by Tamela Hancock Murray
Recently I talked with a supervisor in a field unrelated to the publishing industry, who mentioned an employee. “I shudder to think of the advice he’s giving out. He has a general understanding of the subject matter, but not the skill set.” It struck me how applicable this statement can be regarding people who offer to critique manuscripts. In a previous post, I addressed the number of critique partners to consider. In this article, I’ll discuss quality, because not all critique partners will help you in the same manner.
A friend offering to critique your work is a gift because she is expressing interest intense enough to offer her time to read and comment upon it. But what if it is someone who is only an acquaintance? Some writers may think, “But what if the person actually wants to steal it and pass off my work as her own and sell it to a publisher?” Of course that is a risk, so be wise and make sure you know that the person is a legitimate writer and/or reader. Some organizations such as American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) offer critique groups to their members, so those writers are screened by virtue of membership. Consider sending an email to a mutual writer friend, go on Facebook and Twitter, or take any number of steps to make sure the person is a proven or at least an aspiring peer in the business.
Interview your potential critique partner. Let’s say you are writing a contemporary romantic suspense novel. A quick look on the web shows your potential partner has written a couple of Regencies. I’d ask, “Since I write romantic suspense, do you think we’re a good match?” You might find that she wants to expand her reach into romantic suspense (Don’t debate this wisdom or lack thereof — leave that to her agent.), or that she loves romantic suspense as a fan but doesn’t want to write one, or she ultimately wants you for a critique partner and is offering an exchange. Since you want to offer good criticism, you will then have to determine your interest in critiquing Regencies. Do you know or care about the difference between a Regency rake and a garden rake? You may still agree to work together, but the critiques you will exchange are likely to be basic. You would both need to look within your respective genres for deeper critiques of finer points.
You may find that some partners will be grammar mavens who understand how not to split infinitives, some will catch you on the fact that bustle wasn’t in style until six months later, while others can find plot holes as more quickly than CSI can run a DNA test. Still others may act as readers who will simply catch a typo or two and tell you whether or not they like your story and characters. These critiques are valuable, especially if you find a partner who’s an expert in helping you improve your weak spots. Know what skill set each partner brings, and weigh opinions accordingly.
The bottom line is to choose carefully. A critique partner or two can be invaluable to your writing success.
What has been your best experience with a critique partner?
If you dare, your worst? (Please don’t use names if you share with us here.)
Are you part of a critique group? Why or why not?
I’m not part of a critique group but have a couple of trusted partners who I trade critiques with. I did try groups when I first started out but just didn’t seem to have any luck with them – one never seemed to get off the ground and a second started with promise but just fizzled out. Shortly afterward I connected with these two girls and never looked back 🙂
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had a terrible experience – but there have definitely been a couple of occasions where I’ve sent people something and never heard from them again. The first time it happened I was paranoid that they had ‘stolen’ it. Now with the benefit of hindsight I know that even if they had it wouldn’t have done them more harm than good, the writing was pretty terrible 😉
*Sigh* that should have read would have done them more harm than good – can you tell it’s almost midnight in my part of the world?
Not speaking on writing in particular, but I find that as a general rule, those who are the loudest know the least.
I belong to a fantastic critique group, the Bards of Faith. There are eight of us and we have a wonderful time whenever we get together, which is about twice a month. Each brings different talents to the group. Some of us write historicals, some romance, some suspense, so we generally do well with genre advice. Four of us currently teach or have taught English at different colleges and universities so we have the grammar thing pretty well taken care of, too. We are at different levels of publication so can help in that area. The best thing, however, is we know God has been in our coming together as we have wonderful friends and dependable prayer partners for all aspects of our lives, not just the writing part.
I’m not sure if I’m part of the group, or the group serves only me. I finished my MS, but had various English geeks to proof read and critique as I went through various drafts. Their IMMENSE help shaped the book to it’s finished form. One person was as tough as nails and challenged me to do better each and every time she sent her notes back to me. I do believe that now I have a well honed story with a solid backbone, excellent research and heaps of “show, don’t tell”. Without the group, I’d be in the Twilight zone. Doesn’t every story need a vampire? The worst of the worst critiques came from my mother. AFTER she raved about the book. I’m fine now, was talked down of a ledge of chocolate by some good people..
Over the years I’ve been involved in several critique groups. My main critique group have become my closest friends and my greatest advisors. I trust their comments, because they know me and my style, and they are accomplished writers themselves. Such a group takes years to grow.
I have learned where my strengths are and where my weaknesses are over the years. This helps me evaluate what I can critique and what I can’t. I’m not a ‘line editor’ and can most help a partner with substantial edits or on scene set up. I’m a big picture sort of person. I have learned that I do not like romance novels. So when critiquing such in one of the other groups I’m involved with, I make that clear, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be of help with certain craft issues. It does mean that I will be careful about commenting whether something sits right with me.
I’ve also learned to be thorough. I want a thorough and honest critique so I need to be willing to do the same. This often means that I first state something ‘bumped’ me, why I think it did, how I suggest fixing it and why. I always want to be clear that this is my opinion only. Others may not agree.
In my close group. I generally don’t need to be as thorough because we’ve worked together so long that we can be honest, and if there is a question we can go back and forth until a suitable solution evolves.
Respecting a writer’s voice is very important. Some writer’s haven’t developed a voice yet, and so when critiquing I want to help them find it. Others have a strong voice, but if it is a voice I don’t like or is substantially different than mine, I have to really step back and be sure not to ‘slash’ it to pieces. Sometimes it is better not to critique that person’s work at all
As far as receiving critiques, I look at the person’s reading preference and what she writes. I also look at her own personal writing voice. If her voice/style is way different than mine, then we probably will clash some on certain things.
Those who are most helpful to me are those who know their craft well. For example, they understand deep POV, when it is being used and when it isn’t and why sometimes it isn’t the best way to write a scene.
Good critique partners not only understand the era I write in but also why I write. That ‘why’ is crucial. I don’t write solely to entertain. I don’t enjoy reading books that solely entertain (unless I’m ill and don’t have the energy to read an emotionally charged book). I find when they understand this, they can address where the story is weak in terms of theme, moral premise, etc. They will also understand that while being published by a traditional publisher would be nice, that isn’t necessarily the direction God will take me, and be supportive whatever route I travel down.
I have had the wonderful opportunity to partner with a friend from My Book Therapy to critique each other’s work. We don’t write the same genre, but we have different strengths. Mine is plot, hers is wordsmithing. This is a fabulous way to pick someone based on opposite strength and similar craft teaching approaches.
On the flip side, I have on occasion bumped into someone who wanted to edit my voice right out of my novel. Not really their fault, but mine. I learned I have to be protective of my voice and find a way to incorporate edits in a way that doesn’t change voice.
Kimberly Rose Johnson
Great post Tamela! What you said is the perfect example of how my crit group works. We all bring different strengths to the process and have become great friends and prayer partners.
Great advice! I’m hoping to join a critic group soon (time permitting) and this is very helpful information.
So far I have only had a few friends read my MS and they offered some helpful insights. I had one person willing to read the first three chapters, it was rough hearing her critic, but I think it really helped. I wish she would have had the time to commit to the entire MS…oh well. I’ll take what I can get.
Critique Partners are invaluable! If I were to choose what helped me most in my writing growth it would be critiquers – even those that didn’t stay with me/the group. But I think I’ve been blessed not to have run into any terrible ones. (They’ve all been met through ACFW). They may not have “worked out” but no one was disrespectful of my work or tried to edit my voice, etc though all of them were tough (I hate the encouraging edit – if I wanted that I’d ask my mom to crit :)). There’s something better about having someone point out how you messed up POV-wise in your work, than just reading how to do it.
Wonderful points to consider; thank you! I had to laugh at this: “Do you know… the difference between a Regency rake and a garden rake?” I remember looking it up after an early viewing of Mansfield Park years and years ago. 🙂
Tamela Hancock Murray
Thank you all for such wonderful comments and sharing. I am enjoying all of your posts!
Great advice…choose carefully. I exchanged work with several critique partners/groups before I learned the value of being honest–with myself. Critique sessions that resembled a pep rally contributed little to my pursuit of craft mastery. Attending critique sessions wherein writers continually displayed defensive behavior didn’t fit my career goals or demeanor. Once I clarified the specifics of my pursuit of excellence, owning my strengths and challenges–professionally and personally–I was able to recognize the perfect fit. I now have a critique partner with exact opposite strengths and challenges. We push and carry. Commiserate and celebrate. We ask and deliver. Challenge and climb. How does one find the perfect partner? Build the relationship on a foundation of honesty and respect. Now that’s a happily ever after…
Diana Lesire Brandmeyer
I’ve been in several groups, two of them died out. I’m in a group now that is great at catching my grammatical mistakes.I have 2 other super trusted crit partners that have taken the same classes with Margie Lawson and the mybooktherapy courses. We work well together and when it’s suggested to end on a stronger word it’s understood.
One bad experience, everything came back rewritten in that person’s voice.
Great points about critique partners here. I’ve never been part of a critique group, but that’s mostly because I haven’t figured out a good way to find people I’d work well with, if that makes sense. I do have a friend who’s further along in writing than I am. She’s come alongside me and been invaluable in honing my writing skills, helping me take my story deeper and in challenging me as a writer. She’s also an encourager by nature, which is a nice benefit for a newer writer.
Cindy R. Wilson
Tamela, this is really wise advice to suggest interviewing a potential critique partner. If it ends up a long-term relationship, there’s so much more involved than simply exchanging work.
I’m so blessed to have three critique partners who I’ve been with for years. One writes the same genre as me, another writes a different genre (still inspirational) and the third works between two genres. They all have different strengths that have been so helpful to me, not to mention we’ve become a wonderful support system for each other.
When we first got together, we exchanged questions and our expectations to make sure we were a good fit. We’ve also repeated that process throughout the years to make sure we’re still clicking and make sure we’re meeting each others needs. Again, they’ve been such a blessing and I’m so grateful to have them all in my life.
In January I started praying for more critique partners. I had one, and she’s wonderful, but like you say, people have different strengths. So I started praying, and now I’m overwhelmed with wonderful, helpful people. I think the key is to evaluate the critiques and comments within the framework of your story, your voice, and your opinions. When one person comments about something–especially if it’s a “darling”–I ignore it. When I start to hear the same issue in stereo from multiple people, then I know it’s time to make some changes.
In the end, my two manuscripts are better because of my many crit partners. Proverbs 11:14: in the a multitude of counselors, there is safety!
I stumbled into my group of three completely by accident at the Denver ACFW conference in 2009. And it’s been the best experience of my writing life! The funny part is, my CP’s write suspense and mystery and I write historical romance. But it works. They both love reading historical romance, and can write a decent one but it’s not their passion.
I love reading suspense and mystery, but I can’t write one to save my life. I figure it all out very quickly though, so if they can keep me stumped through the middle of the book and still manage to catch me off-guard in the Final Showdown, it’s good to go. With one of them, when I get goosebumps we know it’s fantastic and she’s on the right track.
Two of us are excellent brainstorming partners. A couple weeks ago I was totally stuck on the reason for my lack of conflict in my current WIP and in the midst of rambling to her about it all we figured it out. She knows my characters nearly as well as I do, and I know her characters nearly as well as she does.
They’re also both agented and one is multi-published with three cozy mysteries. We hold hands and pull each other along. I also got a pretty stinging rejection Tuesday and they were the ones I turned to to cry it out and process it.
And I’m not afraid to name names here. Winter is the best CP in the world and is counted as one of my dearest friends. She’s walked beside me through the most horrible two years of my life, and I’ve walked beside her through her rough patches the last couple years. We have a very special friendship and I have learned so much from her. It also helps that we’re both My Book Therapy junkies and craft characters the same way.
Great post, Tamela! I’ve been a member of a four-person critique group for 2 1/2 yrs now and it’s been a huge blessing to each of us. We exchange one chapter (or more…up to 18 pgs max) once a week via email, posting on Saturday or Sunday, and return the critiqued chapter no later than the following Saturday. We skip a week if two or more people are unable to sub or crit, but that doesn’t happen often. We get so immersed in one another’s stories that even if we don’t have something to sub, we still agree/want to crit.
We don’t write the same genre, but it works well, as each of us has strengths in different areas. One is able to nail overused words and grammar glitches, another catches timeline issues or plot holes, while someone else might catch dialogue that needs tightening, and more. Each of us agree that our work is better as a result of our group & I’m thankful the Lord put us together!
Great thoughts, Tamela, as always. This is such a need for writers, and you’ve given great counsel.
Laurie Alice Eakes
I’d love a critique partner, and when you get to a certain level in the business, people are too intimadted to say nay, that does not work, and, worse for me, they can’t keep up with the output.
Yet no author shuld be an island. I know I make errors my editor catches taht a crit partner would have done first were she there.
some of my closest friends were crit partners until our schedules got in the way, and, of course, I acquired my lovely agent through a critique group.
Now I mostly brainstorm with a few people and have them check a passage now and then. Any feedback helps. And one has to have an open mind and teachable heart.
I am part of a critique group and the experience has been invaluable.
However, I have not yet found a critique partner, but I realize what a treasure a good one could be.
I appreciated that you mention different roles that various critique partners can play. I think this is key since not everyone will have the same strengths. obviously, the grammar maeven is a good person to have around since she may find all those errors, but I’ve found the most value in the person who talks in more general terms about plot holes etc.
I was involved in a large online critique group probably 7 or 8 years ago. Worst thing I saw was a literary-leaning writer’s first four pages gutted down to about one and a half. The critiquer was OCD about a bare-bones plot-oriented style, and consistently brought that preference to others’ writing. It was painful to witness. The writer was actually beginning to show a sensibility for Renni Browne’s self-editing advice on narrative distance, and had opened his suspense novel with a mysterious nighttime scene that gave the effect of zooming in on the scene of the crime. It got summarily pruned down to a bare shadow of his intentions.
I hope he didn’t take the critiquer’s advice, but it’s also one of those things where starting an on-loop debate is very counterproductive. Fortunately the moderators regularly counseled members to “take what works for you, say thank you, and leave the rest aside.”
Best experience ever: Joining forces as critique partners with one of Jeff Gerke’s award-winning authors from Marcher Lord Press. I find people who’ve worked under Jeff’s direction are very clear, efficient and constructive, and as a Christian SF writer, my stuff is not necessarily the usual cup of tea. So it’s a real blessing.
I used to have a critique group and it helped to find several problems as we went back and forth looking at each others work. One person would be much better in the structure and punctuation, others might be better sensing the flow of the story better. My group disbanded years ago. A part of me wishes I was still in a group, another part not so much. If you are in a critique group with busy writers it can take a lot of time and effort, but it can help your writing in the end.
Debbie Lynne Costello
Great post, Tamela. I joined the ACFW crit group 4 years ago. But out of 5 of us only me and my present crit partner stayed with it. The other 2 left within a few weeks and the third never showed. It amazes me how God puts people together. My crit partner and I have different strong points and even learning the writing curve together have excelled in different areas. I have two other crit partners now, too. And they are wonderful help. The neatest thing about all three of these ladies is that a deep friendship has developed. So glad God picked my crit partners out instead of me!
I don’t know what’s in the water, but Jami Gold and I each addressed this topic on our blogs, recently.
Best Critique Experience(s):
1. My friend who never did get past the first few scenes of one novel—and never will, due to the unreliable narrator—but who cued me in that certain aspects of the narrator’s personality needed mellowing.
2. (Another) friend who read one (other) novel as I was writing it and more than once was able to tell me why something was/wasn’t working, so I didn’t have to wait for my subconscious to cue me in.
Worst Critique Experience(s):
1. Some folks who tried to rip apart a story as “wrong” because it didn’t match their personal writing styles.
2. One friend who pointed out a problem with a “short story” that I dismissed because it was a “vignette”, and I knew it was a vignette… but I stupidly was describing it publicly as a “short story”. It took me far too long to get that clue, though she’d point-blank told me the problems with it.
3. Does it count if I was the critic? I’ve had other readers of a story come after me for giving the author critique, even when the writer asked me for it.
Part of a critique group?
Not officially, though I do have a set of folks with whom I swap things, and who have other critique partners of their own. Though the same person won’t necessarily have the same critique partner position on all of them.
I used to be part of a critique group, it was a divine appointment and I learned loads from them, but then I had kids and I had to bow out. The only “bad” experience was having someone part of the group that always sent out stuff but never showed up with critiques for others. I am hoping to find another critique group and connect with individuals who “get” my genre. 🙂
Great post! It’s so ironic that you covered this topic when I was needing it the most! I’m reading your post a few days late, but just this weekend, I contacted Kim Bullock, who writes for the “What Women Write” blog and asked if she had any advice to lend in this area.
I’ve never been involved in a critique group before, but a few months ago, I submitted my manuscript to a handful of agents and got rejected. Since that time, I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do in order to get myself published. There is so much information out there that it tends to get very confusing on which road to take!
I’m definitely going to look into an ACFW critique group, but do you have any other advice?What about hiring a writing coach or another professional to critique it? Before I submit to any other agents (like you!), I want to make sure I have done all my homework and that I am therefore, submitting my best work.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Tori, those are good questions! Hiring a pro will show you are serious, but unfortunately I receive proposals all the time that the author has had professionally edited and I still have to decline many of them. Whether or not you take this extra step is entirely up to you as you think about your budget, how you want to manage your career, and your day-to-day writing life.
I hope that answers your questions. If not, let me know.