I have an unopened critiqued chapter sitting in my inbox as I type this post. When I saw that email come with a bit of feedback in the body last night as I lay in bed, anxiety crept upon me. Then I could not sleep. But then I reminded myself that like life, writing is a continuous learning process because perfection or finality do not exist. Improvement can always be made but perfection cannot. Standards of opinion exist and change as time passes and society shifts. But we can never know how to improve or change if we do not gain another perspective. This is why having a critique partner is essential to your success as a writer if you choose the right one and you know what to do with him or her.
What is a critique partner? Let us get this small piece settled before we move on to answer other questions. This is someone you know well enough to share your precious work with. This someone is also the person who will help you improve your work by giving you feedback on your writing. They will read it over, analyze it and provide you with that feedback. Simple enough.
Critique partners are great but I have always had a problem with receiving critique, constructive or otherwise. My initial, at least internal, reaction is to defend myself. (My husband will tell me that my reactions to critique are rarely internal but that is another issue altogether.) So when I tell you this, my real intention is to remind myself of these things and to help others like myself.
For a writer, anything written is like a baby. As the mother to that baby, the writer gives birth to it, cares for it and protects it from the harshness of the world. (I use mother because fathers do not give birth.) I understand this. Everyone does. But for a child to learn and grow sometimes it needs to hear the harsh reality of the world. If a mother never teaches her child right from wrong, the child might grow up to be completely different than her intent. And mothers often take advice from those they trust in rearing their children. Here are a few tips to help you receive help raising your child.
- Respect your critique partner, who is taking time away from his or her life and own work-in-progress to read, re-read and critique your work. A few pages can take several hours for a thorough and effective critique. When you receive that critique from your partner, try to remember the investment he or she has in your work: their time and effort. Those do not come cheap. It is unlikely they are trying to say anything to hurt your feelings or drag you down.
- Accept that you are not perfect. I cannot say this enough. If you do not expect that you are perfect or your work is perfect, your wall of defense will be less likely to go up whenever it needs to be down. Let your allies come in to give you aid. Leave the walls up for your enemies.
- Accept that you are not all-knowing and all seeing. This will help you to more easily accept critique you do initially agree with.
- Listen carefully. Again, keep your walls down. Pay attention to what your partner has to say. Do not make assumptions about what they are saying; if you do make assumptions you will hear something different than what they are actually saying.
- Be open. Talk to your partner. Ask follow up questions. If you really feel, after trying all of the above, that your partner is wrong, bring it up with him or her. You might find that your partner might change his or her mind after understanding you more.
- You are the author so when you receive critique, you must openly evaluate from the perspective of your partner. But then you have to translate that to what story you are trying to convey. Take what you think works best from your partner and leave the rest. If your partner is a good one, he or she will respect your self confidence.
Now that we know how to take the critique we receive, who should we choose as a partner? Is anyone and everyone worthy critiquing our works? Selection of a good critique partner could make or break your success. That person can build you up and improve you or they could do just the opposite. The following are two of the key traits you should look for in a critique partner:
Complete Honesty- This is by far the most important facet of a good critique partner. The duality of honesty is very special; if used correctly, only it has the potential to shed light on your strong points and your flaws alike. In a way, your critique partner is like a gardener. The gardener’s goal is to rip out the weeds (or bad writing habits) in his or her garden. No one wants weeds, right? No! One must, of course, weed the garden. But if ripping out weeds is the only action a gardener takes, he or she will find that weeds will ultimately take over the garden. Why? A gardener must also nourish and care for his or her desired plants (the good writing habits). If the gardener can maintain the balance between weeding and caring, the result will be a beautiful work of art.
As I said before, nothing is perfect. But, if he/she seeks it, one can find a positive point about anything in their work. If you find yourself with someone who tells you that your work is perfect, with no flaws, you have the wrong critique partner. Likewise, if your critique partner never highlights a single positive note in your work, then they are either being blind or dishonest. You do not want either of those.
Also, it is alright for a critique partner to sugarcoat negative critique for you. But make sure you see through the sugarcoating.
Genre Readership- I believe that genre readership is an important ingredient to consider when selecting a critique partner, especially if you are a genre writer. A partner who typically reads in romance may not understand the importance of world-building in fantasy. That person may tell you your work is too detailed and it draws away from the story or confuses them. Having at least one critique partner from the genre you write in is important because they will understand where you are coming from.
But here is the twist! You also want to be set apart, respectfully, from your genre. You do not want to be mundane and receive reviews such as, “I feel like I’ve read this somewhere before.” Having an additional partner from another genre could improve your work and differentiate from other authors in a good way. That is something up to you, as a writer. You must discern what to take in and what to leave behind.
If you want to connect with me and share your thoughts and experiences, comment below or follow me on Twitter @AuthorGrona. And don’t forget to follow the Writing Wenches on Twitter @WritingWenches.
Now excuse me while I go practice what I preach. I have an email awaiting me.