Forming Lasting, Effective Critique Relationships (revisited again)

Im revisiting this post because of #CPmatch, a little Twitter party where writers can find critique partners. This is such an awesome idea. Critique partnerships are SO important in the life of a writer; not only can they help you grow as a writer, but they can help you grow as a person. Some of my CPs have turned into amazing friends. We are there to support each other through all the ups and downs of being a writer, and I know I, for one, would not have gotten published if it weren’t for them.

However, critiquing and accepting critiques is definitely an art, and forming lasting, effective critique relationships can be very difficult. I wanted to impart some of the things I’ve learned, in hopes they will resonate with and help others.

Most articles on this subject concentrate on what you should and shouldn’t do as the person receiving the critique; however I’m mostly discuss what you should and shouldn’t do as the person giving the critique. 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.

I will reiterate, however, that we shouldn’t get defensive, try to “explain” the manuscript, or interrupt the critiquer while receiving a critique. We shouldn’t…but of us probably have and/or will at some point. When you feel defensive, take a deep breath and try to center yourself before responding —and you should only usually have to respond “thank you!” If it’s an online critique relationship, you often have the luxury of taking a few hours (or even a day) before responding, and you should use that time if you need it so that you can avoid damaging the relationship. If it takes you longer than that to center yourself after receiving a critique, the critique relationship needs to be examined: either the person giving or receiving has issues.

If you are a critiquer on the receiving end of a writer’s defensive tirade about your critique, at least try to give the person a second chance, because we all get defensive sometimes. Be gentle with the person, if you can. If they’re acting badly enough that you can’t, once again: the critique relationship needs to be examined.

So, here is my advice about forming good critique relationships:

1. Find Good Critique Matches

This is often the most difficult step. 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 for you (and keep in mind: learning to be a good critique partner yourself is a huge step towards finding good CPs. No matter how awesome your own writing is and how nice you are as a person, if you’re consistently off-putting with your critiques, you’ll have trouble finding CPs).

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

a. Have a working knowledge of the conventions of your genre, even if they don’t write it themselves;
b. 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;
c. Are, of course, good critiquers, who give clear and insightful advice in a pleasant way, and;
d. Their advice resonates with the writer not ALL the time, but A LOT of the time.

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 not right away. But #CPmatch will increase your chances of it, as will making contacts though Twitter contests such as #QueryKombat, #pitchwars, and #SonOfAPitch!

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 problems I discuss below, stem from the critiquer’s failure to read like a reader. Instead, they read like a writer, searching for ways the writer has violated the “rules”, or for other technical flaws.

My favorite technique to avoid this problem is, I 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, without allowing ourselves the chance to become immersed in the writer’s voice and story. We’re writers, so if we see a grammar error or that 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.

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

Don’t immediately assume your CP 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 it caught your attention, but assume there’s a reason for it. The writer may need to make that reason clearer if it is catching readers off-guard, but if you just tell them to change that part entirely (or, worse yet, if you rewrite it yourself with your little red pen or the blaring colors of track changes), they might get defensive and think you don’t “get” their writing. They might either dismiss your critique,  or try to explain it to you instead of making revisions that might make their writing better while still adhering to their vision. Because we know we all can get riled up like a bull when we see all that red in our manuscripts.

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 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, and that the writer managed to make interesting and compelling. It all depends on who’s reading and who’s writing.

Similarly, short sentences are in fashion lately; but have you ever read anything by 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. Even if a person’s style isn’t fashionable at the moment, or isn’t to your taste, that doesn’t mean they need to change it (and, once a writer’s style has matured to a certain point, they probably can’t really change it much, anyway). All you can do is humbly tell the writer when something isn’t working for you. If they continue to write in that style, don’t harp on the same issues, group after group. Look for other ways in which the writer might grow in skill, and help them to become the best writer they can be, while staying true to their personal style. If you really just think someone’s style is terrible, though…or if they’re what you would term a terrible writer, and are making no progress in improving…the critique match may not be a good one. However, I have never had a CP whose writing hasn’t improved over time. It takes longer for some than others, but I LOVE watching my friends get better at writing (I hope they feel the same way about me). It’s a beautiful process to watch, and learn from, because sometimes a person’s style grows on me, and I’m able to grow as a critiquer when I watch it develop: it helps me to see the difference between a style I don’t care for and what is simply bad writing, and I’m able to apply that knowledge to my own writing, as well as to other critiques.

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—they can also make your writing worse if they’re applied indiscriminately, and can cause much frustration and confusion if you apply them arbitrarily and without elaboration 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 getting dressed (with lengthy descriptions of each clothing item and where it was purchased). It rambles on about her 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”. It’s not a helpful critique, though, 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. You might want to show us the fight with the mother (if it’s important to the plot), instead of telling us about it. That way, you can show us through dialogue and action that the characters are 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 has broken the rules. One reason for this is that if you simply tell a writer things like, “Don’t info-dump,” they might not be entirely clear on what info they’re dumping (even seasoned writers can have blind spots about this sort of thing sometimes). Additionally, if the info is something the reader needs to know, the writer might dismiss your critique as you just not understanding their story. They may not realize that what you meant by “don’t info-dump” is that the pacing at the beginning was off for you, and they need to work that necessary information in a different way, or in a different place. You will both have missed an opportunity for that person to grow as a writer.

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 it was actually compelling for me. If I had been on the lookout for broken writing “rules”, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to get lost in the story, and I might not have realized that the pacing was fine and that the writing was good, despite the broken “rule”.

The same concept applies for things like use of adverbs and adjectives. Some writers overuse them in early drafts, but some of them add to the writing, and are consistent with the writer’s style. Do not cross adjectives or adverbs unless they are redundant and unnecessary—unless the adjective or adverb was already implied by the dialogue or narrative (or could be with slight revision).

I also want to talk about passive voice: I have seen so much confusion (and have been confused) by people saying, “Don’t use passive voice,” when there is none in the piece. For instance:

The hat was worn.
This is passive voice. The person/thing doing the action is unknown or hidden. This sentence should be changed to “Sally wore the hat,” unless there is a compelling reason why the reader should not know who is wearing the hat.

Sally was wearing the hat.
This is NOT passive. “Was wearing” is past continuous tense, and you could cause a lot of confusion and frustration by calling it passive. Some people are also against using the continuous tenses, but be sure you don’t misspeak and cause confusion.

Also: “Kill your Darlings”. 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 your writing and remove all traces of personal style, unorthodox writing, and character 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, you should probably leave it (depending, as always, on context).

In summation, when you apply any writing “rule” indiscriminately, you run the risk of making the writer feel like you’re lecturing them on basic writing techniques, and of having them 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 and The Other Place series, they had me change all my ellipses back to the three-dot format. Imagine my joy.

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 apply critiques.

It is sometimes difficult to absorb the (sometimes conflicting) advice we get from critiquers, and to apply it to our work. My method is this: I listen politely (or with relative politeness—my natural baseline of rudeness is pretty high) to all critiques. If I’m having particular problems with a piece, I will gather dozens and dozens of different critiques. I will 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 my 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 so we can look at it objectively.

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. 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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2 thoughts on “Forming Lasting, Effective Critique Relationships (revisited again)

  1. You’ve made many good points. I especially like the “corrections” one: I was in a writing group some time ago where a certain member set himself up as “writing guru”. I got a chapter back with his “critique” that left only one sentence untouched: at that point, it was not only not my style, what was left wasn’t even my story.

    So thanks for standing on the side of moderation!

    Like

    1. Oh my gosh, yes. I’ve been in groups with two of those people. One of them critiqued a chapter of my book written in the voice of a schizophrenic MC and completely rewrote it into a “normal” voice. She was kicked out of the group after two sessions… Another guy, he once took the very first chapter of a book that begins, “Being a foster kid is like being the only prairie dog too fat to fit into your hole,” and wrote in about three paragraphs about prairie dogs, saying it added more drama. When, you know, it was a book about a foster kid, not prairie dogs. I can laugh about it now…

      Like

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