Forming a Lasting, Effective Critique Relationship

sstock___open_book_by_gothicbohemianstockI wanted to write about a subject close to my heart, and to a lot of our hearts: what it takes to have a good critique relationship.

Most articles on this subject concentrate on what you should and shouldn’t do as the person receiving the critique. For instance, we shouldn’t get defensive, try to “explain” the manuscript, or interrupt the critiquer. We all know this (even if we do it anyway). I’m not going to harp on that line. I’m instead going to mostly discuss what you should and shouldn’t do as the person giving the critique.

Although I’m a debut author, anxiously awaiting my first publication (January 12, 2016!), I have been in a lot of critique groups and partnerships. I have never seen anyone kicked out of a group for getting defensive, etc. while receiving a critique. I have, however, seen people kicked out for the way they give critiques. Critiquing is a difficult skill to master, and it’s easier to be epically bad at it than even passably good.

So, here is my advice:

  1.  Find Good Critique Matches.

This is the most difficult step and, though it’s ideal, isn’t strictly necessary. Good critique partners are very difficult to find, which is why I’m writing this article, to hopefully get people thinking about how they can improve their critiquing style and application.

Even if a person writes well, and/or is published; even if they write in your same genre; even if you love them to death as a person, that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good critique partner.

I’ve found that the best critique partners are people who

  • Have a working knowledge of the conventions of your genre, even if they don’t write it themselves;
  • Have knowledge of the path you’re seeking to publication, whether that be through an agent, a small publisher, or self-publishing, so they can give advice not only on the writing itself, but on ways it can be made more marketable in that venue;
  • Give polite and clearly-worded opinions (and actually have an opinion, because we’ve probably all had that CP that just says, “OMG THIS IS SO GREAT DON’T CHANGE A THING” Every. Single. Time);
  • Receive your own advice gracefully; and
  • Don’t nit-pick.

You’re probably not going to find a single person, much less a whole group of people, who fit all these criteria all the time. At least, you’re not likely to find them right away. The process of finding a good critique group is, in my experience, a lot like what a musician goes through in finding a good band: you have to pay your dues first, increase your skill, and do a lot of networking in the community. Only then will you have the chops to attract other like-minded, skillful individuals and talk them into working with you.

Learning to be a good critique partner yourself is a huge step towards finding your perfect critique group. No one wants to waste their time with a critiquer who just confuses them and/or insults them with their critiques, no matter how good their writing is.

2.   Read your partners’ pieces like a reader, not a writer.

This is truly, in my opinion, the most important part of being a good critiquer. Most of the bad critiques I’ve given and received, as well as most of the advice I give below, stems from the critiquer’s failure to read like a reader. Instead, they read like a writer, searching for things to change.

My favorite technique to avoid this problem is to read the piece through once without stopping. I don’t make copious notes. I pretend the work is already published, and that I have no hand in changing it. If, when I’m reading, something bugs me – interrupts the flow of the narrative, or pulls me out of the story – I mark that section. I don’t give the actual critique yet, so that I don’t interrupt my reading. Then, after I’ve read it through once as a reader, I go back as a writer and try to determine what, exactly, bugged me about the passages I’d marked.

Using the above technique will prevent us from looking for things to critique. We’re writers, so if we see a writing “rule” has been broken, we’re going to want to mark it. However, it’s not important whether or not the writer follows the “rules”: what’s important is whether or not the writing flows, is vivid, and makes sense. We can only objectively see if it does if we read like readers.

3.  Always assume your critique partner is employing a technique or device intentionally.

Nothing makes you look less intelligent than assuming your writing partner isn’t intelligent enough to know what they’re doing. For instance, if a character speaks or acts in unexpected ways, or if the plot takes a bizarre turn, certainly point out that you were wondering about it, but don’t tell the writer to change it. Assume there’s a reason for it, and maybe discuss that with the writer, so they can decide if they need to make the reason clearer.

I’ve seen critiquers talk down to writers in this manner more times than I like to count, and have myself been the object of criticisms like these. For instance, I have a schizophrenic main character with a very different way of speaking. Most readers find it compelling, but I had one person that, obviously, didn’t care for his voice. Instead of just telling me the voice wasn’t working for them, they spent hours marking up my manuscript, changing the voice. They said, “I don’t understand why you have your main character speak so formally, when the other characters don’t. Was it intentional? People don’t talk that way.”

Don’t do this sort of thing. I’m obviously still in a snit about it, and it was in no way a helpful or thoughtful critique.

4.  Don’t give style critiques.

This is tricky, because from our subjective points of view, there’s a fine line between a style we don’t enjoy, and what would simply be considered bad writing.

For instance, some people are very descriptive. This style was more in vogue in ye olden days; Dumas could spend three paragraphs describing the embroidery on a minor character’s doublet. He also gratuitously employed deux ex machina, and the most dramatic, ridiculous cliffhangers known to man.

There are very few serious critics that would say Dumas is a bad writer. However, if you write in his style nowadays, you’ll likely be laughed out of the room. Is this right or wrong?

Well, both. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell a critique partner that, in your opinion, their descriptions are unnecessary, and are slowing their pacing. But, do try to be objective about each piece, and ask yourself: is this a type of writing that someone else might enjoy? We can all probably agree that a writer doesn’t need to describe the arrangement and appearance of every piece of furniture in the house. Nor is it advisable to introduce the reader to every character with a long list of physical and personal attributes, accompanied by a heaping portion of backstory. But I’ve read page-long character descriptions that I thought worked within the context of the story’s voice and structure. It all depends on who’s reading and who’s writing.

Similar reasoning can be used regarding things like long sentences. Short, Spartan sentences are in fashion lately, mostly amongst English majors educated by thin-lipped, brutal professors that love Hemingway too much. But have you ever read any Charles Dickens? That man could write a sentence that twisted like a mile-long rollercoaster track. And he was good at it.

Also: sentence fragments. Some people use them to great effect. Others, not so much, perhaps.

There is no right or wrong way to write, so all you can do is humbly tell the writer when something isn’t working for you. But, if they continue to write in that style, don’t harp on the same issues, group after group.

5.  Don’t apply writing “rules” arbitrarily

I cannot say this enough: it is never, ever a valid critique to say, “You should take this out/change this because it violates [writing rule].”

There are no true rules to writing. Adages like “Show Don’t Tell”, “Don’t Use Passive Voice”, and “The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs” exist because they will, indeed, make your writing better if you are mindful of them. But – and I have seen this happen many, many times – writing rules can also make your writing worse if they’re applied indiscriminately, and can cause much frustration and confusion if you apply them arbitrarily in your critiques.

So say, for instance, that you get a piece from a CP that starts off with the main character waking up. It goes through her whole routine of making breakfast, tells you how she likes her eggs, then has her sitting there, sipping coffee, and recollecting a huge fight she’d had the night before with her mother. It tells you, furthermore, that the fight occurred because the main character is a very stubborn and willful person, and her mother is condescending and cruel.

This, of course, breaks a billion writing “rules”. But it’s not a helpful critique to just chant, “Show Don’t Tell, Don’t Info-Dump or Frontload with Backstory, Don’t Give Unnecessary Details,” etc. Instead, tell the writer why the piece didn’t work for you. Get to the reasons why the “writing rules” exist in the first place.

In this example, you could say, “The beginning didn’t really hook me. The pacing was off, because there are details included that might not be important to the plot or character development – like, unless her egg preference is important later in the story, you don’t need to include it now. Your story might begin in the wrong place – perhaps you should begin with the fight with the mother (the “inciting incident”) as long as we’re given some context first so we know the characters a bit and care about them before we’re plunged into the action. And then you can show us through dialogue and action that they’re willful and condescending, etc., instead of saying it. That method of character development makes people more invested in your characters.”

You need to tell the writer why the piece isn’t working – not just that it’s broken the rules – because breaking a writing “rule” means nothing if the why doesn’t occur. I have read pieces that begin a lot like the one I described above but, because it was appropriate within the context of the voice and the story, it was actually compelling for me.

The same concept applies for things like use of passive voice or adverbs. some writers over-use the passive voice in early drafts, but sometimes it’s difficult to express an idea without using passive voice, and you end up confusing your reader (for instance, if the person performing the action is unknown) if you don’t use it.

Similarly, some adverbs really do add to the narrative. They should only be taken out if they’re already implied by the dialogue or narrative, or could easily be. (Of course, you don’t have to use passive voice or adverbs at all in your own writing–to each their own style).

I have to add a bit about “Kill your Darlings” here. I have seen this adage wielded like a weapon, seemingly to get writers to cut out all the best bits of their work. The point of “Kill your Darlings” is not to homogenize writing and remove all traces of personal voice. The point is, you shouldn’t be averse to removing a particularly good or clever bit of writing if it is unnecessary to the story, and interrupts the flow of the narrative. If it adds to the narrative, even if just to set the scene or develop a character more vividly, even if it doesn’t much advance the plot, you should probably leave it (depending, as always, on context). So, please don’t tell a CP to kill a “darling” just because it’s something written in a distinctive style.

In summation, when you apply any writing “rule” indiscriminately, you’re making the writer feel like you’re lecturing them on basic writing techniques. You also are not being very thoughtful about your critique, and so the writer can walk away with no clear idea of how to improve the piece.

6.  Don’t waste too much time on formatting issues, nitpicking “nonstandard” usages, or even correcting grammar.

This one is hard for some people. We are writers, after all, and our eye starts twitching if someone neglects to use an Oxford comma, or thinks “alright” is a word, not to mention the catastrophe of misusing “there, their, they’re”.

I once was in a group with a man who gave me an impassioned fifteen-minute lecture every time I used the three-dot ellipsis format. He insisted that, if ellipses come at the end of a sentence, they should have three periods followed by the sentence’s natural punctuation. I finally gave in, since I was tired of listening to him. Then, when I signed with Limitless Publishing for Love or Money, they had me change all my ellipses back to the three-dot format. Imagine my joy.

The point is, there are many different style guides and schools of thought with regard to things like punctuation, formatting, and formal usages. If someone subscribes to a different school than you, it’s not your duty to evangelize them. (I’ll come out of the closet here and say that I use “alright” often, especially in dialogue. I know it’s nonstandard in the U.S., but I have very good reasons for doing it. If you nitpick this fact in group, you and I are going to spend the whole two hours arguing, because we’re writers, and these are the things we care about. Don’t let it happen, people).

Additionally, while part of the function of a critique group is to catch the odd grammar snafu here and there, it is not its purpose to teach grammar to any of its members. If someone is a chronic grammar-offender, point out the nature of their transgressions once, and perhaps direct them to an online or community college course. Then let it drop, so we don’t spend the whole allotted time blathering on about that shit.

Advice on How to Apply Critiques

Now that we’ve covered how to be a good critiquer, let’s talk about how to be a good critiquee.

As I mentioned above, I’m not going to reiterate the fact that you shouldn’t get defensive with a critiquer, etc. We all know that. What I, and a lot of others, have more of an issue with is absorbing the (sometimes conflicting) advice we get from critiquers, and applying it to our work.

My method is this: I listen politely (or with relative politeness – I’m pretty rude in general) to all critiques. If I’m having particular problems with a piece, I will gather dozens and dozens of different critiques. I will also never prompt a critiquer by telling them what my specific worries are, because that can make them look for that problem and find it, even if they wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. (I do, however, sometimes ask leading questions after they’ve given their critique, to fish out any issues they may have that they didn’t think important enough to mention).

Then, I weigh the advice based on the following criteria:

  1. Did the advice resonate with me? That is, did it make sense and seem like good advice
  2. Did more than one critiquer have a similar issue? Or, did they have different issues, but with the same section?
  3. Is the critiquer a member of the target audience for your piece?

It’s usually best to address these questions a few days after the critique, after it’s had a chance to sink in, and any butthurt has healed. We can get defensive, even when we’re not supposed to, and that can affect our ability to see a piece of advice objectively and know if it’s good or not.

Even if the advice doesn’t resonate with you, you might want to reconsider applying it anyhow, if more than one person had the same opinion (though not always – just the other day I saw a critique partner given what I thought was horrible advice by two people). And if a certain section is bugging a lot of people, even if they state different reasons as to why, it’s probable that you should revise that section, one way or another.

Even if your critiquer isn’t in your target audience, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a valid opinion about your work. But it can make certain types of advice less trustworthy. For instance, when that 80-year-old who only writes technical pieces tells you that “you can’t have characters in a YA novel use foul language”, or “teenagers don’t talk/act like that”, you can safely ignore them. And perhaps laugh at them behind their backs, although that’s kind of mean.

Thus concludes my long list of advice. Do you have any other advice or experiences you’d like to share? Please comment below, because non-spam blog comments make me giggle and bounce in my seat with happiness.


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