What a Great Critique Partner or Group Means

In light of my recent Critique Connection post, where I’ve let readers who want critique partners climb out of the woodwork and introduce themselves, I wanted to focus on what it means to be a great critique partner today, which was a great suggestion from MY critique partner, Martha, in the comments for my last post. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Martha.)

So, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, you know that I can’t put enough emphasis on critique and revision. That’s where writing truly grows. First, because nobody can have a perfect (or anywhere-near-publishable) novel in one draft. At least not when you’re starting out and learning about writing. Second, because you cannot be anywhere near objective about your own work. Even if you’ve had many, many books published, you’ll still get feedback from beta readers. All of the published writers I know do this for their first, their second, their tenth books. And I honestly believe that you learn so much from critiquing the work of others that it should be a required exercise for anyone hoping to get published.

What does it mean to be a great critique partner? You give more than you get. Lots of people go into a workshop or critique situation and sit there until the group gets to their submission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If you’re going to get valuable critique on your own work, don’t miss out on the valuable learning experience of being able to critique the work of another person and do it well.

What else does it mean to be a great critique partner? You don’t just focus on the what, you focus on the why. Sure, any idiot can say, “This part doesn’t work for me.” But when you articulate why something works or doesn’t work, you’re putting your finger on the writing craft and taking its pulse. Does a section seem clunky because there is too much description? Is there too much telling in a writer’s characterization of someone and you don’t actually get a clear sense of who they are? Is a writer’s dialogue clunky because they use a lot of adverbs and physical choreography in their dialogue tags? These are getting to be more concrete than just saying, “It’s slow” or, worse, “It sucks.”

Great critique partners don’t pass judgment and they aren’t prescriptive. Everyone who sits down at the page has got to start somewhere. Everyone writing today is on a different part of their writing and learning journey than the writer next to them. Good critique partners can see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece and a particular writer in the moment, and work with that. They give constructive feedback, don’t judge the overall merit of the work (because you’re all there to improve, right?) and they don’t tell you how to fix whatever issue they’ve identified. A writer friend of mine says, “If they tell you what’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.” Critique groups can be sounding boards for the writers’ ideas, sure, but they should never tell the writer what to do or what to try. That kind of playing around and imaginative work is how the writer learns, on their own, to make their story stronger.

Balance is important in critique groups. You want one or two really amateur writers, but none more than that. You’ll also want one or two people on the other end of the spectrum, and a few in the middle, depending on size. Be careful of getting into a group of people who are all the same level. You need different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or you won’t grow as much.

Personality is also important. If you don’t like your critique group or trust them, you’ll stop getting any benefits from the exercise very quickly and you’ll start to resent the whole process, which could leave a permanent block on your writing path. It’s okay to try several groups or several people… you want to find a good fit, not just the first person who’ll read your stuff.

Finally, the worst thing your critique group can say is, “It’s fine” or “It’s good.” Even if it’s good, your critique group should always be pushing you to new horizons in your writing. All my published writer friends who are in critique groups get feedback, tons of it, and it helps them take their work to the next level. And those are published authors, even bestsellers! Sure, they could probably get their first drafts published, some of them, but why would they want to?

It’s all about growing and learning and evolving in the writing business. It’s up to you to find partners who are like-minded and who understand that. And once you get their feedback, it’s up to you to use it in your work and do the revisions. I may write a post sometime about processing feedback and using it in a constructive way, but I think I’ve given you some food for thought to start.

And again, everyone, go to my previous post and cruise the comments to see if any critique partners catch your eye. If their email isn’t listed, post a comment. If you want to write your own “Critique Partner Wanted” ad there, make sure to post your email so people can get in touch with you.

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  1. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    I find I often learn about my own writing by critiquing others. Sometimes, halfway through making a suggestion to one of my critique partners, I’ll realize “Hey, so that’s what so and so meant about that smiliar weakness in my manuscript a few weeks ago.”

  2. Beth Hull’s avatar

    It is the best feeling when someone tells me something is wrong and I take their comment, let it sit for a few days, and figure out how to fix it on my own. Having someone tell me how to solve a problem takes all the fun out of revision (and yes, revision CAN be fun)!

  3. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Mary, you make some good points. I was invited to join a critique group in January, and was told the writers were at different levels, but they weren’t. It was also a “pat on the back” kind of group. I’ve decided that if I want to progress, this isn’t the group for me.

  4. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    I think what people really forget is that it’s OKAY if things don’t work out with the first crit group. I hopped several different times before I found the girls I can really trust with my work, and not to make me cry–unless I REALLY deserve it, and then then they will totally make me cry.

    I can’t stress that enough, really… you might not find your crit match perfection the first time around! Keep looking, they are OUT THERE!

  5. Sandy Shin’s avatar

    Thank you for this post! I am relatively new at critiquing, and this is very helpful. :]

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I’d like to second the ‘if the shoe doesn’t fit’ notion. I joined a PB crit group on a let’s-wait-and-see basis and quickly realized it wouldn’t be a good fit, and that it might even be painful for me to stick with them! The kind of stories they wanted to write were not stories I wanted to read. That doesn’t mean they weren’t publishable, it just meant I wouldn’t enjoy working on them. I love reading the work of the people in the critique group I found after that one. And because I love the stories and the words, I feel passionate about critiquing every single word. I know they feel the same – the critiques I get from them are like gold dust to me.

    Great post, Mary!

  7. Franziska Green’s avatar

    PS Forgot to say – I also love going on the SCBWI boards to share critiques with others on the MS exchange boards. Doesn’t matter what the story is about, I learn something each time I crit.

  8. Laura Marcella’s avatar

    Terrific post! These points are so true. Critiquing others’ works also helps my writing. When I point out something that isn’t quite working, I realize I’m doing the same thing in my own WIP. A critique group is an excellent all-around learning experience.

  9. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    I really appreciated this post. I am about to start a critique group with my brother and his friends and I am trying to figure out how to run it. Hopefully we can work well together.

    What I would like to know with other people’s critique groups is, do you just sit around and read each other’s writing and comment or do you have more of a structure? I was thinking of having people bring something along (other than their work), for example, going over key points of writing a story, share things we have learned etc. Any ideas?

  10. Beth’s avatar

    Thanks for this Mary (and Martha)… a group of 6-7 of us have contacted each other from the last post and are giving it a go. I’m a newbie to the world of writing and critiquing so this will hopefully make our experience more valuable for both me and the members of our group.

  11. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    What a great post on how to be a good critique partner. You are so right that an author can’t be objective about their own work. I know I can’t. I have two critique groups and they’re both helped me so much with their critiques. I’m going to try to really think about the questions you raised while I do my next critiques.

  12. Joan’s avatar

    I tried to post this reply and got an error so I hope it doesn’t end up being a duplicate.

    I love this post! <3

    My biggest revelations in my own writing have come from critiquing the work of others. I’m a firm believer that you learn about writing not only from reading what does work (published writing), but also through reading what doesn’t work (unpublished writing).

    Getting good revision suggestions can make all the difference, and you need some great critique partners to give you those suggestions. Sometimes it’s like a “duh” moment when they point out something, but it’s always satisfying to change a dull moment in the manuscript into something that shines.

    Mary, sometimes it’s hard to decide what to use and how to use it, so I’d love to see your thoughts on processing feedback and using it in a constructive way.

  13. Sarah’s avatar

    This was such a great post! May I add something about “it’s good” feedback?

    When my amazing (and very picky!) critique group partners tell me that something is good, they tell me why. If I know what works, I can do it again.

  14. Melissa’s avatar

    Thanks for the thoughts, Mary. I especially like your point about the benefit of groups with mixed abilities. I’m part of two online critique groups, one with members whose skill levels are all over the map, and the other made up entirely of intermediate-advanced writers who are all pushing hard to improve to publication level. I’m always amazed by the differences in comments I receive when I submit the same work to both groups. The intermediate-advanced folks give me the consistent, market-oriented, tough advice. The newbies in the other group are less comprehensive with their comments but often come up with helpful nuggets of insight on subjects the more experienced writers miss.

    I wanted to add something similar to what Sarah said: good critique partners point out what’s working in a story and articulate why. My critique partners and I don’t spend as much time on the positive stuff, because we all want to improve the work at hand, but we do feel it makes sense to say why the best parts are working well–especially if those parts have just started working since the last version we’ve read and critiqued. Talking about the positive side helps me hone the language I use when I think about what works in a story. When I make a practice of this, I notice those elements more when I read published books, and I draw on them more readily when I’m writing.

  15. Michele Tennant’s avatar

    I second a third the value of critiquing the work of others. There have been times I read someone elses story and think boy that is just really preachy or boring or what ever. Then I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realize I made the same mistake on one of my MS I was just to close to my own work to view it with perspective.

    Other times someone breaks up the sentences or dialog in a way that just bounces the story along and I can picture a similar structure working well in one of my stories.

    Occasionally, I read a story that is so close to perfect I am totally in awe. I admit I feel a bit envious at first. Then it inspires me to stretch a little further, to reach for that higher level. Sort of like trying to keep up with the runner who’s a few steps ahead in a marathon. I might not beat them, but I can try my damnedest to get to where they are.

    And there is a rush that comes when a member of your critique group finally gets published. It might not be my book, but it is rewarding to know I took part in the process. The writer did the hard labor, but I was one of the midwives who helped bring that book into the world. With any luck mine will be next, heck it’s had a gestation longer than an elephant!

  16. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    A good critique group is worth it’s collective weight in GOLD!

    I can’t tell you what my writer peeps mean to me.

    What have I learned?

    Have an open, hungry heart for critique. Really listen and grapple with the feedback.

    I hope I never get to the point where I think I’ve figured everything else. I want to always look back and notice improvement.

    Once you find the right crit partners, you’ll work your butt off not to let them down each and every week.

    :)

  17. Ryan G.’s avatar

    *snuggles my critique group*

  18. kris f’s avatar

    I must add, “just because it was good doesn’t mean it’s always good.” I had a great critique group for years but all at once things just fell apart. Some of us started irritating others, others decided to stop writing, life got in the way for the rest. The group dissolved and it took me a while to find a new one, but I did thanks to your website!

  19. Edith Cohn’s avatar

    Fabulous post, Mary! I adore your blog.

  20. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    I know I’m like…a month behind on this, but I also prefer my critique group to be really, really, ridiculously good looking. Thank goodness it is.

  21. Mary’s avatar

    Martha — Huh? You have nothing better to do than this?

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