As I was writing my blog post for whether or not it was important to have a critique group, I realized that another very important question is “what makes a valuable critique partner” if you choose to go that rout. As I’ve said before, I’ve been in many critique groups of various sizes ranging from 2 to 15 people and each of those groups had their own personalities that jived with me and others that didn’t. The large critique groups can be pretty overwhelming with so many differing opinions about a single piece of work and the smaller groups can be cozy and intimate, but if you decide that critique groups are for you without the right partner(s) you’ll just crawl your way through your stories.
So what characteristics make a valuable critique partner?
Let’s take a look…
Your partner should be someone who can support you and you can support them.
It’s always a great feeling to be supported and encouraged. For me, this is the most important aspect of finding a critique group or partner. It doesn’t matter if you relate to them through subject, talent, interests, or you’ve just been friends forever. You don’t have to be best friends but it’s good to be in a positive relationship with the person who supports your creative heart and encourages you in your goals. Remember this person is seeing into your inner most heart. Have fun with your writer friends and critique partners. Help them and they’ll help you too.
Be sure that your critiquing style is similar to your partner’s.
Do you give general comments or do you send time giving more in-depth analysis. Be sure you are not spending more time on your partner’s work than they are with yours. I’m not exactly talking about 10 minutes versus 20 minutes, I’m talking about whether you spend time to give an in-depth analysis and they give you a general overview.
Personally, I have a hard time giving general overviews when I read through a partner’s work. If I’m going to be spending my valuable time actually reading (not skimming, but reading) someone’s work they are going to get an in-depth analysis from me. I’ll catch grammar, I’ll look at sentence structure, I’ll look at word choice, I’ll look at story continuity, I’ll look at character development, I’ll ask question about things I don’t understand, or compliment parts that I enjoy and explain why I enjoyed them. This is just my nature, I read slow – I don’t skim or speed read, it’s physically impossible for me. I read every word of what is placed in front of me because if I don’t I won’t read what you wrote, I’ll read some story I’ve made up in my head about what you’ve written. What good is that? As a result I will see copy edit kinds of things as I absorb the story and think about all the other aspects of story telling at the same time.
Be sure your critique partner is capable of constructive criticism and not just thrashing you all the time.
Some people mistake blunt honesty for constructive criticism, but most of the time it just comes off as mean and destructive. In my experience most people (not just writers) thrive in more positive, constructive environments, with people who build you up. You can shine light on someone’s faults without being insulting. Sometimes blunt honesty is needed, especially in cases when you make the same mistakes over and over again. Sometimes you need a sword to slash through your enemy, but most of the time a surgical blade will do just fine.
Can your partner articulate “why” something doesn’t feel right in your writing instead of just saying “it doesn’t sound right” or “it just didn’t work for me?” or even “I loved this part.” Well why? or Why not?
A good test is to ask them to express why your critique partner thinks one scene was boring and another was exciting? Or ask them if they like your main character and why? It’s hard to strengthen your weaknesses if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.
Your partner should understand the basic elements of the genre you are writing for.
There are certain conventions that are adhered to when writing a mystery, science fiction, YA, or literary fiction etc. and they are not always the same. There are also perspectives that are more prevalent in one genre over another; for example a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels are still written in on omniscient third-person, where as more mystery and YA novels are written in first-person president tense. Not to say you must do these things, but it is good to be aware.
If your partner is another writer be sure that you enjoy reading their work and they enjoy reading yours.
It’s never going to work if it’s too painful to read through someone else’s work. Know when to recognize that it’s a lost cause to share work. I know this also sounds kind of obvious, but you’d be surprised.
Your partner should have a firm base in the language you are writing in.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s important to be able to communicate your ideas effectively.
I know that this might seem obvious but if your critique partner(s) is not the same nationality as you, this could be a concern. I have one critique partner who is Dutch, we have great conversations about characterization and plotting, she can read English, but I can’t speak or read Dutch so I can only critique what she writes in English. And sometimes we have interesting conversation about how concepts can be conveyed in American English.
– Someone who is at the same level as you. This is the person who cheers you on and you can support each other throughout the writing process.
– Someone who is a little more experienced than you. This is the person you can use as your role model and receive encouragement from them as you grow as a writer.
– Someone who has a little less experience than you. This is the person you can help become a better writing, because it always helps you to become a better writer when you share your knowledge with others.
– It’s great when a partner who can read your story as a reader. (Do they laugh or cry at the right moments?)
I’ve had a variety of critique partners as a result of the sizes of these groups, some people were writers and others readers. Personally, I find that having both writer and reader critique partners is extremely helpful, you get varying perspectives on your work that way. A reader will often give you a very different opinion to a piece than a writer will. Sometimes it’s difficult for writers to turn off their writer brains in order to read a piece as a reader might, even if it is a piece of published work. I find it enjoyable when I can read a book or watch a movie as a reader or movie goer instead of as a writer. This goes for critiquing for me too, sometimes I can suspend my writer brain long enough to read a piece as a reader, but I’m not sure if it’s still really the same.
I hope you can find yourself a helpful writing buddy or a nice critique group, it’s majorly helpful along the road to becoming published.