The Five B's: How to Maximize Your Critique Partner Experience

If there's anything I'm an expert on in the literary world, it's how to luck into AMAZING critique partners. These authors who read my words and oh-so-miraculously allow me to read theirs, have talents of such a high caliber that Impostor Syndrome would be my constant companion if they let it be.

But they don't let it be.

They are encouraging, and supportive, and sometimes they kick my metaphorical ass when I need it. They believe in me when I forget how, and they love my words when my brain is too fogged over by doubt to see them properly anymore. I need them desperately, and I think they need me too.

For a former shy/invisible girl? That's a really big deal.

I've learned a lot about what elements make for a strong partnership, and I've had the opportunity to help other authors find the critique partners of their dreams through Write Type CP Match and Pitch Slam. Here are some thoughts I've gathered on "The Five B's." I can't give you the luck I somehow stumbled across, but maybe my thoughts will help you if you stumble across some of your own.

How to Maximize Your Critique Partner Experience: 

Be Thorough

Expectations regarding thoroughness are something you should have in place ahead of time. Personally? I thrive on thorough critique. I want to know ALL the things. Technical errors? Bring on the highlighter. Content issues? Lay them on me. Brilliant lines? Show me the love, baby.

  • Technical Editing. 
  • Content Editing. 
  • Validation. 

Some partners are going to specialize in one of these major areas. Some spread their skills across two or three. Make sure you know what kind of critiques you'll be offering each other. If you only give general content editing feedback with a sprinkle of validation, make that clear. If you're strictly a copy-editor with an eye out for technical issues, make that clear.

The best critiques take real effort, so yes, be thorough. There are few things rougher than pouring loads of time into a critique and getting just a few lines back in return. Your partnership will be stronger if you give as good as you get.

Be Kind

Take a little extra time to point out what's working in your critique partner's pages. Yes, it's faster to just highlight what needs work, and compliments don't directly help your partner improve, but they're still a vital component of any critique.

Storytime . . .

There was a line in my second book that I adored but a critique partner with eons more experience than me HATED it. I was on the verge of cutting it when I got notes back from two other readers. Both of them took the time to highlight that line and put in comments about how much they loved it. One of them laughed out loud! One of them said that was the point at which they really started liking my main character.

So I kept the line. End of story.

If you have favorite lines in your CP's work, tell them so! Someone else might be telling them otherwise. Plus? Warm-fuzzy feels from being told you don't totally suck can give you the strength to fix what DOES suck.

Don't go overboard though. Critiques that are ONLY compliments aren't really critiques at all, are they?

Be Genuine

Confrontation is hard. Telling your CP to kill their darlings? SO hard. Sometimes it's easier to pat them on the head, avoid eye contact, and say, "Yeah . . . that's good. Real good."

Remember the heading of the previous section? Be Kind? Avoiding the truth isn't being kind.

But when you do offer genuine criticism, make sure you give context. Simply saying "I don't like this" is NOT helpful. If you can't put your finger on why, tell your partner that. But whenever possible, try to give context:

 "Her reaction here doesn't ring true for me because X." 

"The flow of this sentence is super awkward. Maybe it would work better if you broke it into two?" 

"The backstory in this scene is slowing the pace and I don't feel like I'm really with your main character anymore."

Your genuine opinion is far more likely to be helpful if you actually give it.

Be Prompt

I'm not saying you need to work at breakneck speeds and pull off a twenty-four hour turnaround time. Perhaps I should change the heading of this section to "Be Realistically Prompt." If you say "I'll have notes back to you next week" and your partner doesn't hear from you for two months, that 
might be a problem.

If you only remember to critique after being reminded several times? That might be a problem.

If your partner has critiqued seventeen chapters for you and you've only critiqued two for them? That might be a problem.

I say "might be" because this is something you and your partner need to figure out between you. Communicate. Establish up front what your expectations of each other are. 

Maybe your partner has four kids and works a graveyard shift at the local hospital, but their critiques are so amazing you don't mind if they only do one for every five you do. 

Maybe you have seventy kajillion things going on in your life and can only manage to critique a chapter a month for awhile. Or maybe there are times when you can only give general feedback and not line edits, or times when line edits ain't no thang, because you're swimming in spare time.

But if you don't communicate about where you're at and what you've got going on, your partner might feel like they're hanging onto a cliff's edge, dangling over the revision pit, with no clue if you're ever going to help pull them up.

It's okay not to have time sometimes. It's even okay to get swamped and forget. But if you do? Apologize. Establish more reasonable expectations for each other. 

Being human and being prompt are often mutually exclusive. Own up to your humanity, and accept your partner's humanity*.

If you receive a horrifically unhelpful critique (hey, it happens), you still have to do one in return. I know, I know, BUT YOU DO. This is why I advise NEVER trading full manuscripts with a new critique partner. For me, 1-3 chapters at a time is the sweet spot. Shorter term commitments allow you to reevaluate the value you're offering each other before making long term plans.

Quality critique partnerships aren't born; they're created.

*To a point, of course. If they're jerky to you and attempts to communicate are all one-sided, you're allowed to say goodbye.

Be Grateful

Whether you're starting a new partnership or enjoying the blissful comfort of an old one, SAY THANK YOU. Not just for the first critique, or the best critiques, but ALL critiques. Whether they're as helpful as you hoped or not. Whether they send you into a tailspin of despair or soaring to new heights where you can see the "possible" of your story better than ever before, express gratitude for the time that went into the critique.

No matter how effectively the time was spent, it was SPENT, and that deserves your thanks. If you constantly find it a struggle to feel enough gratitude to put into words, it might be time to reevaluate whether that particular partnership is worth continuing. 

Above all, keep in mind that the ideal critique partnership is worth searching for AND working for. It requires so many leaps of faith, I know I know I know. And there's terror in that. Of course there is. But the best partners, the ones worth keeping? 

They catch you.

And you catch them.

And your stories become more than words on a page. They become worlds you build and visit together. I hope you find that. And I hope you get to be to someone what my critique partners are to me.

It's the very best kind of magic.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! This so accurate and I hope it helps everyone understand how to get the most out of their partnerships. Thanks for sharing!