Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 4, 2019

What Do You Really Know About Your Critique Partners?

Janice Hardy

With the new year upon us, a lot of writers are making resolutions to join critique groups to take the next step with their manuscripts and ask for feedback—some for the very first time (and kudos for those on this path).

In the rush to get that feedback, however, we don’t always take the time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the people we’re asking to critique our writing. Sometimes, that leads to feedback that hurts our novels instead of helping them. The newer a writer is to the critique process, the more damaging a “bad crit” can be, so it’s good to know a little bit about who’s reading our work. Because really…

What do you know about the people critiquing your manuscript?

We’ve all heard the horror stories about bad critique groups and brutal critiques, but there are far more good tales of helpful writers than bad. But the smart writer knows what they’re getting into—or at least tries to. Sometimes those bad critiquers sneak in even when we’re vigilant.

Despite this scary-sounding warning, I’m very pro-critique group, and encourage writers to find others to help them. It’s a great way to learn and improve no matter what stage of your writing career you’re at. None of the below questions are set in stone either—they’re just things to think about to help a writer evaluate feedback and critique partners so everyone gets what they need.

Here are a few questions to ask before you dive in:

1. How much experience does the critiquer or reader have?

Someone new to the process doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t do a good job, but they might not know what’s expected of them. It’s not a bad idea to discuss what the group is looking for so everyone gets the feedback they want. For example, someone might think critiquing means:

  • Only checking for typos and grammar
  • Doing essentially a book review
  • Explaining how they would have written it

If this is the type of critique you’re after, that’s fine, but if you expect something different, getting less than you wanted can lead to disappointment and frustration on both sides.

2. Does the critiquer or reader read or write the same genre as you?

Although not necessary, it’s helpful to get feedback from someone who is familiar with the genre and all its expectations. There are rules and tropes for every genre, and someone who doesn’t read that genre won’t know what’s common, clichéd, or required. For example, someone might:

  • Give feedback that suits their chosen genre, not yours
  • Suggest changes that remove or lessen the genre aspects readers will expect
  • Frequently be confused by things a regular reader of that genre would understand
  • Suggest things that the genre readers have seen over and over, but are new to that reader

It can be quite useful to see how someone new to your genre sees the story, but it can also make a difference in the feedback. If you know that going in, you won’t be blindsided by out-of-the-blue comments and weird suggestions.  

3. What stage of the critiquer’s writing journey are they at?

If you’re looking for someone at a particular level, this matters. But I’ve also met newbie writers who were amazing critiquers and professional authors who did terrible critiques, so again, there are no absolutes with writing. But if you’re at the “revise and resubmit” stage, someone who hasn’t yet finished their first novel might not have learned enough to help you reach the professional level prose you’re after. And if you’re just starting out, someone with advanced knowledge can expect you to know more than you do and not give you detailed enough feedback to help you fix what’s wrong. For example:

  • New writers might not feel they have the right to critique a more experienced writer and hold back their comments or suggestions 
  • Established writers might forget what it was like starting out and be too harsh—or suggest things far above the new writer’s skill or comprehension level
  • Writers in the middle might be caught up in the rules and overlooking the story aspect (and vice versa)

Having critique partners both a little ahead and behind your skill level makes for a nice balance. The more experienced writers can help you improve, and the the less experienced writers help you understand your own writing better as you help them improve. You learn a lot when you have to explain a technique or aspect of writing to someone.

Of course, even the seemingly well-suited critique partners can be a bad match. Not all critiquers have the same skills or objectives, and “bad crits” can happen at any time.

Some things to consider when you get a bad or miss-the-mark critique:

1. Is the critiquer trying to help you develop the story you want to write?

Some critiquers can get overzealous about an idea and all their feedback pushes the story how they’d write it. While this can lead to ideas you never would have thought of on your own, it can also waylay your story and make it something it doesn’t want to be. This can be particularly dangerous if it’s an established writer or someone whose work you admire—you might go against your own instincts and follow their lead.

Don’t forget—sometimes great advice is wrong for the story you want to tell.

2. Is the critiquer more interested in writing rules than writing a story?

I think we all go through a stage where we get “rule focused” and feel if we follow them exactly all will be well. Eventually we grow past that, but sometimes you get the critiquer who has clearly read every book on writing out there—and feels every rule must be adhered to above all else. The slightest variation from a rule gets noted, even if there’s nothing wrong with the writing, or worse, the “broken rule” is done on purpose for positive effect.

3. Is the critiquer just interested in tearing you down?

There are critiquers out there who would rather rip your work apart to make themselves feel better than try to help you. They attack the writer, not the work, and view writing as a contact sport. It’s not you, it’s them, so don’t let their comments hurt you or your confidence. When you run into these folks, run fast and far and don’t look back.

4. Is the critiquer just interested in praising every word?

On the flip side, some critiquers love everything they read and have nothing constructive to say. While this is great for the ego, it’s not helpful when you’re trying to improve your skills or your novel, especially when you know you have weak areas that need work.

5. Is the critiquer just not your reader?

Not every book is for every reader—just look at the one-star reviews for books you love. And not every critiquer has enough experience or self-awareness to know the difference between a bad book and a not-for-them book.

When getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers, take all of it seriously, but understand where that feedback could be coming from when something seems amiss. It’s possible it’s not an issue with the manuscript but a miss-match between critique styles, skill, or expectations.

Just don’t let that be an excuse to ignore feedback you don’t like (grin).

A heads up if you’re looking for a critique group or partner: I’ve just opened for the Winter 2019 session of Janice Hardy’s Critique Connection Yahoo Group. It’s a private group for writers to find each other and form groups and partnerships.

How well do you know your critique partners? Have you ever gotten feedback you used even though you had doubts about its validity?

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.

32 comments on “What Do You Really Know About Your Critique Partners?”

  1. I belong to a 3 person on line critique group. We've been together for ages, and we've reached the point where we point out troublesome bits more than the positive. We don't need/want warm fuzzies; we want to know what to fix. We also have learned what to accept, what to reject, but at least from where I stand, I do consider everything they point out. Often the knee-jerk reaction of "how can you not like that?" is because I didn't write it clearly. (We have an acronym for that -- RWIM -- Read What I Mean).

  2. I'm looking for a critique partner. I lost a really good one to her overwhelming job and children. I honed my critiquing skills working with her and our different writing strengths were great assets to each of our growths as writers please email me if you'd like to talk about working together. ladonnacontenta2gmail.com

  3. Great article, Janice. You're so on point about reasons why being and finding the right critique partners is a hard balance. I've learned a lot over the years and grown from making my critique partners cry to giving a gentler, more balanced critique, but will probably never be the too nice, I-loved-everything-about-this one. 😉

    Often as newbies, we rush to find a critique partner or group without learning about them or determining if they're a right fit. You have to give yourself permission to bow out of a group or partnership if it's not, or even no longer, meeting your needs. And if feedback takes your story in a whole different direction, it's key to have the resolve to say "Thanks, but that's not my characters/story." Good, honest communication and listening to what your partners are telling you can lead to great crit partners and friendships.

  4. Love this, Janice. Critique groups are SO hard. Aside from personalities, there's also writing levels. The goal is to get in a group of people who are just a bit better writer than you are. Too much better, and they're bored. If you're too much better, you're not getting anything out of the crits.

    But it's worth kissing frogs, I promise.

    This blog began as an offshoot of our in-person critique group! Without those wonderful, giving writers, I would not be published. Truth.

    Huge thank you to Jenny, Fae and Char.

  5. I regularly thank God for my main critique partner. It feels like kismet that we found each other! But actually, it was a lot of what you say: we were close to each other in our journeys, wrote in the same overall genre, had just gone through a writing intensive together so we had specifics we could offer. As it turns out, we also have different strengths, so those have played well. And she's just a sweetheart overall.

    I have other CPs as well, and I use the same approach to finding them, but I love that you laid it all out here and added some more thoughts for me to consider when choosing critiquers. Thanks, Janice!

  6. When I was ready to join a critique group I was lucky to find two small ones. They were perfect for me, giving me great feedback and letting me learn through critiquing their pages. After a year working together, I remember thinking of each by her critique strength. I had a "real people don't do/think that" person, a wordsmith, and a "but what are they feeling?" questioner. We were all unpunished at the time, but motivated and productive. One moved away, one became ill, and one took a hiatus from writing, which I did, too. When I was ready to get back in the game, three people were looking to replace a member who had moved. I got lucky again. That group morphed into Writers in the Storm. I am so lucky!

  7. After one bad experience that included many of the negatives you mentioned, I am blessed with two wonderful critique partners. One lives in my location so we are able to meet face-to-face when desired, the other lives on the other side of the world! Both of these ladies have given great feedback. We complement one another's skill sets while writing in the same general genre. They are worth their weight in gold! My greatest failing as a writer is forgetting to inject enough of what my characters are feeling into my work. These ladies never miss a beat and call me on it every time. I am so glad they do!

  8. Terry, that's great. And one huge benefit to long-term crit partners. My groups are also like that. We know it' all meant to help, nothing personal or aggressive in anything we say.

  9. tracybrody, thanks! I'm a lot like you. I'm tough, and I'm sure I've been too harsh at times, but I try hard now to be softer.

    Absolutely, communication is key. That's hard for some newbie, though. But they do need to realize it's okay to walk away or decide that a group isn't the right fit.

  10. Laura, thanks! True words, all. I wouldn't be published without my gang either. They're worth their weight in chocolate. It can take time to find the right people and group, but worth the effort.

  11. Julie, same here. Thanks! I think us "oldie writers" are so familiar with how it all works, we forget how clueless we were in the very beginning. This post came about from a conversation with a newbie writer who reminded me about things I take for granted now.

  12. Fae, Nice! I LOVE having specialist crit partners. I have that as well, and they rock. I also like how I can send different manuscripts to different partners depending on what it needs. You are quite lucky 🙂 WITS is such a great group, and I only see the outside parts. 🙂

  13. Linda, face to face is nice when you can get it, but the internet makes it easy to stay in touch no matter where folks are. They sounds like great crit partners. And familiar! Mine whack me with the description stick since I loathe writing it.

  14. We're experiencing a glitch with the embedded comments! I'm working on it. Sorry about that, Janice and everyone! Thanks for chiming in, though.

  15. Thanks for this. An interesting question is whether a critiquer needs to be a writer at all. The ultimate readership of any book is likely to be mostly non-writers, and most agents and other industry professionals appear to be non-writers. Finding non-writing readers is another day's work, of course.

    1. johntshea, that is a good question. I save non-writer readers for my beta readers so I get a "reader" perspective vs a "writer" perspective. It depends on what type of feedback I want. That's a good idea for another post, too 🙂 Thanks!

  16. After a couple of horrific experiences that endangered my love for writing and one partner that was simply a bad match, I thought I'd found gold, but the group fell apart after a few months because the other members had other priorities. We're still friends, but they write infrequently. I have some valuable skills, but picking critique partners isn't among them. At this point, I've shelved finding a critique partner(s) in favor of protecting my self-esteem. I know there are fantastic groups out there, but they are full for a reason and protective of that chemistry for good reason.

    1. Ontyre Passages, oh I'm so sorry to hear you've had such a tough time of it. I can see how that would be very disheartening. I hope you stumble across the right person before too long.

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