Critiquing 101

With all the edits I’ve been receiving from my test-readers lately, I have critiquing on the brain.  So I’ve been pondering the differences between “critique partners” and “readers,” and the advantages of both.

I’m always interested in hearing how other writers receive feedback.  In the “Business of Writing” FFF panel at Conestoga, I asked the panel (consisting of six authors and one agent) about their critique partners (CPs).  And it was frustrating intriguing because all six authors had a different answer.  One author was part of a critique group that met on a regular basis to read someone’s work.  Another author went to a writer’s workshop to try out ideas and excerpts on other writers.  The other answers varied, from one CP to three.  One person said she didn’t have a CP at all, but rather two or three people who would read her finished manuscripts.  I follow a lot of author blogs/websites, and it seems to me that the most popular answer is “one CP.”  They may have several more “test-readers,” but this is so varied that I haven’t come up with an average yet.  

If I had to answer this question myself, I’d say I only have one true critique partner–Syd.  I emphasize “partner” because she and I trade stories/ideas and help each other out.  We have very similar personalities, almost twin-like.  Plus we have a friendship that goes far beyond critiquing, so I trust her with more than just my story.  We talk about everything, but usually reading/writing comes up at least once during our conversations.

In contrast, I currently have several test-readers for my first novel…perhaps too many.  I was worried about having too many opinions, especially if they were all conflicting.  So far it hasn’t been a problem, but I haven’t heard back from all of them yet.  But I ended up with a lot of readers because I was excited about sharing my story, and I wanted to make sure it was okay before I started querying agents.  Here are my seven readers and why I chose them:

1.  Pat–for his religion expertise.
2.  Kim–for her livestock/farming background.
3.  Savannah and Victoria–to represent my target audience.
4.  Marcy–for her extensive knowledge of YA fantasy/paranormal.
5.  Jenny and Stephanie–avid readers with unique perspectives.  Plus they’re great friends, so I couldn’t stand keeping the story from them.   

I might not have as many readers for Book 2…I haven’t decided yet.  But it sure has been fun hearing their comments/suggestions/opinions.  A quote by Beverly Hale from the panel:  “If two people say you made a mistake, it could be coincidence.  If three people say it, then you should consider changing it.”  That’s not exactly what she said, but you get the idea.  If all seven of my readers say I’m doing something wrong, I’ll definitely listen!  Right now I’m working on a list of questions for my readers so I can get more specific feedback.  I love my readers; they’re so nice to take the time to critique my story.  At least with a partner, I’m returning the favor by critiquing her stories.  But how am I going to repay my readers??  (this would be a good opportunity for you guys to speak up.  *wink*)  I have edited for Pat before though, so I guess that debt is paid.  I wish I could turn Jenny and/or Stephanie into full-time CPs…if I could convince them to write something for me to critique.  🙂  

A lot of people ask, “How do I find a critique partner?”  Some of the common answers are local writing groups, writing conferences, or websites/fansites.  I met Syd when we were both writing fanfiction for the Twilight fandom.  We had similar profiles, so we ended up chatting and reviewing each other’s stories.  At first we were freaked out by how much we had in common; but once we got over that, we just kept talking and talking until we knew a lot about each other.  Eventually we shared our original fiction–not fanfiction–which is always scary to do at first.  We both had good things to say about the other, but we also offered helpful, constructive criticism.  When I think about good CPs, I think of the following requirements:

1.  You have to like each other.  Not necessarily best friends, but at least a healthy respect for each other.
2.  You have to like your CP’s work.  Not every detail or nuance, but an overall appreciation that makes you a fan of her work.  There will be certain points you disagree on, but it’s a bad sign if you’re arguing all the time.   
3.  You have to be honest with each other.  This is probably the most important thing.  The CP relationship means nothing if you are not honest.  But at the same time, you can’t be honest in a mean way; that will just hurt your partner or put her on the defensive.  Once you know how she ticks, break it to her in a way she can handle.  You’re critiquing her work, not her. 
4.  Know what to expect from each other.  If you need feedback in a hurry, your CP should be relied on to come through (unless real life gets in the way).  Have realistic expectations for each other.  
5.  You have to trust your CP to save your butt.  Syd has already told me that if I try to publish a piece of garbage, she will do everything in her power to stop me (even threaten to stop being my friend, LOL).  If I write junk, she will tell me.  But despite my junk or her telling me it’s junk, we’ll still be friends.  🙂  

When you’re shopping for CPs, ask yourself what you need the most.  Someone to do detailed line edits, or someone to help with the “big picture” (plot, characters, voice, etc)?  Everyone has his/her own strengths.  Syd is good at everything, but she’s probably the best at big picture stuff.  Most of her comments are about plot and making sure my characters sound appropriate for their ages.  I, on the other hand, nitpick about the little things (Syd calls me the “Grammar Nazi”).  So I guess we balance each other out.  I still haven’t met Syd in person, because she lives in Canada!  I wish we could hang out as friends; but as far as the critiquing is concerned, emails work fine.  Just make sure you trust the person you’re emailing your story to, for copyright purposes.  

And in case you’re wondering, you don’t have to write the same genre as your CP.  I was a little worried about this at first, because Syd doesn’t write YA.  She hardly even reads YA anymore because she just doesn’t enjoy it as much as adult urban fantasy, etc.  So it was an extra challenge for me to write a YA story that she liked.  Fortunately, if Syd likes my YA, then that makes me feel extra good about my story.  And believe me, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell me if she didn’t like it.  She’s certainly torn apart my work before.  🙂  But she’s honest, and that’s what I need!  The thing I love most about Syd–she motivates and encourages me to write.  If not for her, I probably wouldn’t even have a finished novel.  A good CP brings out the best in you.

I could go on and on about critiquing (I love this topic!), and most likely I’ve forgotten something essential.  But I must stop rambling, because in a couple hours it will no longer be Tuesday!  But I would love to hear any thoughts on critiquing.  How many CPs do you have, and how did you find them?  Do you have test-readers as well?  What do you ask of your CPs/readers?  Please share your ideas, and come back on Friday!


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