner. Outside of the big-name platforms are the dozens of writing forums that exist (Absolute Write is my favorite) and online meetup groups such as Google's "Critique Partner Matchup".
- In-person. Face-to-face meetups, such as those organized within sites like meetup.com, is great for meeting several people in your local city that hold similar goals and interests. I've met lots of fellow writers thanks to a group like this, called "Shut Up and Write!" - something like this would be great for finding a critique partner. Alternatively, you can always sign up for a writing workshop - another opportunity to meet several people that have the same overall goal: To get their work published.
- Another option can be to ask one of your friends or family members, but only if they, too, have a strong interest in writing. In the case of family, there may be some inherent bias in your favor as well in terms of the kind of feedback you receive, so just keep that in mind before going "the easy route."
Having a critique partner can be an incredible experience - one that will impact your writing life for the better. It takes more effort across the board to arrange and maintain a critique partner relationship, but it is something I wouldn't have any other way. My CP's already left her mark on my writing - so, too, will yours.
Share your critique partner experiences in the comments below, positive or negative. Do you have any other advice that you'd like to impart regarding the dissemination of feedback to other writers?