Friday, December 5, 2014

How To Be A Good Critique Partner

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest

There is a story in Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, that has stuck with me for years. It’s the story of critique group and a fledgling writer offering up his work for feedback. While many in the group found positive things to say, one of them did not. She told the writer his stuff didn’t work, that everyone else was patronizing him, and that there wasn’t anything good about what he’d written. 

Lamott tells her readers that while the girl was harsh, much of what she’d said was correct. The writing was not very good. But later when the girl approached her, Lamott had this to say:


At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate her words, but after having been part of a few different critique groups over the years, I think, perhaps, this is the best advice any would-be critique partner can be given. With so many of you now in crit groups, it would be a good time for me to share a few of the things I’ve learned.

When you’re critiquing someone else’s writing:

Don’t lose sight of your purpose. Your goal is to help the writer. Every word you say (or email) to them needs to be formed with that in mind. You may consider yourself a better writer than your partner, you may consider yourself to have less talent, but neither of these opinions will help. Offer only feedback that helps.

Ask your partner what their goals are. What is your partner’s goal? If you don’t know, ask. I sat in a critique group one time and listened to an advanced writer crucify another because her work was “not sellable.” Had she taken the time to ask, she would have learned that publishing was not one of her partner’s goals. She was writing a devotional for her blog.

Don’t be shy with positive feedback. Yes, there will be some things that need to be addressed. There always are. But when you come across something you like, TELL THEM! Writers are an insecure bunch and, as a community, we should focus on building one another up.

Offer alternatives. When you give negative feedback (and it happens), offer your partner a solution to their problem. For example, if your partner has a tendency to hop from one characters head to the other, point it out, and then show them how they can rewrite a sentence or two without head hopping.  

Stay away from advice above your paygrade. Unless you are an acquisitions editor for a major publishing house, refrain from telling anyone their writing is “not publishable.” That sort of advice is not at all helpful coming from a critique partner. Offer advice that makes their writing better.

Critique the writing, not the writer. If any of your feedback can be construed as a personal slight, remove or rephrase it. For example, never say anything like “You’re such a shallow writer.” Instead, point out areas where the writing can be taken to another, deeper level.

Remember how vulnerable you feel when asking for feedback. It takes a fat dose of bravery to ask another writer for their thoughts. And even more bravery to ask after receiving a harsh critique.

Trading advice is a tricky, tricky thing. It’s also a necessary thing if your goal is to be a published author. Because I just sent my most recent manuscript out to friends for critique, I thought I’d share some of the feedback they gave me. Pay attention to the way they phrased their thoughts.

I love Violet and the dynamic with her/Grandfather/MaryEvelyn. That all felt very realistic. I also love where I can tell the storyworld is headed, once you get that cemented. (She’s telling me I need to work on my storyworld, but she did it so nicely.)

The part about why ________ shot _______ may need some clarification. (The word “may” is lovely here. He’s giving me the option of not accepting his advice.)

I am still loving this, but at page 135 I am a little worried about pacing. The writing is so beautiful, but I am worried that an editor will want to speed up the action though. (She led with a compliment. Very kind of her.)

The scene was great, very powerful. But then _______ never thought about it again. I think he needs to have some major, dizzying, near-tears moments here and there through the rest of the book where it just hits him major, you know? (Again, leading with a compliment and then giving me an alternative. It’s like a spoon full of sugar with the medicine, you know?)

This is just a sampling of what I received from my four beta readers on a 360 page manuscript, but not once did my critique partners take a chop at me or my writing. They pointed out things, honestly and truthfully and without ego of any kind. And that’s why they were helpful.


Tell me, what do you find helpful in a critique partner?
 

19 comments:

  1. Loved this post. I can say I'm blessed with a friend who knows how to properly critique. Almost every change she suggests is brilliant and's she's not shy about commenting, either. I'm not as good at it as she is, though, so this is something I really need to work on. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So glad you found a reliable partner! That's HUGE! And you'll grow into it, girl. No pressure.

      Delete
  2. I critiqued the first chapter of one of my critique partners' stories and I think I did a decent job of following this advice. Another thing to keep in mind is that I'm the critique partner, not the editor. While I may have issues that I strongly feel need to be addressed, it's still my job to phrase them as suggestions, not demands.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is really helpful advice! I've just started critiquing and I've definitely been trying to work on commenting on both the good and the bad. I know that I can take (and tend to like) more harsh, brutally honest feedback, so it can be hard for me to be more delicate myself, but I'm working on that. I definitely appreciate a critique partner who's honest but not cruel, and understands what I'm going for before offering feedback.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ^This girl right here does an excellent job critiquing. :) Just sayin'.

      Delete
    2. Absolutely. Honest but not cruel. Words to live by!

      Delete
  4. This post really helped! I haven't got around to reading my partners story yet (sorry, Alea) but this will *so* help. I bet it'll help my partners too. They haven't read my story yet, either :D.

    Thanks once again. Invaluable stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Speaking of which, I really love brutally honest feedback, though I don't mind some kindness peppered in too ;). Especially when someone just points out the flaws, the stuff they don't like, the good stuff, and the real gems...Oh well. Thanks again. Happy critiquing :D.

      Delete
    2. You bring up a very good point. Critiquing takes time and it's not always easy to find it. Being honest with you crit partners about your schedule is very important.

      Delete
  5. I adore Anne Lamott and that quote reminds me of why! What great thoughts, Shan. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She's a quirky lady, isn't she? But she has the best one liners.

      Delete
  6. I think it would be a terrible thing to live with knowing I killed another writer's dreams...and because of that and who I am in general, I probably tend to fall on the side of too nice and not always enough honest, but I guess the important thing is I realize this and am working on it (without losing the kindness, I hope!). :) Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It can be hard to find balance, can't it? The good news is we're always growing and learning and, often, our friends let us learn on them. For that I am grateful.

      Delete
  7. I don't have a critique partner or critique group yet because I want to wait until I've edited a full novel before I get it critiqued. However, I have critiqued short stories and poems, and I have had my own work critiqued. I think that quote by Anne Lamott perfectly sums up what critiquing should be. You have to be honest, but not mean about it. I try hard to do this and it also helps that I have gotten work critiqued because I know how it feels to get writing criticized.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely. When you've been in someone else's shoes, you understand just how big a deal it is to be offering critique.

      Delete
  8. I'll be honest, I do not have a critique group or even one partner yet. I am still so new to all of this and frankly feel really fragile. I love this post. These are wonderful tips. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've gone through many, many seasons of my writing journey without having a critique partner. It certainly isn't a mandatory thing. As you move forward, you may find a time when a crit partner would be valuable. Whenever that is, I hope these tips help.

      Delete
  9. im new the whole writing thing i have a small WIP but no ones seen it though my friend has let me help with his work and hope these tips help me help him thanks

    ReplyDelete

Home