A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

6 important questions to ask a potential critique partner

gravity falls pretending to write

All good writing is rewriting, and no good rewriting is done in a vacuum.

At least, that’s what I believe. I could go through a dozen self-edits on my manuscript, but I’d get less mileage than I would from one good critique from a couple beta readers or critique partners. If I don’t have a little guidance, for all I know I could be fixing all the wrong things because writers are too close to their work to assess what’s working and what’s not — at least until we get someone else’s perspective.

But searching for critique partners can be a total gamble, especially when you’re trusting strangers online. Twitter is a great place to look (search “critique partners” — boom) if you’re already combed forums and hit dead ends, but you can scout any number of places. Here are six good questions to ask a potential critique partner (and yourself) to determine if you might be a good match.

Keep in mind that you should generally look for critique partners writing within the same genre and/or age group as you, so I’m going to assume you already know to ask that question. ;)

What kind of critique schedule do you have in mind?

Answer this question yourself, too. Determine upfront — before you even begin talking to the other writer — how much you can handle, whether it’s per week or per month. Are you able to swap one chapter a week? Three chapters a week? Are you open to swapping a full manuscript all at once? Know how much and how often you’re willing to critique so that when you ask your potential partner about their expectations, you won’t feel pressured to agree to a schedule that you can’t stick to.

Don’t forget to ask how long their manuscript is, too. A month might sound like a reasonable time frame to return a full MS critique, but if their story is 200K, maybe not so much.

How often do you want to check in?

This is a really important one because it holds you and your potential critique partner accountable. Most critique partner relationships begin with a “first date” — where you swap first chapters to see what the other person’s critiquing style is like and if it’s going to work for you. Use this step as a measure to assess whether or not they’re serious about the partnership.

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Critiquing is a mutual responsibility, and you should be professional about it. There’s nothing more upsetting than firing off your critique of their first chapter, only to wait … and wait … and wait for their critique of yours. Sometimes, they’ll never even bother responding. This sucks, because you did the work and they didn’t. Word of advice? Even if you don’t think the other writer’s critique style is going to work for you, be a good human and critique their first chapter. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t sit around waiting for their critique to roll in and then ignore them because you plan to ditch them anyway. It’s not polite.

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If your potential critique partner gets that first chapter back to you within a few days and you both like each other’s style, then you’re good to go. But you should set an expectation of how often you want to touch base and exchange critiques. Once a week is a good starting point — maybe over the weekend.

The point isn’t to be strict but to judge how dependable they are. If your critique partner is constantly missing those “check-in” times, you may be better off without them. Having light deadlines will also ensure that you don’t end up doing all the work and then never getting anything back.

Where are you from?

The wonder of the Internet means you could be partnering with someone from a totally different country. Crazy, I know. It’s good to know upfront what time zone your partner is in because night for you might be morning for them.

What software do you use to critique?

There are all sorts of ways to annotate documents, but you might want to find out how your potential partner plans to critique so you can make sure you’re going to be able to access and read their comments. :)

Microsoft’s Track Changes is a safe route, but you could use other tools, like Google Docs. Just make sure that if your partner repels technology, you give them some tips or guidance to help them out. (Not everyone has used Track Changes before, for instance, or knows how to make the font in comment bubbles bigger.)

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What kind of critique are you looking for?

Some writers are looking for ovearching feedback, such as on big-picture issues, like character development and world-building. Others might need more help in the grammar and punctuation department. Asking what they’re seeking in a critique can reveal their strengths and weaknesses — and give you an idea of whether those strengths could come in handy for you.

If you’re good at grammar but suck at dialogue, for example, you may want to find someone who needs assistance with the mechanical stuff but has a knack for writing conversation.

Lastly, if you’re dumping them, is it for the right reasons?

If you read someone’s critique of your writing and flip out at what you’re seeing, take a moment before writing that “sorry, not gonna work” email and consider whether you’re rejecting them for the right reasons.

Criticism is hard to take, but remember: You’re not looking for someone to gush over your work and flatter you. You’re looking for someone who’s going to give you honest, constructive feedback that will improve your novel and challenge you as a writer.

Yes, you should try to be kind in how your phrase that feedback, but keep in mind that most writers, no matter how they critique, are coming from a good place. They mean well. So decide whether you’re saying “no” because they don’t think your work is perfect and you’re afraid you’ll have to do a little work, or because they’re just not giving you feedback you can use and grow from.

It’s tough love, baby.

grow up tough love

The pros and cons of joining a writers group

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Critique partners, writing buddies, torture pals. Whatever you call them, having some writer friends who can give you honest, constructive criticism on your work is necessary when revision time rolls around. We aren’t trustworthy when it comes to objectively reviewing our own creative writing.

This is why I joined a writers group earlier this year. Well, two reasons: 1) I wanted to force myself to share my WIP with other people, which means being vulnerable and brave. And 2), I knew that without a little feedback and direction, I was going to revise in circles because it’s impossible for me to know what’s good and bad. Your readers determine that stuff. We’re too biased and close to the writing to make those sorts of decisions.

So here are a few lessons I’ve learned these past months from attending a local writing group:

Knowing other writers helps keep you stable

Writing is a lonely occupation, and it’s damn hard. So when you’re struggling or feeling discouraged, or you’re excited about something you’ve accomplished, it’s good to reach out to other people who get it.

My writing group has been super supportive, and it’s nice to talk to other people who understand about word counts and character development and stupid stuff like that without them looking at me like I’m crazy.

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Not everyone will be at your skill level

My writing group consists of 10 or so members, and every one of them is at a different skill level and has different interests. So while they’re critiquing your work, you have to decide whose opinions and thought processes match yours and whose don’t.

If you can find even two people whose criticisms are spot on, then your writing is going to be in better shape than it would be otherwise.

Critiquing other people’s work helps you learn

Most likely, your writing group will consist of beginners, which means you’re going to critique a lot of bad writing. Before you judge, yours is probably bad, too.

The good news is that pointing out the problems and areas for improvement in other people’s writing can teach you a lot about the writing process and how to avoid those kinds of mistakes. Because when you can recognize what’s boring, clunky, or ineffective, you’ll get better at detecting those sorts of flaws in your work. So try to keep this in mind while you’re waiting for your turn, and keep the groaning to a reasonable minimum.

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There can be … drama (sigh)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but writers are neurotic people. And chances are any writing group you join will be a mixed bag of lovers and haters of different genres whose personalities are going to clash.

This is going to happen. It’s inevitable. The best thing you can do is try to stay out of the drama and set a good example. Especially if you’re younger than other people in your group, you’re going to wonder how adults can be so immature. So try to be as fair and accepting as you can, because most writers are weirdos with baggage, and that counts you.

Diversity also means valuable perspectives

In my opinion, the more diverse the group, the better. Not everyone in my group likes fantasy, my genre of choice. Or is anywhere in my age range. Or knows a whole lot about writing techniques and story structure. But that doesn’t devalue their opinions.

Why? Because first of all, your readers may not be educated about these things, either. But if they’re bored with your story or don’t like a character that you wanted them to like, these are still valid problems. So before you gripe about them not understanding the depth and subtlety of your dialogue, remember that every reader is worth listening to, whether you act on their feedback or not.

Secondly, I’ve found that every member of my writing group — despite their strengths, weaknesses, and hang-ups — contributes at least one smart and valuable comment when they critique my work. Because they come from a different background and see the world another way than I do, they catch things I might not. And that’s the whole point of having critique partners in the first place.

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