What is a Critique Partner?
If you’re like me and you cut your teeth writing for fandom, you might be more familiar with the term beta editor. I much prefer critique partner, because where beta editor implies a one-sided relationship (“you read my stuff and tell me what you think”) critique partner implies a more balanced relationship (“you read my stuff, I read yours”).
At its most basic, a critique partner is a peer who reads through your work to see if things work, and you do the same for theirs. Once in a while you’ll find a CP who’s great with grammar and can help you out, but that’s just icing on the cake. More often, they’re the ones who tell you that this part was a snorefest, that part made me laugh out loud, that line was glorious, that paragraph was confusing.
Why do I need a CP?
Having a whole lot of different people looking at your material and looking at other people’s material is one of the single best ways of improving, aside from writing constantly. They can give you feedback about what works and what doesn’t, what sounds natural and what sounds melodramatic, and give you a whole new range of insights into new ways of approaching your story.
At the same time, editing other people’s work lets you learn from their mistakes. It requires that you think critically about what you’re reading as you’re reading it. Initially you might only be able to say that something feels off, that a passage is difficult to follow or doesn’t quite sound right, or that ‘this section over here’ started to lose your interest, and that can be invaluable on its own. But as you critique more and more often, it’ll start to become easier to identify exactly what it is that’s working or not working. The more you do this, the easier it becomes to look at your own work and recognize its strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll have a stronger understanding of how to fix the shortcomings.
Working on another person’s story is also a good way of avoiding burnout. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to take a break from looking at your own manuscript for the billionth time and look at someone else’s work for a change. At the same time, sometimes having another person’s perspective on a problem can completely change the way you see it.
A new perspective
Well-chosen CPs are also going to have completely different perspectives than you will. For example, I once handed off a story that dealt with firearms and military politics to a friend who had (to my surprise) been in the military; immediately he started pointing out little details that I didn’t even think to research, like the way the various ranks of soldiers spoke to each other, or what it’s like to stand close to an artillery cannon.
A good CP might also be able to point out moments where what you wrote was unintentionally offensive or stereotypical, or points where the story dips too heavily into overused tropes.
Becoming part of a community
Some bizarre outliers notwithstanding, the success of a book on the market is determined by the way it’s marketed. Critique Partners are often some of the first and strongest contacts you’re going to find in the writing world, and they’ll be some of your biggest fans. As you and your CPs publish and grow, you can learn from each other’s experiences and help each other build platforms, or help to spread the word that a fellow writer’s story is going to hit the shelves. That can do wonders for building a readership and driving sales.
What makes a good Critique Partner?
They can’t be related to you.
Sorry. You might have a really brutally honest relative who is just great, but 99 times out of 100, a family member who’s willing to read your work has too much invested in your happiness to give it to you straight. They’re also more likely to share your perspective on a lot of matters, so you’re not going to get many of those advantages, either.
Aside from that, the most important thing is that they mesh well with you, so the rest of these are guidelines at best.
A good CP:
- has read (and enjoyed reading) stories in the genre you’re working on
- has a background that’s different from yours (worked in a different field, part of a different generation, has lived in different socio-economic sectors, etc)
- is able to communicate with you effectively
- is willing to point out the parts of a story that didn’t work for them
- but isn’t going to be cruel about things that don’t work
- isn’t going to take comments personally or get defensive (note: If you had to defend the work, then it didn’t speak for itself. That means something is wrong and needs to be fixed.)
- is willing to ask ‘how do I fix it?’ and is willing to work with you on fixing problems of your own.
There are other qualities, but after that point, they get a whole lot more subjective.
I do recommend using more than one CP for any given story, because the second and third will inevitably catch things that the first one missed.
Where do I get one?
Some local writing groups exist, but I generally recommend looking on the internet first, where you can find dozens upon dozens of groups dedicated to the craft.
Facebook is always a good place to look for writing groups.
The Nanowrimo forums are also teeming with writers who need help polishing their new manuscripts.
Seriously, these groups are everywhere.
It’s important to be polite and respectful, and to express that you’d like to trade manuscripts. I know I’ve spoken of the skills you pick up from helping another person develop, but a lot more people are going to be willing to read your work if there’s a promise of getting something in return.
All things said, though, a CP is not a substitute for a paid editor. Rather, having multiple Critique Partners look at your manuscript is one of the things you should be doing to make it ready to show to an editor.