When I teach at writers’ conferences, the value of good critique partners often comes up. An insightful critique partner can help a writer improve the level of his or her craft, sometimes more than either person would have thought possible.
The conversation often leads to the question, “How do I find such a magical being?”
Chances are, it’s not your mom. Your spouse is probably not your best critique partner, either. Or your best friend. Maybe not even your retired-English-teacher friend. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but the ability to be objective is crucial to good critique, and close friends and family usually lack that objectivity.
I found my most treasured (and long-term, as it turns out) critique partner at the movies.
More than twenty years ago, my wife, the lovely Robin, and I went to see the movie, White Squall, starring Jeff Bridges. Afterward, as we left the theater, Robin asked (as she always does), “What did you think of the movie?” I shrugged. “It was okay,” I said.
Just then we noticed our friends, Annie and Jim, behind us. The four of us realized that we had watched the same movie in the same theater without knowing of each other’s presence. We caught up a little, there in the theater lobby, and then Robin asked Annie, “What did you think of the movie?”
Annie answered. At length. “I thought the character development was lacking. I only really got to know the main character, and not too well at that.”
She went on. “And characters’ motivation was confusing at times. Like when the first mate at the height of the storm released his grip on the railing on one side of the ship, struggled to the other side, and grabbed the railing there. I thought he was going to grab a rope or something, but he never did. Maybe it ended up on the cutting room floor, but his movement was never explained.”
And so on. Annie sliced and diced the movie, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, explaining what she liked, disliked—and why. And how it could have been done better.
As we exchanged hugs and walked to our cars, I thought, All I could think of to say was, “It was okay.”
That was when I realized that Annie had an analytical eye. She knows not only what she likes and dislikes, but also why. And how it could be done better.
That’s the kind of person you want on your critique team. They’re rare, and often hard to discover in the wild. But when you find such a creature, do what you can to enlist him or her to read your writing and offer feedback, whether in a group setting, one-on-one, or via email. It may hurt at first. It may take time to settle on a process that works for both of you. But good critique makes for good writing…and good writers.
So true. Good critique partners are super hard to find. I was lucky that while getting to know other authors, I was kindly invited by an older, experienced writer into a multi-author critique group. It’s been absolutely invaluable. It seems that professional writers’ groups like ACFW, and others like it, can be great places to find critique partners. But mostly, I think you just have to make friends with other writers and eventually you’ll find that person (or persons). There are SO many amazing writers making Christian fiction these days. It’s inspiring just to be able to read others’ drafts.
Yes, Brennan. Your comment reminded me of the illuminating book, James A. Michener’s Writer’s Handbook (I think). Have you seen it? It shows his work in various stages of development. So helpful.
Great critique partners are a true blessing. I found one of mine through ACFW’s large critique email group. I was drawn to her writing, and she to mine. God opened an opportunity for us to reach out to each other off the email loop, and we’ve been partners and dear friends ever since. I met my other writing partner in a unique way in that we kept going up against each other in writing competitions. We got to know each other, became friends, and now we critique each other’s work.
Good for you, Rebekah! I find it hard to partner with writers who repeatedly go up against me in writing competitions. Easier just to sabotage them.
Lol! It’s being in the contest trenches that brought us together. We’ve joked about creating a book for new contest goers. Chapter 1 – Judge Whiplash.
Perfect example of the value of a non-related critique partner! Thank you!!
Yes, Loretta. Some relationships impede objectivity and honesty, in one direction or another.
I met my critique partner through this blog, and she’s been helping me become a better writer since my very first novel. She’s won or finaled in several contests and rightly so. The best part of the 2017 ACFW conference was meeting my writing buddy in person. We live more than a thousand miles apart.
Many thanks to your agency for this blog where I met het!
Hmmmm. Seems to me there should be a way to charge you for that service, Carol. Thinking, thinking….
How cool! I love this, Carol!
Great essay, Bob, and an inspiration to believe in God’s serendipity.
One thing I have learned is that being a critique partner is very much a boon to one’s own writing, as it develops a different ‘eye’ that can never be quite put back in the box, and one can never really go one’s merry and willful way again.
It’s such a necessary thing to have and to be; the writer working alone is the surgeon who operates on himself, with a fool for a patient.
Actually, though not a surgeon I HAVE operated on myself (minor things, to be sure, taking care of impalements and piercing trauma and whatnot), and I may thus prove the wisdom of that adage.
Well said, as usual, Andrew.
Andrew, you are THE best critique partner for the sections where someone gets injured. (He just helped me get the kidnapping sequence for the novel I hope to release in a year right.) What do I know about knife fights and getting shot with arrows? I definitely need a consultant, and having one who also writes so well is a blessing.
I’m so honoured, Carol!
I have yet to find a critique partner. My relatively rural location makes it a challenge to find someone in my area — and I like to collaborate in person. As a longtime English teacher and a freelance editor/proofreader, I have clients who thank me for helping them to improve their writing . . . but I get the idea that most everyone I meet has the false impression that I’m above making mistakes. They’re wrong. (Or maybe I should say their wrong — there really wrong . . . and someone would believe me.)
Ah, Renee Garrick. I empathize with your rural location. In the middle of Kansas myself and a former English teacher, I finally started putting together the Central Kansas Christian Writers Critique Group. We are a small group of writers of varied levels and interests. We work off the Word Weavers model – sort of. We’re not terribly strict about word counts and critique times. God-be-praised, I think I have found a good critique partner among this group. We’re not yet actively involved as one-on-one partners, but her insights catch the things I don’t – and mine catch the things hers don’t.
Thanks Bob for sharing. It is a challenge to find the right critique partner and/or writing group.
Rebekah Love Dorris
People like Annie amaze me. I’m an “It was okay” type too. Several of my writing friends consistently wow me with their insight. The stock photo in your header nails exactly how it feels!
Thank you Bob and everyone who responded.
Andrew, I’m still laughing about your analogy of the ‘writer/the surgeon who operates on himself with a fool for a patient.’
Renee and Judith: I’m in Indiana, somewhere between the corn and beans. Rural is definitely a challenge when it comes to connecting with other writers on a face-to-face basis. The cats, dogs, coyotes, cows and pigs haven’t been much help.
Sharon, I’m in Indiana, too and looking for critique partners. I’ve considered starting a Word Weavers group. What town/city are you closest to?
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, when is Annie coming to a movie theater in Annapolis?
My oldest daughter is that person when it comes to viewing a movie at home. She has to stop the movie every so often to discuss the thing and give her opinion as to what is happening etc. It can drive me crazy at times. She picks up on all the little messages and can predict the ending long before we get there, and accurately. But alas, she’s too busy homeschooling four young munchkins to be of much help to me.
Your post makes a good point. I’ve been a critique person for others, “Norma, would you look at this and tell me what you think,” but have not taken further unless one counts beta readers (like a distant cousin). My son was asking me if I have a critique partner or critique group just yesterday. I know I should take this step forward. I’ll be on the lookout . . .
Bob, great example. (I think I would have been annoyed with her detailed critique of the movie. I’d be thinking, it’s just a movie, right?)
Great posts, I read ’em all.
I searched ‘far and wide.’ My first critique group said my work was wonderful. Nothing, even I knew it sucked.
I ended up on Scribophile, and wow was my MS torn apart. Wonderful. I made some good friends there and stopped last year. Gained a stalker. She was not helpful, she was mean. Thus, I left.
However the good news, only one Christian followed me, so the Gospel reached London, Mexico, Scotland, France, Canada, Seattle, and a Muslim woman who loved the message. A writer/playwright already established.
Whether my MS goes further, who knows. But I pray for my friends who asked for more Scripture, and more elucidation and for those who didn’t.
I didn’t intention that… only God could help me with the missionary work I have always wanted to accomplish. What a surprise to me!
So you are recommending I go to the movies to find a critique partner? lol
You are truly blessed and truly a blessing.
This is such a great post and very vital to writers, trad or indie published. I have to say that my husband is my best critique partner. Why? First off, he’s an engineer (read, very analytical). Steve, my hubby, does not read any fiction except mine, so I’m glad he volunteered. Because he’s analytical, he’s also a very detailed-oriented guy. He also doesn’t let me get away with anything. If he sees something wrong or something that doesn’t work in his mind, he’s not afraid to tell me.
I agree that not every spouse is cut out to be a critique partner, but those who have sharp, analytical minds, are detail-oriented, and don’t let their spouse get away with anything are great ones.
Your post also shows that a critique partner doesn’t have to be a fellow writer but can be someone with that detailed mind.
Thanks again for sharing.
Kristen Joy Wilks
It takes time and trial and error. I begged people to read and comment on my work for about ten years before I found my wonderful critique partner. Actually, I didn’t find her, one of her friends saw from my name tag that I wrote YA and grabbed Jenn and dragged her over to introduce her to me. “Exchange emails!” She commanded us and we did. I’m so so glad she emailed me after that conference, her insights have been so vital in my growth as a writer. I can only pray that I have been half as helpful to her!
Wow! That’s when you know such a ‘random’ meeting was really ordained by a Sovereign God! Now I just need to keep my antennae up for just such a seemingly coincidental meeting 🙂
1,000% agreed, Bob! Sometimes finding someone who is also a good reader or skilled editor or just loves to tear story apart and gracefully put it together again is also a great asset.
Hmm, I’m looking to get a ticket to see “I Can Only Imagine.” I wonder what analytic critic will be there…. 😉