Are You an Ideal Critique Partner?

Yesterday we discussed Evaluating Critique Groups for workshopping your writing. Now lets look at the responsibilities of individual critiquers and the ways that both an ineffective and an ideal critique partner might engage with the group.

A critique partner or group member is essentially charged with three things:

1. Giving feedback.

A critique partner evaluates ideas, chapters, or manuscripts from fellow writers and offers constructive feedback on how to make them stronger, clearer, and more marketable. She examines big picture elements like character development, plot, scene construction, and pacing, and might also suggest ways to tighten and clarify language. She might suggest comparable titles for the writer to examine or recommend specific craft books and articles to help the writer work through some of his trouble spots.

Not all critiquers are created equally, and giving clear, constructive feedback is a skill that takes time and practice to master. Often, groups will comprise at least a few of these ineffective critiquers:

  • Mr. Nice Guy lavishes praise and glosses over weak spots, concerned with sparing a writer’s feelings rather than helping her strengthen the manuscript. His critiques are the equivalent of mothers who encourage their tone-deaf children to try out for American Idol, only to see them embarrassed on on national TV. Nice’s feedback is a pat on the back—pleasant but not helpful.
  • The Brut is the opposite of Mr. Nice Guy. He takes sadistic pleasure in tearing down other writers and often reminds people of his vast experience and knowledge. There’s no mincing words with The Brut as he tells a writer exactly how to fix something—his way. While Brut’s keen eye for weaknesses may be an asset, his delivery leaves writers bruised and battered, unable to glean anything positive from the experience.
  • Can’t See the Forest is adept at identifying spelling and grammar issues but misses the big picture. Her best friend is the red pen, and her services are best saved for a final polish rather than a work-in-progress critique.
  • Can’t See the Trees offers comments so broad that they could be applied to any manuscript. She says things like, “I don’t like the main character,” “The plot doesn’t make sense,” or simply, “I don’t get it.” While she may have legitimate concerns, she is unable to articulate them in a constructive way.
  • All About Me sees everything through the lens of her own experiences and can’t imagine characters or situations beyond that limited realm. She says things like, “This doesn’t work. I would never have done that when I was a teen.” or “Your teen narrator is unrealistic. My daughter doesn’t talk like that.” Her refusal to acknowledge the reality beyond her own front door makes her advice questionable and ill-informed.
  • The Skimmer waits until the last minute and speed-reads through the pages, making a few cursory notes. When meeting in person, he waits until others give their feedback and then poaches it. His critiques are superficial, lacking context, and generally useless.
  • The Refuser has a long list of topics and situations she doesn’t like or that conflict with her beliefs, and the moment one appears on the page, she refuses to read. To be fair, some readers are genuinely unable to read about certain emotionally triggering events, but rather than letting the author know about her concerns in advance, The Refuser waits until it’s time to offer feedback and then throws in a casual “I don’t read books like this” or ignores the submission altogether.

When it comes to giving feedback, the ideal critique partner is a careful, considerate reader who offers a balance of personal opinion and objective advice based on her knowledge of craft, literature, and the marketplace. She’s not afraid to criticize, yet she does so constructively with tact and care. She may offer solutions or alternatives, but she doesn’t rewrite the project as her own. Instead, she poses questions like, “Have you thought about this?” or “What do you think of this idea?” designed to help the reader explore her own creative solutions. She keeps an open mind about others’ work, but if she’s truly unable to read about a specific topic or situation, she discusses it with the writer in an objective, professional manner and offers to read a different submission, if possible. If she’s unable to complete a reading in a timely manner, she makes arrangements with the writer to turn in her detailed feedback at a later date.

2. Receiving feedback.

It may seem like an easy task to sit quietly and absorb the constructive criticism others offer, but like giving feedback, receiving it—and incorporating it in a meaningful way—is a learned skill. Writers may lack confidence or feel attacked during a critique, particularly if the critiquer exhibits some of the negative traits above. Good feedback may be conflicting, leaving the writer confused about how to address the issue. And some writers, despite the fact that they’re involved in a critique group, don’t like having their work dissected and criticized. All of this angst can suck the creative energy from the group.

No one loves to receive negative feedback, but some people make the process even more difficult and create a toxic environment for everyone involved:

  • The Nod-and-Smiler lacks confidence in her work and dutifully incorporates every bit of feedback she’s given, even if it waters down her manuscript or turns it into a hodgepodge of randomness. She’s reluctant to ask questions or contribute to any meaningful debate about craft and style, and her lack of participation and progress weakens the group.
  • The Defender is quick to justify his choices in the face of all constructive criticism. He’s often belligerent and specializes in criticizing mistakes in others’ work that he makes tenfold. The Defender often joins workshops and critique groups seeking validation that he’s already awesome, so he’s not really open to feedback that might actually help him become a better writer.
  • The Eye-Roller is closely related to The Defender, but is quieter about her dissent. She internally scoffs at criticism, often wondering what she’s doing with a bunch of amateurs who simply don’t understand a work of literature when they see one. Like The Defender, The Eye-Roller may also seek validation rather than helpful advice and, because of her inflexibility and unwillingness to learn, is unlikely to achieve her publication goals.
  • Poor Me cannot separate constructive criticism of his work from criticism of his person. He internalizes negative feedback and is quick to give up rather than work hard to overcome writing obstacles. It’s difficult to help Poor Me because his emotional reactions often illicit feelings of guilt, causing the critiquer to default to unhelpful Mr. Nice Guy behavior.

When it comes to receiving feedback, the ideal critique partner understands that constructive criticism is integral to a writer’s growth. She appreciates and considers all feedback, incorporating ideas that resonate with her and discarding those that don’t. She trusts her intuition when it comes to conflicting advice, and she knows how to dig beneath surface criticism to find the root of the issue. She’s not afraid to ask questions and follow up for clarification after she’s had time to consider her group’s comments. Above all, she understands that critique group members, like readers in the wild, are subjective; the book that one person despises may be another’s absolute favorite. Even in her darkest hour, when all else fails, she doesn’t give up writing. She simply starts a new project.

3. Moving beyond the critique.

If a writer is seeking traditional publication, at some point, he has to stop workshopping his manuscript and send that baby out into the world of agents and editors. But the querying process can be a frightening step—so frightening that some writers avoid it altogether. They become professional workshoppers, tinkering with their manuscripts line by line, researching and preparing for that next big step but never actually taking it. A good critique group can be a wonderful support system, but it’s not supposed to cocoon writers from the potentially harsh—and potentially rewarding—realities of publishing. Writers who rely on their group to shield them from next steps will find themselves, not surprisingly, unpublished. Their lack of progress and motivation can lend support to the fallacy that publication is an unattainable dream, a fantasy that no mere mortal can realize.

Instead of dragging her feet, the ideal critique partner works on her manuscript until she believes it’s the best it can be. She recognizes that this process could take months or even years, and she’s committed to it for the long haul. At the same time, she doesn’t rely on the group as her sole motivator for writing or use them as an excuse to avoid the next step. When her manuscript is ready, she queries actively and shares her experiences with the group so that they can learn from and support one another. Some members will be excited to see her striving for her goals. Others will be jealous, spiteful, and negative. Regardless, their feelings won’t prevent her from working hard, querying and re-querying, and starting new projects while she waits.

Ideal Critique Partners… Are You?

Writers, what do you think? Are you an ideal critique partner (at least most of the time), or do you recognize yourself in some of these ineffective feedback styles? Those of you who’ve worked in groups or partnerships, have you noticed any other helpful or detrimental critiquer characteristics? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions

Despite our seemingly constant online interconnectedness, the act of writing—the physical part of sitting down at the computer or notebook and translating ideas into words—is a lonely, isolating endeavor.

(Especially for those who work from home in PJs and stay up all night with the vampires and frequently miss the window of opportunity for showers. *Ahem* not to name names…)

Anyway, flying solo isn’t bad. It’s part of the process, and the alone time is necessary to creating unique and powerful stories. So I say, turn off your phone, ignore your loved ones, embrace the loneliness (and the stinkyness, if you’re so inclined), and write like mad.

But at some point, even if no one else is speaking to you because you’ve ignored them for so long and/or you’ve become olfactorially offensive, you’ve gotta show that manuscript to someone! Even a maniacal literary genius (an unavoidable combination, if you ask me) can’t write forever in a vacuum—not if he wants to be published or gain a readership beyond his dog. Seeking external feedback from writers and other industry professionals is critical to writing (or revising) a good book, and it’s critical to a writer’s longterm growth and development.

One of the best ways to seek that feedback—along with some much-needed moral support—is through writers’ critique groups. In addition to getting objective opinions and (hopefully) helpful advice on your own work, reviewing the work of your peers is a great way to inform and inspire your own writing.

I’m a huge advocate of critique partnerships, either one-on-one, in groups, or through workshops that offer both craft lessons and critiques. In the right hands, a writer can really hone her craft, learning from and supporting her peers and contributing to valuable discussions about writing and literature. In a strong group, the bonds she forms with her fellow writers may even extend beyond her early writing days into the agent search, publication, and beyond.

Conversely, the wrong group can be toxic, rife with jealousy and inertia, stressful, and wholly detrimental to the writing process. It can suck the creative energy from even the strongest writer or worse—discourage her from writing altogether.

Finding a good critique group or partner is a huge challenge, but a worthwhile and totally attainable one. Like the search for a literary agent, doctor, babysitter, or soul mate, you just need to do some homework (i.e. Google stalking, chatting, and reference checking) before jumping into a longterm relationship.

Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions

Whether you’re checking out an online or an in-person group, asking questions like these—either of the group moderator or of individual members—can reveal information about the group or partner’s working style and help determine whether you might be a good match. There are no guarantees for ultimate satisfaction, but the answers to some of these questions might make your initial decision a little easier:

  1. Is this a general writing group or does it focus on specific genres? Many groups are open to a broad category of writers such as “novelists” or “short story writers,” especially in smaller communities where there simply aren’t as many people. However, reading is subjective, and while an adult historical fiction writer may be able to offer suggestions on the basics of a contemporary YA romantic plot, she might not be familiar with the nuances of today’s popular YA fiction, or she may have preconceived notions about what the category means and how it “should be” written. Many of my YA workshop students have come from general novel workshops where adult fiction writers who don’t read or care for YA are unnecessarily critical or unhelpful, simply because they aren’t qualified to critique young adult fiction. That’s why I recommend finding a group of writers who are experienced in your specific genre or category—and by experienced, I mean writers who not only write in your genre, but who read it avidly. I’m always surprised to meet aspiring writers who simply don’t read (but I’m not surprised that these folks don’t make the best critiquers).
  2. How does the submission process work? You’ll want to find out how often and how much you’ll be expected or allowed to submit, and whether the group focuses on one member’s submission at a time or encourages a less structured everyone-submit-as-you-can dynamic. Also ask about the expected turn around time for giving and receiving feedback and the format in which feedback is given. Do members bring printed copies to in-person meetings? For online or email groups, do they mark up changes and comments in Word, respond directly in an email, or simply provide a summary of issues and suggested changes? How extensive is the feedback, generally speaking? Then ask yourself: Does this meet my needs? Can I commit to their schedule and format?
  3. How long have most of the group members been writing? Has anyone been published? Chances are you’ll seek out a group of writers with similar experience levels, where most everyone is on equal footing. However, if possible, look for a group with at least one or two writers who are more advanced than you so that you can learn from their experience, and one or two who are less experienced to offer fresh ideas and perspectives. A mixed group can balance experience, enthusiasm, and creativity nicely. Above all else, keep an open mind—all writers, regardless of experience level or publication credentials—can learn from one another if the environment is nurturing and positive.
  4. What are the goals of the writers in the group? Writers seeking traditional publication or looking to write as a full time career will have different expectations for and approaches to the writing and critique process than those who are writing as a hobby or for a school project. Look for writers with similar goals—you’ll have a mutual understanding of what’s at stake and what you’re all trying to achieve and you’ll be able to support each other through the various stages of the journey.
  5. Is there a group facilitator or moderator? Some groups use moderators to coordinate submission schedules and resolve member issues. If not, find out how the group handles situations such as hostile or negative members, scheduling issues, or members that consistently miss deadlines or skip critiques. This is your manuscript we’re talking about—probably your dreams and quite possibly your career as well. The last thing you need is to be stuck with a group that allows toxic or dead-weight members to linger, dragging the rest of the group down with them.
  6. Can we do a trial period before committing to a long-term relationship? By participating in a round or two of feedback on a trial basis (ideally where you have an opportunity to both submit a piece for critique and to evaluate other members’ writing) you can get a feel for the group dynamic and critiquing skill level before fully diving in.

It’s Not You, It’s Me. And You. Okay, Mostly It’s You.

You might find an ideal critique partner or group that exceeds your every hope and expectation. Congratulations! That’s a great feeling, and you should certainly appreciate it and work hard to keep it that way. But also know that situations can easily change, and the perfect group today can turn sour tomorrow. Group members drop out and new ones join, people’s lives and writing goals change, people get published and move on, people don’t get published and quit writing. Things happen, and maybe the group no longer meets your needs (or you don’t meet their needs).

Don’t panic.

Whatever the reason, if at any time in the relationship you feel that it’s not a good fit, be honest and end it. Don’t stay in a bad situation out of obligation or inertia, and don’t drag others down if you’re the one who can no longer commit. Part ways quickly and professionally. Some people may feel badly about your departure—they may take things personally, talk behind your back, or act spitefully toward you—but you can’t control that. Again, this is your writing, your dream, possibly the way you make your living. If it’s no longer working for you, move on. Take some time to regroup, reassess, and write. And when you’re ready to jump back in again, look for a new match. There are plenty of writers and groups out there seeking partnerships, and chances are you’ll find a great fit, one in which you can build a mutually beneficial relationship for the length of your project, your journey to publication, or your entire writing life.

Added bonus? Making a new writing buddy may even give you that much-needed reason to change out of your PJs and venture out into the world! Preferably showered! (*Ahem* not to name names…)

I hope you’ll also check out part two in the critique group series: Are You An Ideal Critique Partner? next. In the mean time, if you have any advice or experience on seeking or participating in critique groups, or questions about anything in the article, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

ETA: Also check out Kristen Lamb’s Can Critique Groups Do More Harm Than Good?