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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How To Be A Good Critique Partner

Critique groups abound, especially as NaNoWriMo wraps up. The crisp, cold weather of winter combined with the frenzy of writing a novel in a month spawns writing groups like there is no tomorrow. New writing groups are wonderful, but not all critique partners are created equal.

The horror stories about bad critique partners turning a book into a chimera are all over the place. If you have nothing better to do one day, ask me about it on Twitter when I'm in a talkative mood. I have stories. But this post is about how to make yourself a better critique partner.

1) Know the Expectations
Before you start any editing project you need to know what the author wants. The wrong critique at the wrong time will kill many a good book before it's finished. Ask the author before you start what they want. I offer levels...
-- "Just a look" where I read it over and give a thumbs up or down. This is perfect for rough drafts and cheering on an author struggling to complete a project.
-- "Look for plot holes" where I read and point out inconsistencies in the plot line, plot holes, and correct basic spelling and grammar errors with a note (ie - note: comma before proper names in DL)
-- "Shred it" where you nitpick every single word and flaw. This is an edit for a final draft. Every word and movement is under the microscope for nuance and meaning, and I only do this with an author who is subbing the piece in the next 6 months. I wouldn't attack a first draft like this ever.
-- "Final Edits" reading the piece out loud and looking for grammar and spelling errors exclusively. This is for a clean copy that's days away from being submitted. It's not uncommon for authors to add a spelling error while editing.

2) Know the Audience
Before you can critique you need to know where the manuscript is headed. As a critique partner the book isn't written for you, it's written for a reader somewhere out in the great, big world. You need to be the reader's advocate and make sure the book turns out well enough that someone who doesn't know the author can enjoy it.

3) Know the Market
Fuss all you like about artistic rights. If an author wants to publish a book they need to know the market expectations (word count, content, common tropes, ect) and so does their critique partner. A good critique partner is going to red flag a mid-grade manuscript that goes over the 60,000 word limit. You also need to be familiar with the genre your partner writes in. What happens if you and your buddy both write horror and then, one day, your partner decides to write epic fantasy YA? You either start reading epic fantasy YA, or you find your buddy a new critique partner who knows the genre. Trust one who has been mismatched with critique partners before, it's not pretty when someone edits a sci-fi manuscript with YA expectations. *shudder*

4) Trust The Author -or- Don't Cut To Early
Never tell an author a scene doesn't need to exist until you've finished the book. There's a habit in writing groups to rip and shred before reading, and it doesn't work. Yes, that opening line needs to be amazing, but the only legitimate comment you can give about the validity of an opening chapter is, "This works, I'm hooked." or "I'm not hooked yet, I'll keep reading and maybe there's a better opening." (Hint: check chapter 3)

5) Leave The Voice
The novice mistake of critiquing is to rewrite the book in your own words. Resist the urge. Every author has a unique voice, don't squish it into oblivion because you'd compare love to a summer's day and the author compares love to a rosy sunset.

6) React
Ninety percent of the notes on a good critique are reaction notes. "Oh My Gosh!!! I can't believe Character just did that!" ... "Love it!" ... "I laughed here." ... "I'm picturing him naked, which I know is wrong. Rewrite." Reactions let an author know if things are working. A large, and often overlooked, portion of editing is leading the reader down a path of emotions and reactions. If the author wanted a scene to be warm and cuddly and it's coming off with a stalker vibe, the author needs to know. Don't get caught up in the But-The-Author-Told-Me trap. Readers are not going to have a two hour conversation about this scene with the author. They won't know that the author wanted the guy to be authoritative and demanding. The reader will see a stalker scene, not an authoritative male being Alphahole-ish but sweet.

Do you have anything to add? What makes a critique partner great? Hit the comments and tell me all about it.


  1. I very much appreciate examples, whether in wording suggestions or alternative actions a character can take, etc. Even if I don't ultimately use the suggestion, often it gets my gears turning enough to come up with something else.

  2. #3 has burned me sooo much. When I wsa first really into getting feedback, I used to think it didn't matter as much, but then I ended up with bizarre crits where people basically wanted to change the entire genre of my story.

    So, yeah, much more picky about my crit partners now.

  3. When I crit on CC, I'm doing the looking for plot holes crit. I don't really care what genre the story is written in, I'm looking at how the story flows and what makes me trip up when reading. After reading through once I go back through, paragraph by paragraph, and give my reactions and what I noticed.

    I will give examples of how I'd rewrite a line just to show how I interpret words. I make it very clear to anyone I'm critting for the first time that these are my words and are not meant for the author to use (unless they really like the words and fit their style). I also make sure I'm clear on the image their words gave me for the scene.

    One thing I make sure to start and end my crits with is whether or not I enjoyed the story and wish to see more of it. Having read so much, it takes a lot for something to make me say "I love it" but I will comment on where I laughed or particularly enjoyed a line or paragraph.

  4. Loved the post. I have to say it can also be eye opening to have someone critique who doesn't/understand/like the genre. My DH has critiqued with the eye of an outsider and that's given me completely different perspective on some stories (even if I may not agree with him. :)