The Critique Partner Relationship: Here's Looking at You, Kid


I don’t think we can stress this enough: if you’re a writer, critique partners are important. Critical. Absolutely one-hundred percent necessary. Last week, we gave you an opportunity to become a Critique Partner of Awesome; in March, we shared tips to polish your manuscript before you send it off to your CPs.

But what does it really mean to be a critique partner? Today I’m going to share a few ideas.

While I took creative writing courses in my undergrad years and read and made comments on classmates’ work, it really wasn’t until I got to graduate school that I truly understood the give and take of a critique partner relationship.

I earned an MFA in Creative Writing and the majority of my classes were workshops. We read and wrote and studied craft – no, more than that. We lived and breathed craft. We wrote and revised and bled onto the page and then made copies of our manuscripts for our classmates to dissect. We stood before them with our open wounds and invited them to barrage us with criticism and watch us bleed out. Yes, invited. This was how we learned. This was how we improved. In workshop, our classmates pointed out things that we could not see in our bleary, exhausted mindsets as we eked out those twenty pages of beginning, middle, and end – every word, every phrase hard-fought. They told us the ugly truth, they called us out, they made us do the hard work. They inserted daggers of reproof, then twisted them in our gaping flesh.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that bad. Truthfully, our workshops were safe and respectful. We always shared the positive things about a piece before discussing the negative. There were moments of clarity and brilliance, there were heaps of praise and encouragement. There were after-class conversations over a beer about single, powerful sentences.

It was beautiful.

In graduate school, too, I learned about trust. I learned – very quickly – that I valued some of my classmates’ opinions over others. I learned that sometimes you will never make a connection, no matter how hard you try. I learned that some connections are instant and magical and lasting.

I’ve since taken what I learned in those workshop settings and brought it to my relationships with my critique partners and members of my writing group.

When you sit down to critique someone’s manuscript, you will hopefully have already gone over basic expectations and the level to which you will comment and make notes. You’ll know what your CP is specifically looking for from you. Personally, I feel that a critique should be comprehensive – not only commenting on the elements of fiction and how they fit together to form the whole, but calling out spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors as well. Not everyone will do this. You may find that you have numerous CPs, one who has a sharper eye for errors and one you trust for “big picture” elements, for example.

Here are some of my other thoughts on how to be a CP:

1.      Be willing to give of yourself – your time, your knowledge, your willingness to set aside your own writing for a time to focus on the work of your critique partner.

2.      Be positive. No one wants to receive a critique that is filled with negativity. No matter what comments I leave within the manuscript itself, I always write a letter or notes and – just like I learned as a Human Resources Manager writing employee evaluations – you should always begin and end with the positive. We all like to hear good things about our work, right, even if there’s plenty of room for improvement?

3.      Be gentle – especially when you are first building the relationship. I had lunch with one of my CPs (and a great friend) the other day, after I’d just sent her back my notes on her recent manuscript. She laughed at me because one comment I’d made was: “Really?!” We’ve been CPs for years, and our relationship has evolved and progressed enough that she knew exactly what I meant and was not in any way offended by the comment, but I never would have been so flippant when we first began working together.

4.      Know your craft. It’s difficult to help others improve if you are not familiar with the elements of fiction, with the basic rules of writing. There are so many resources available now – books, websites, blogs – to help you understand the craft of writing fiction. You’ll improve your own writing and be better able to critique others’ work.

5.      Do not project your opinions, feelings, etc., onto the work! I cannot stress this enough. By all means, comment on the fact that a certain action or bit of dialogue seems out-of-character, for example, or that this plot point doesn’t really fit into the big picture, but understand that we all have our own styles of writing, we all see things differently. Remember that you are not writing this book.

This is somewhat tricky to explain, but I’ll give you an example. A character – let’s call her Ilsa, shall we? – is forced into a decision. Does Ilsa get on the plane and leave with Laszlo or does she stay with Rick, who is telling her she should go? I mean, come on. We ALL wanted her to stay with Rick, right? We all wanted true love to prevail, no matter the consequences. Damn if she doesn’t leave with Laszlo, but as a CP, just because you feel that Ilsa and Rick should have their happily ever after (which we all know was not going to happen), you shouldn’t criticize the author’s decision to put her on that plane.

6.      Be accepting. Remember how I said that you’re not writing this book? You’re not revising it, either. Your CP may take your advice or they may not. You’ll be in the exact same position when it’s your turn to receive the critique, so be cool. (Note: if you take the time to critique and edit a manuscript, and you see the same 30 pages a second time and the spelling errors haven’t been corrected, for example, yes, that’s irritating. But if they don’t take your suggestion about fleshing out a scene or adding more details about a character at a certain spot? Don’t lose sleep over it. It’s not your book.)

This goes for the recipient of the critique as well. Accept the fact that your CPs will have differing opinions, but know that, ultimately, it's your book and you make the decisions. Don't hate your CP because he or she wanted Ilsa to stay with Rick.

7.      Be respectful. No one is going to churn out a perfect first draft. We’re all at different stages in the journey. Respect and honor the amount of time, anguish, and work that went into the manuscript. Your CP is probably biting his or her nails at this very moment waiting for your comments. Respect that, too. You’ve been there.

8.      TRUST. Every CP relationship must be based on trust. When you send your work to your CP, you’ve got to trust that they have your best interest in mind – and vice versa. You may not agree with everything they say, but you’ve got to start with trust.

9.      Take your time. I say this from both sides. If you’re critiquing, once you’ve finished reading through the manuscript itself, you may want to sleep on it before you send your notes and give your overall, big-picture suggestions. And as the recipient of the critique, you may want to give it some time to settle before sending an email defending your choices or taking a hacksaw to the manuscript.

10.  Be honest about the relationship. If you have doubts about the critiques you’re receiving, if you feel like the relationship is unbalanced and the costs are outweighing the benefits, have a conversation about it. Decide if it’s a relationship worth saving. It’s okay to say thank you and move on. You'll always have Paris.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the CP relationship as well! What's worked for you? What hasn't?