If there’s anything I’m an expert on in the literary world, it’s how to luck into amazing critique partners.
They are encouraging and supportive, and they kick my metaphorical butt when I need it. Like the time my friend Charlie threatened to have a box of live crickets delivered to me if I didn’t meet a specific deadline. They believe in me when I forget how, and they love my words when my brain is too fogged over by doubt to see them properly anymore. I need my critique partners desperately, and I think they need me too.
While I can’t give you my luck, maybe my thoughts about critique partnerships will help you build or strengthen a fantastic partnership of your own.
What do you expect in a critique? And what does your critique partner expect of you? Here are three key aspects of critiquing that might make a good starting point for such a discussion:
- Technical Editing.
- Content Editing.
Some partners are going to specialize in one of these areas. Some spread their skills across two or three. Make sure you know what kind of critiques you’ll be offering each other. If you only give general content feedback with a sprinkle of validation, make that clear. If you’re strictly a copy-editor with an eye out for technical issues, make that clear.
There are few things rougher than pouring loads of time into a critique and getting just a few lines back in return. Your partnership will be stronger if you give as good as you get. And some partnerships may develop even further to the point that you brainstorm together, vent to each other, and become dear friends.
To that end . . .
Take a little extra time to point out what’s working in your critique partner’s pages. Yes, it’s faster to just highlight what needs work, they’re praise is a vital component of any critique. If you have favorite lines in your CP’s work, tell them so! Someone else might be telling them otherwise. Plus? Warm-fuzzy feelings from being told you don’t suck can give you the strength to fix what does need work.
Most writers have a voice in the back of their head, pointing out all their inadequacies. Try to be louder than that voice. Of course, critiques that are only compliments aren’t really critiques at all, are they? A good balance of compliments and constructive criticism will help you build up your critique partner while giving them tools they can use to improve their work.
Confrontation is hard. Telling your CP to kill their darlings? SO hard. Sometimes it’s easier to pat them on the head, avoid eye contact, and say, “Yeah . . . that’s good. Real good.”
Remember the heading of the previous section? Be Kind? Avoiding the truth isn’t kind when it comes to helping your partner improve.
When you do offer genuine criticism, make sure you give context. Simply saying “I don’t like this” isn’t helpful. Whenever possible, try to give context:
“Her reaction here doesn’t ring true for me because X.”
“The flow of this sentence is awkward. Maybe it would work better if you broke it into two?”
“The backstory in this scene is slowing the pace and I don’t feel like I’m really with your main character anymore.”
“The POV feels too distant here. Try to zoom in so we can get a sense of his emotional reaction.”
Your genuine opinion is far more likely to be helpful if you actually give it.
I’m not saying you need to work at breakneck speeds and pull off a twenty-four hour turnaround every time. But if you say “I’ll have notes back to you next week” and your partner doesn’t hear from you for two months, that might be a problem.
If you only remember to critique after being reminded several times? That might be a problem.
If your partner has critiqued seventeen chapters for you and you’ve only critiqued two for them? That might be a problem.
I say “might be” because this is something you and your partner need to figure out between you. Communicate. Establish up front what your expectations of each other are.
Maybe your partner has four kids and works a graveyard shift at the local hospital, but their critiques are so amazing you don’t mind if they only do one for every five you do.
Maybe you have seventy kajillion things going on in your life and can only manage to critique a chapter a month for awhile. Or maybe there are times when you can only give general feedback and not line edits, or times when line edits ain’t no thang, because you’re swimming in spare time.
But if you don’t communicate, your partner might feel like they’re hanging off a cliff’s edge, dangling over the revision pit, with no clue if you’re ever going to help pull them up.
It’s okay not to have time sometimes. It’s even okay to get swamped and forget. But if you do? Apologize. Then establish more reasonable expectations of each other. Being human and being prompt are often mutually exclusive. Own up to your humanity, and accept your partner’s humanity*.
Quality critique partnerships aren’t born; they’re created. And creating, as we all know, requires effort.
*To a point, of course. If they’re being a jerk you’re allowed to say goodbye.
Whether you’re starting a new partnership or enjoying the blissful comfort of an old one, SAY THANK YOU. Not just for the first critique, or the best critique, but ALL critiques. Whether they’re as helpful as you hoped or not. Whether they send you into a tailspin of despair or soaring to new heights where you can see the “possible” of your story better than ever before, express gratitude for the time that went into the critique.
No matter how effectively the time was spent, it was SPENT, and that deserves your thanks. If you constantly struggle to feel enough gratitude to put into words, it might be time to ask yourself whether that particular partnership is worth continuing.
Above all, keep in mind that the ideal critique partnership is worth searching for AND working for. It requires so many leaps of faith. I know. And there’s terror in that. Of course there is. But the best partners, the ones worth keeping? They catch you when you leap.
And you catch them back.
And your stories become more than words on a page. They become worlds you build and visit together. I hope you find that. And I hope you get to be to someone what my critique partners are to me.
It’s one of the best kinds of magic.
Kimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.