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.