Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Is it Time to Break Up With Your Critique Partner?

Critique partners should believe
in each other's work.
I've been really lucky to have great critique partners during my writing career, but many people are not so fortunate. Behind the scenes this week, a few newer writers have discussed with me their experiences with critiquing, and I thought the topic would make a good blog post. The stories I'm about to tell you are true although names and minor details have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Rebecca finished her first novel, a humorous suspense with a strong, gritty voice.  She joined a critique group to prepare for submitting her novel to agents.  When her first critique came back, there was more red ink than type. Halfway through edits, Rebecca realized that her new partner was trying to turn her lighthearted, humorous, suspense into a literary novel. She was successful when she scrapped the changes and stuck with her original version.

Jonathon swapped manuscripts with Eric.  Although Eric's manuscript was in poor condition grammatically, Jonathon worked hard to give Eric the most detailed feedback possible, pointing out multiple objective errors and how to correct them. In contrast, when Jonathon's manuscript was returned  it contained almost no comments from Eric.  Far from appreciating Jonathon's effort, Eric made it widely known in social circles that his manuscript was "ripped apart" by Jonathon.

Sally was a first time self-pubbed author who couldn't afford an editor. She traded manuscripts with another self-pubbed author, Tim, for proofreading. But Sally was pressed for time, so she skimmed Tim's work rather than giving it the attention she would give her own manuscript. She gave Tim feedback, but it was far from thorough. When Tim's feedback came in, there was more red ink than Sally was expecting.  Since she was still pressed for time, she decided to make only some of the suggested changes.  Tim was offended when the book was published containing objective errors that he clearly pointed out in Sally's manuscript. He was also disappointed when he found multiple errors in his own work she didn't catch and ended up having to hire an editor anyway.

 As writers, we all want strong critique partners but, unless your partner has worked as an editor, he or she is probably not practiced at coaching the best from your manuscript. AND THAT'S OKAY! Critiquing after all isn't a job, and fellow writers are not paid editors. CP's give each other a significant investment of their time, knowing it may not pay off in a direct way (Indirectly, I'm convinced critiquing keeps a writer's editing skills sharp and sparks creativity). I truly believe every well intentioned CP has something to offer a manuscript. But sometimes things go wrong and the relationship hurts more than it helps. 
A toxic critiquing relationship drags you down and makes you less likely to confidently pursue improvement of your work. 

Here are some warning signs of when to call it quits.
  • Your CP consistently corrects something (or multiple somethings) in your manuscripts that isn't wrong, despite you pointing out why your style choice is correct. You look up the style choice in CMOS just to make sure, and yes that colon, comma, etc. is in the right place. Still, he/she keeps "finding" it.
  • Your CP confuses opinion with fact. He/she just can't believe your character would do that and therefore your story is wrong. Or she heard that publishers were looking for X and your manuscript is Y therefore you have to change it. These sins are so formidable he/she can't finish reading your work although somehow you made it through his/her 100,000 word masterpiece on The History of The Snail.
  • Your CP is never available or takes an excessively long time to get your manuscript back to you, then has few suggestions for improvement.
  • Your CP says a bunch of complimentary things about your manuscript but doesn't catch the glaring typo on page 45, and you have reason to suspect he/she didn't read the entire manuscript.  This is what I call the poison pill.  Intentionally NOT pointing out problems or reviewing the manuscript haphazardly is the worst thing a CP can do to you because it gives you false confidence. Critique partners need to give and take honest criticism freely and peruse each other's work carefully. 
  • Your CP has never said anything complimentary about your writing.
  • Your CP doesn't thank you for your critique and/or doesn't use your objective suggestions.  Here I am talking about someone who makes an objective grammatical error, you point out the error, and they intentionally don't change it.  (And yes, I've heard of an incident of this happening)
  • Your CP gossips about your critique to others, or (God forbid) shows your unfinished work to others.
  • Your CP tries to make your writing something that it's not. Your humorous piece comes back sounding like non-fiction or worse.
Want to be a great CP? Do the opposite. Give careful, well-researched feedback, in line with your partner's expectations. Explain why you have the opinion you do when giving subjective advice. Point out both the good and the bad in the manuscript in a way that conveys that you really believe in your partner's ability to make it better. Give and take criticism confidentially with an open mind and in a timely manner.

Readers, I'm curious, how do you get the most out of your critiquing relationships?


  1. Hi GP,
    Good post, and a cautionary tale. I'm in a longstanding group with trusted members but at this point we are so busy we don't read each other's entire mss. I always hire a trusted freelance editor to work me through that final polish. I hear that more and more, authors are doing this. Following you here, now.

    1. Thanks, Catherine. I have a group like that and even partial mss critiques can be very helpful.

  2. Hi Gp, I'm dubious about having another writer critque my work. I would prefer to hear from a reader who loves to read in the genre I write. As for grammar and punction, I rely on the editor.

    1. That is a good way to go as long as the reader gives constructive, specific, and critical feedback.

  3. Thanks for all these tips on CPs. It's hard to find good ones as interested in helping you as you are to helping them. And your gossip tip is a sure no-no. *shivers*

    1. Thanks for stopping by SA! It is hard and it's something I know I take more seriously now (offering to critique other's work) than I did two years ago before I was published.


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