When I talk to other writers about the fabulous relationship I have with my primary critique partner, the question always arises:
How did you find her?!!!
Recognizing the importance of quality feedback, writers often search for trusted critique partners or groups like a romance novel protagonist searching for true love.
Where is The One?
How will I know when I find them?
Will they love me back?
My "Love Story"
I found my primary critique partner (CP) through an immersion hosted by Margie Lawson, who often guest posts here. As a true introvert, it took a lot of gumption back then for me to attend a four-day retreat at a stranger's house, but I'd reached that point in my writing where I realized how much I didn't know and needed to learn. So I bit the proverbial bullet, signed up, and drove from Houston to Dallas.
Meanwhile, my CP had driven most of the same route. We got to know each other somewhat during immersion, and that would have been that—making another lovely writer friend—except that she suggested swapping pages for feedback. After all, we lived in the same metro area, had been writing about the same length of time, had gone through Margie's courses, and both wrote young adult. Why not give it a shot?
We started slowly with tentative comments reminding each other what we'd learned and what a reader might see (or not see) in what we'd written, then moved to more direct feedback once we'd gotten to know each other's writing styles and personalities better. These days, I trust my CP so much with my writing that if she reads a passage of mine, turns to me, and lifts an eyebrow? I know I've got work to do.
But we had to earn that respect from one another, and—just like any close relationship—we sometimes call each other out if a suggestion is too vague or a comment too abrasive. It wasn't love at first sight, but rather a relationship that developed over time and required adapting ourselves to what the other needed and wanted. And it continues to require nurturing.
Tips for Finding The One
While our "meet cute" can't be replicated, my experience has taught me six tips for finding good critique for your writing.
1. Know where you are in the journey.
Writers need different kinds of critique at different stages. Early on, you need more encouragement than criticism and more story structure and character tips than prose specifics. Further along, you've developed a better voice and learned some basics, so you need more honing and critical feedback.
You want to work with someone who pushes you without making you feel like an idiot. It's like how in college I preferred playing tennis with my friend, who also saw the game as recreation, to playing with my roommate who'd won tennis tournaments. I wanted my roomie to coach me, but after losing 6-0 and 6-1, I wasn't very motivated to retake the court with her on the other side of the net.
One reason my CP and I worked well from the get-go is that we were at about the same spot along the writing journey—having written for the same length of time, taken courses, attended Margie's immersion. We were at a close enough level to push each other toward better writing.
Figure out where you are on the journey, and that will help you identify what kind of critique you need and want.
2. Determine your critique style.
Do you like being in a group or working one-on-one?
Do you prefer blunt feedback or need more sensitive commentary?
Do you want suggestions in the margins or direct editing on the page?
Do you want overall story and character critique or line editing?
Do you prefer to submit chapter by chapter or after the whole book is finished?
There's no one way to critique a book. I've worked with other CPs who do things very differently from my primary partner. What's important is that you agree on a critique style. To some extent, you can direct your CP to give what you need, but if they and you work very differently, the relationship isn't going to gel.
Think about what you want and pursue a partner who is willing to give what will work best for you, and vice versa.
3. Go where good CPs are.
If you're sitting at home, wishing you had a great critique partner, and wondering where to find one, ask how involved you are in the writing community. That is, have you taken classes where you might meet others? Are you in a writing chapter? Do you attend conferences or retreats? If you want to find someone who knows their stuff, you have to go where those writers go.
I found my main CP at an immersion course, but I've shared pages and gotten critique from others I've met at my RWA chapter, through a regional writers conference I attended, from my fellow Golden Heart nominees, and in an online class.
Be willing to attend writer events, even virtually, to put yourself in the company of those who might need, want, and make a great critique partner or group.
4. Do a trial run.
Once you've found someone, don't slice your palms, slap your hands together, and swear a blood bond just yet. Do a trial run to see how well you work together.
It was probably months before I really felt like my CP was my CP. For a while, she was simply a writer I was exchanging pages with, and no hard feelings if it didn't work out. That open-ended experiment allowed us to really try each other out without undue pressure.
Trade some pages and see how it goes. Give feedback about their feedback so they can adapt to what you need and want. Be open to their editing suggestions but consider whether their critique is helpful where you are in your journey. If your styles are too different, thank them for their time and move on.
5. Periodically review how it's going.
The development of a CP relationship may mimic a love story, but at the end of the day, this is a business decision. Because getting good feedback is about improving your product—the book.
I've witnessed too many writers stay in a relationship with a critique partner or group long after they knew it wasn't working anymore. They worried about their friendship, about being judged poorly for backing out, about possible discomfort when they announce their decision, about not being able to find another critique relationship. But if you are not getting what you need from the partnership, don't string that CP along. Say goodbye.
It might be worth saying that directly to your critique partner or group—that you fully appreciate the relationship you currently have, but everyone needs to ultimately do what's right for their writing.
6. Tend to the care and feeding of a good CP.
Finally, when you find that special someone, don't take them for granted! A good critique partnership or group isn't easy to come by, and a huge boost to your writing when you find one.
Look, I wouldn't be the writer I am today without the great critique I've gotten. All that wonderful feedback has pushed me to improve my craft and write better stories. And if I fail my own standards, I'll see my partner's YCDB (you can do better) in my manuscript margin. For which I'm grateful.
So when you get great feedback, say thank you...a lot. Meet your own deadlines for critiquing their work and, if you can't, explain why and when you'll get it back. Adapt your feedback to what they need (while not letting them publish garbage). Celebrate their successes. Include them in the acknowledgments of your book. Thank them. Did I already say that? Well, thank them again!
For myself, here's a big thank you to Christina, Catie, Diana, Donna, Melinda, Edwina, Jenn (and other people I'm leaving out because my middle-aged memory sucks).
What suggestions do you have for finding a great critique partner?
Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries, young adult fiction, and supernatural suspense (under the pen name Jules Lynn). Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®, and her primary critique partner became her co-author this year with the release of the Muse Island Series, which begins with book one, Mark of the Gods.
When not writing, Julie collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark. You can visit her website here.