Monday, October 17, 2011

Good Idea/Bad Idea Tips for Working With a Critique Partner, Part One

Something new that's been added to my writing toolbox in recent months is working with a critique partner. In years past, when I was writing, I might show a story or two to a friend or a family member. They might or might not see some things that they thought I should change.(*)  But, it was a very ad-hoc thing and I wasn't necessarily showing my stories to people in a good position to comment on stylistic flaws they might have.

(*) Once, my wife found a doozy of a typo. This was four or five years ago and I think she still brings it up from time to time. A character who had a bit of a drinking problem was trying to convince another character that he had not over-imbibed that night. "Only one or two bears, I swear!" he told the other character. Heh. Whoops!)

It's important to listen to your Critique Partner. (Photo courtesy: murielle)
A critique partner (CP sometimes from here out) can help you with any number of things about your writing, from catching the typos that have slipped by spellcheck and your own re-reading to pointing out serious logic flaws. I've put together some tips for working with a critique partner to make sure that both you and your partner have a pleasant experience. Today's installment will talk about receiving critique. The next installment will talk about giving critique. For each tip, I've put together a quick "Good Example"/"Bad Example" pair that I hope will illustrate the tips.

  1. Don't send your critique partner junk. OK, maybe that needs a bit of qualification... Don't send your critique partner work that you haven't gone through and made a serious attempt to ensure is sound. That doesn't mean that you have to feel the work is perfect already. After all, that sort of defeats the point, doesn't it?
    • Good Idea: You've worked on a story, feel stuck on a particular issue, and send it to your CP with a note saying: "Hey, I think there's some problems with the character's motivations, what do you think about that aspect of the story?" That shows you've already thought about it and are genuinely stuck.
    • Bad Idea: "Hey, CP, here's my story. Microsoft Word puts all these red squiggly things under a bunch of my words. Any idea what's up with that? Oh, and do you have any idea how I should end this thing?"
  2. Don't take comments personally, even when you disagree. Remember, you asked this person for their opinion. It's pretty rude to complain when they give it to you. Also remember that the next story written that every possible reader would adore will be the first such story. If you really, truly believe your CP has gotten it wrong here, look for a third opinion. However, if that third opinion sounds a lot like what the first CP said, it's time to really challenge your own feelings about the work.
    • Good Idea: Now this doesn't mean you can never ask for clarification. It would be nice if everything a CP says in their comments would be crystal clear but that's not always going to happen. Let's say your CP has said "I don't think that Fred's motivation to go bowling with Barney is adequately established." You think it is, but also don't really have a good sense of why your CP thought this because they didn't provide any other notes. It wouldn't be unreasonable to reply: "Thanks for your comments, CP! By the way, about the issue with Fred's motivation, did you have any specific thoughts around what you thought was lacking there? I'd like to make sure that's strong, since it's a central element of the story. Thanks in advance for whatever thoughts you have on this!"
    • Bad Idea: "Well, duh, CP! Does Fred need any motivation to go bowling with Barney? After all, wouldn't most anyone give their left arm (unless it's their bowling arm) to go bowling with a big freaking green and purple dinosaur??? Give me a break, here. Oh, yeah, and thanks for looking it over and finding all my typos."
  3. On the other hand, don't feel like you have to use every suggestion your CP makes. It is, after all, your story. It's perfectly OK to look at something your CP has said about your story and say "I don't think I want to make that change."
    • Good Idea: Maybe your CP has said that they feel like it would be better if Fred and Barney went scuba diving instead of bowling. And maybe they even had a really good reason. (After all, your scene where they are chased through the bowling alley by a stingray did need a lot of background explanation about how the flying airbreathing stingray ended up there...) But if you really want to write a story about a bowling alley/stingray adventure, that's your prerogative. Just be aware that some readers might find it unconventional. Maybe what you should take from this is that you haven't justified the situation enough yet within the context of the story.
    • Bad Idea: Thinking to yourself: "All my life I've wanted to write this story about a mutant stingray terrorizing a bowling alley. I guess that was just a lousy idea. I'll delete the file and try to forget about it. Who needs to write mutant stingray stories anyway? My cat Whiskers still loves me. I think."
  4. Don't be a "critique hog." Unless you and your CP have explicitly discussed otherwise, it's best to assume that it will be a roughly-equal exchange in terms of word count and number of pieces of work going in both directions. Asking your CP to do a lot more work than you're doing for them is unfair.
    • Good Idea: If you're proposing an unequal exchange, make sure to ask first, and also offer to "catch up" later. (Be prepared to follow through!) You could write: "You mentioned you had a flash fiction that you wanted looked over. What I have right now is more like novelette length. Would you be willing to look it over, and I'll look at something longer of yours when you have something like that ready for review?"
    • Bad Idea: "I hope my comments on your flash fiction were helpful. Here's what I've been working on. It's a 300-page outline for my proposed high fantasy octalogy. Would you be able to get back to me on this in the next couple of days? I'm hoping to send this off to an agent by Friday."
  5. Do say thank you. Your CP has taken some of their time -- quite possibly some of their writing time -- to try to help you have a better story. And this is someone who very well may be competing with you for entry into the same markets! Even if you're compensating them by providing your own feedback on their work, it's still important to acknowledge their efforts and input.
    • Good Idea: After receiving their criticism, send a note back saying something like: "CP, thank you so much for your feedback on 'Fred and Barney Go Bowling.' You make a great point about the timeline once they get to the bowling alley. I think I'll make some changes to that. I really appreciate your input!" (If you'd like to work with them again, now wouldn't be a bad time to mention that.)
    • Bad Idea: You get back their criticism and don't open it. It sits in your inbox, cold and neglected. A week or so later, your CP sends you a note asking if you received their email. You reply: "Yeah, got it. Haven't had time for it yet, though. Thanks." OK, here you said "thanks" but everything else pretty much negated that and made it clear that the "thanks" was a reflexive gesture, not a true expression of your feelings.
I hope that these tips help you effectively receive critique feedback from a CP. Look for my 2nd installment on this topic, about providing critique feedback, soon.

Have you already worked with a critique partner? If so, what tips have you found useful in terms of being on the receiving end of critique?


  1. Great tips! Love the two bears line, btw.

  2. I think you've provided sound advice here, and covered all the bases on reciprocity and gratitude. As in any type of interaction, it's important to find the right fit too - i.e., same genre, communication style, etc. If your CP doesn't read YA, for example, they probably aren't the best person to be critiquing it. Great post!

  3. I think another important point is to make sure you and your critique partner are reasonable close together in terms of skill...

    which is why I always ask to exchange 1 scene/chapter first before committing to the project. If the person has no concept of basic grammar, then I want to know that before receiving their 90,000 word MS.

  4. Excellent comments everyone. Thanks for your input.

  5. Awesome post Michael! I found, from working with a fellow sci-fi writer Zack, that being absolutely as honest as possible and looking at everything is the way you should approach anyone's piece. Every writer has mess ups. Even if the person you are looking over is a step above as far as style and production, look for anything because even the little things, like grammar/tense use in my case, is something that can add up. Even if the foundation of story telling is grand. :)

  6. I wrote a post like this myself recently about how I've handled critiques from my beta readers/CPs. Your list is far more comprehensive and nicely laid out. Bravo!

    The site is all about critiquing (it has some 10,000 members). They have stringent rules about how you word your critiques. I thought you might be interested in reading it...

    I'm not a member myself yet, but I've been considering it.

  7. Fred and Barney--I was thinking Flintstones until the purple dinosaur appeared :)

    One thing about taking criticism: sometimes the critic targets something that seems exactly right to you. Before throwing out the criticism, consider that something earlier in your story has gone wrong (e.g. missing or unclear background) and that's why the current point isn't working for them.

  8. @Jacob, that's a good point. Those little things DO matter!

    @Daniel, the critters site seems to be very well run. I've dabbled on that site, but have found that I prefer trading stories one-on-one with other writers. Just a personal preference on my part. I felt like I got useful feedback on the things I sent through critters in the past.

    @Marie, yeah, I was going for a bit of humor there. And a very good point -- I've found (from both receiving AND giving CP feedback) that internal consistency errors can be really hard for a writer to root out in their own work.

  9. I agree, it's always good to have fresh eyes look at your manuscript. :)

  10. Great post and fun reminders! I love my crit group and am so grateful to them, but I've been with them for about 4 years now. When I first started, I was very uncertain and would have loved to hear lessons like these!

  11. Kenneth, thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

    Nicole, glad you enjoyed the post. I've found that getting crit feedback is SO helpful. Very glad I've got good CPs to work with.

  12. good advice. two heads are better than one as they say.