The Life Authorial: How to be a great critique partner

The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.

Throughout the Roaring ’20s, the Algonquin Hotel in New York City was the daily meeting place for “The Algonquin Round Table”, one of the most famous “critique groups” of all time. Composed of writers and critics, its members traded “wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms“, which were published in newspapers across the country (from Wikipedia).

Although they were the founders of The New Yorker magazine, comprised the literary in-crowd of their day, and served as an inspiration to up-and-coming young writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, they were also accused of rehearsing their witticisms in advance, and of being overly concerned with their images and with elaborate practical jokes*. Among themselves, they used the more self-aware moniker of “The Vicious Circle”, and founding member Dorothy Parker later commented that:

“The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them”.**

By comparison, most of us don’t have the luxury of daily hotel luncheons at which we can trade jokes and practice our witticisms, so we do our best with the time and resources that we have – and one of the most important of those resources is feedback from other readers and writers. When starting out, the thought of showing your work to someone can be daunting, but the odds that you will write a masterpiece with no input or advice from others is slim.

So where do you look for critique partners and what do you do when you find them?

In my experience, the best feedback will come from like-minded writers who understand your genre and are at approximately the same level of skill and experience. This isn’t to say that you won’t find exceptions that work – I’m so far unpublished, and one of my partners has published more than half a dozen novels – but there does need to be some common ground. For example, if you’re writing inspirational romance about Amish heroines and I’m writing horror erotica, the odds are good that we won’t be on the same page.

Finding critique partners as a new writer can be frustrating. There are a lot of places on the internet that encourage us all to help each other succeed as part of a “writer’s code”, but it’s hard to tap into that if you don’t actually know any other writers. I’ve found that sites geared toward helping writers collaborate and network are the most fruitful places to look, and my own critique partner relationships have developed as a result of my memberships at Romance Divas and Ladies Who Critique.

Typical critique partner etiquette is to trade a chapter or two with someone whose profile and work looks interesting before committing to an entire manuscript exchange. This way, you can find out if each of you “get” the other’s work, and if your editing styles are a good match.

Once you’ve exchanged chapters, determined that you’re a good fit, and have your new critique partner’s manuscript in hand, the next step is to actually provide feedback. Here are a few tips on how to make sure you and your partner get the most out of your relationship:

1. Accentuate the positive.

There’s more to being a good critique partner than just telling someone what’s wrong with their work – it’s important to let them know what they’re good at, too. As a new writer, it’s hard enough to deal with feelings of self-doubt and self-consciousness without being told that there aren’t any redeeming qualities to your work. Be truthful, but be kind.

2. Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses.

My personal style of critiquing is very micro – I point out issues with plotting and character development if I see them, but I also work on a “line editing” level and make changes to spelling and grammar. I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) I mostly just can’t help myself; and 2) this is the sort of detailed feedback I like to receive. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this sort of editing is mostly subjective. Proper grammar is proper grammar, but  word choice, punctuation, and dialogue are used in different ways for effect, not just technical correctness. Just because I have a personal dislike for semi-colons, it doesn’t make them “wrong”.

3. Be gracious.

This point isn’t about commenting on someone else’s work, but it’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when receiving feedback on your own. Someone else has taken time – often hours – out of their life to help you. To be a good critique partner, you don’t have to agree with all of their suggestions, but you do have to appreciate their efforts. It can be hard to hear that your heroine is “too stupid to live”, but the correct response is not to explain to your critique partner why she is wrong (she’s probably not) or to criticize her. Just smile, say thank you, and move on. Whether you change your work or not is up to you, and you’ll likely get worse reviews when you’re published – everyone does.

For more tips on how to be a great critique partner, check out these other resources:

  • Karen Henley points out 7 Tips for Receiving Critique. My favorites are numbers 1 and 6 – weigh the critique according to the skill and knowledge of the critiquer, and realize that if you don’t catch your mistakes, the public will.

 

*from  Herrmann, Dorothy (1982). With Malice Toward All: The Quips, Lives and Loves of Some Celebrated 20th-Century American Wits. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. pp. 17–18. ISBN 0-399-12710-0 at p.29, courtesy of Wikipedia.

**from Herrman at p.85, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

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