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.
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.
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.)
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.