Practical tips for critique partners

Practical tips for critique partners

Thinking about creating a writing group and don’t know how to give good feedback? These are just a few things you can do that should point you in the right direction.

Give the writer a chance—DON’T go into it with the plan to edit. Go into it with the intentions of a reader, and THEN edit. What does that mean? Read it over once, adding NO metaphorical red ink (unless there’s a grammar or spelling mistake, then highlight it, but don’t write). Then, read it a second time. As it was said to me by a professor I strongly value and respect—a person who has helped me become a better writer AND reader—“your author has written the piece a hundred times for you. Give them the respect of reading it at least twice.”

Why is this so important? When we go in, red ink blazing, we interrupt the story, so comprehension and cohesion are not there. The MC/narrator says things and we find it utterly impossible to link one paragraph with another because we’re too busy writing one of our own. Read it through first, and then decide if your mental opinions have changed by the end. Many of them will. If you don’t read it first, then many of them won’t. Why take ourselves out of the story and sell the writer short?

How can we edit properly if we go into it with an editorial perspective? Editors and critique partners aren’t reading their work, READERS are. So, to be an effective beta or critique partner, you have to play reader first, and then editor second. (Though, professional editors might skip step one and move to step two.)

Don’t look for things to change—look for what works and flag what doesn’t.

Be honest about what doesn’t work, but BALANCE it by saying what worked well. If something struck you in any way, or stuck with you (in a good way), share it. It’s not easy seeing a bunch of red—add some green.

Don’t say, confusing paragraphs, needs work. Explain. Support your stance. Paragraph 3 says the sky in the west was purple, but paragraph 6 says the sky was green… I was confused by *highlight line* and by____.

If you say something’s confusing or takes you out of the story, go the extra step if you have an idea that might make it work. Your writer needs the outside perspective. “Paragraph 3 says the sky in the west was purple, but paragraph 6 says the sky in the east was green. We don’t connect that paragraph 120 ties in the two, so, perhaps adding in The gravitational pulling of the planets created a polarizing effect, leaving the skies by Planet Chloron a green hue and Planet Purplon a violet hue.

Avoid words like boring, stupid, dumb, lame, childish, infantile etc. Writing is extremely personal, therefore, critiques are, too. Use, “As a reader, I don’t need this paragraph.” “This takes me out of the story.” “This makes the character seem this way…” (which might be what the author is aiming for).

Along with that, feel free to advocate for the character. “I don’t feel the character would do this, he’d do this. If he does this, it’s hard for me to understand his motivation, and therefore feels forced.”

Ask the writer what kind of critique they’re looking for. Line by line? Overall what works, what doesn’t? Comprehensibility? Believability? Help on paring down a huge word count? Or just someone to say whether they enjoyed it? Tailor your feedback.

Above all, BE RESPECTFUL. Don’t hide behind, “Oh, I’m blunt.” “Oh, I call it like I see it.” You’re supposed to, but it’s all about tact. Your job is to help, and “being blunt” doesn’t equate to being rude or insensitive. While writers do need thick skin in general, when working with you as a partner, they don’t need thick skin as much as they need respect, understanding and to be able to trust you.

They’re opening themselves to becoming vulnerable with you, and if all you do is “give harsh feedback,” in an off-putting manner, you might not develop the kind of relationship you want with your partner. Ignoring human emotion and being insensitive with the way you relay your information—in the writer’s eye—says more about you than it does their work. They might even disregard everything you said, whether or not you were right. You’ve lost their trust, and wasted your time. The key words are tact, respect, compassion. You can be direct and honest, and even blunt, but don’t let it borderline rude. Ever. Need an example?

The great big tree had the largest apple anyone has ever seen and it was red as ever and it looked like the apple on snow white.

Rude: dude, this sentence is lame and immature.

Tactfully blunt: this is a run-on sentence, and an agent will notice. Try to avoid the overuse of adjectives, use stronger words, and perhaps, instead of making a reference to another’s work, take the opportunity to make this a reference to your own. For example: A burgundy apple hangs from the towering tree. If Guinness had a record, this one would break it.

If you “don’t have time to sugar coat” (and this is NOT sugarcoating), then perhaps critiquing someone’s work isn’t right for you at the moment. After all, they’ve spent hours perfecting the sentence, the least you could do is spend a few minutes showing them what went wrong.

Be precise. When someone tells me a sentence doesn’t work, I’d like to know how so because I want to fix it. I was particularly fond of some sentences that people suggested I cut.

One of the BIGGEST things a CP (critique partner) has to remember—characters don’t always reflect the opinion of the writer. I have disagreed with my characters before—almost to the point of writing them out. I have shaken my head at many things they’ve done. It’s a book. It’s fiction.

Going along with that (and this is the biggest thing), you don’t have to like characters’ character, or their decisions. Wait—a main character has to be the least bit intriguing, but it’s okay if they’re flawed. If the character is making poor decisions, horrible arguments and is all around undesirable, it’s not your job to give the character a pep talk, or to fix the character. The question isn’t, “would I hang out with this person, is this person a good person, how can I fix this person,” it’s, “does this character work? Within the context of the story, does this character fit in a unique way that adds dimension?” If the answer is yes, then the character is perfect.

Now, if an action doesn’t line up with the character, and throws the plot off too much (doesn’t fit with the book), by all means, call it out. MORE IMPORTANTLY, if a main character’s personality is too unlikable and the reader (you) disengages and doesn’t care about the MC, say so. I’ve had someone call mine out, and said person was right.

The list of suggestions goes on. And on. And on.

Main points?

Be sensitive, while honest. Take the time to read it before marking it in red. You don’t have to agree with a character’s decision, but does the character work? Give positive feedback, ESPECIALLY when something particularly strong strikes you. Be specific, and be respectful.

Check out six universal themes for more ideas to help your partner.