First of all, notice that the question isn’t “Do I need them?” because that’s a given. You need them, and they need you. So what are they and how do you find them?
A critique partner is someone who reads your manuscript after you’ve gotten it to a somewhat polished state. A critique partner should never be given the first draft of your novel (unless that’s the arrangement you’ve made with them up-front). Don’t expect a critique partner to do your work for you. Do your spell-check, check the grammar rules, and make your manuscript as good as you can without independent feedback.
Yes, independent. As in, not your mother, your best friend, or your great-aunt Sadie.
The best critique partners are people who also write, and normally critiquing is a give-and-take situation. They critique your work, you critique theirs. It’s often best to pair up with someone who writes in the same genre as you do. I’ve had critique partners who write in other genres who have been an enormous help to me, but I’ve noticed that writers in my genre have been a little more specific about their suggestions, because they understand the wants and needs of the genre better.
So, what does a critique partner look for? That’s largely up to you. You can agree upon any or all of the following services:
- Grammar check (with or without punctuation)
- Sentence construction (varying lengths of sentences; repetition in the openings of sentences)
- Cliche identification
- Fact checking
- Plot consistency, resolution, & pacing
- Consistent characterization
- Excessive back-story or descriptive scenes
- Showing vs telling
- Any other area where you feel your skills are not as strong as they could be
When you list a want ad for a critique partner, offer your own skills honestly. If you’re not a grammar maven, that’s okay – just don’t say you are. If you’re a danged good researcher, offer fact-checking as one of your strengths. Whatever your skill level, you want to team up with someone who needs your skills and who offers what you need. And make sure it’s someone who wants as much work done as you do: if one of you is doing significantly more work, chances are that person will soon be feeling a little resentful.
The most important thing about critiquing is to be kind. Be honest – no need to tell a lie – but couch your criticisms in kind words. You are offering an opinion on a manuscript that someone else has taken months or years to create. Say anything that needs to be said, but don’t say it in a way you wouldn’t want to hear applied to your own work.
The second most importing thing is to be constructive. “I didn’t like Chapter 3” is not a critique. “I felt like the plot moved slowly in Chapter 3” is better; “In Chapter 3, my attention wandered due to the amount of back-story” is even better. Be precise, give a specific idea of what’s amiss, and be sure to add praise when the story exceeds your expectations. If Chapter 3 is slow, but Chapter 4 is perfectly paced, be sure to mention Chapter 4 in your critique of Chapter 3.
But remember, the critique you’re giving is only your opinion: your partner has absolutely no obligation to accept it. And vice-versa. Your work is your own: no matter what critique you receive, it’s up to you to adjust or not. But it’s important not to argue with your partners – after all, they’ve gone to some trouble to give you their best advice. For free. Thank them, if for nothing more than their time and good will.
So, how does one find a critique partner? If you belong to a writers’ group or association like Romance Writers of America or The Historical Novel Society, you may find it a ready-made source of interest. If not, there are many services listed if you Google “writing critique partners”. Twitter also offers connections, as will Yahoo Groups, though you may have to join the groups first. In short, critique partners are easy enough to find – and your work will be much better for their input.
Did you use a critique partner service? Would you recommend it to other writers? Tell us about your own experiences.
Coming next: Beta Readers …