Writing is an extremely emotional exercise. It's cathartic, it's infuriating, and it's terrifying. Writers, for understandable reasons, tend to be a temperamental bunch. We detest our work as much as we adore it, but we're always fiercely protective of it.
Enter the critique partner.
Will it be an epic face-off, complete with the soundtrack of a Sergio Leoni western? Or a squishy, comforting--and ultimately useless--love fest? Hopefully somewhere in between. But how do you ensure a productive critique relationship? How do you sort out the future horror stories and avoid them?You have to be a great critique partner first.
Don't let the boogyman in the critique-group-gone-wrong story be you.
I'm very, very lucky. I've been blessed with an amazing writing group: a bunch of intelligent, thoughtful women--most fellow moms--who write in a variety of genres. They're as close to the ideal critique group as I can imagine. (So no, this post is not directed at you guys!) I've had some awesome online critique partners as well, and while not every partnership works out for the long term, they've all been good experiences. The quality of the feedback varies, but we've always treated each other--and each other's work--with respect.
From what I hear, that's not always the case. (Yeah, I wish that was a surprise to anyone this year. Respectfulness is at an all-time low.)
What does it mean to be a respectful critique partner? It means treating your fellow writer as an equal, and approaching her submission or manuscript on its own terms. The worst thing you can do as a critique partner is to come to the table with an agenda. Every writer has her own vision of what she wants her work to be--your job as a critique partner is to understand that vision, and give comments and suggestions that will help the author realize it. Not to take control of the project and remake that vision as your own.
You might not be a fan of your critique partner's choice of genre. Irrelevant. Learn to love far-future sci-fi literary erotica, if only for their sake.
Part of treating your critique partner as an equal is being honest about what doesn't work in their submission--and what does.
Don't be wishy-washy or mild. Think about it--if your novel is published someday, wouldn't you prefer to know about some glaring problem right now, instead of finding out in a one-star review on Goodreads when it's too late to fix it?? (Not speaking from personal experience. I swear.)
If you're being too nice, you're doing your critique partner a disservice. We aren't here to make each other feel warm and fuzzy at all times. (Sometimes, yes. But not always). It's called critique for a reason. Thank you to all my writing group peeps who've been hard on me--I hope I've returned the favor!
Don't be the person in the writing workshop who says, "Your dialogue just doesn't do it for me. It's odd. And your pacing is kind of ... meh."
That is not helpful.
If you are going to give constructive critique, it must be as specific as possible. If it's a big issue, point to specific pages or exact lines in the manuscript that exemplify the problem. And make specific suggestions for fixes, too, as long as you're keeping the author's unique vision in mind.
And be specific about what you like, too! We need to know where we excel, so we can do more of it.
As writers, we know the power of word choice. Maybe you thought the piece was boring--that doesn't mean you have to use the "b" word. Maybe you even found the submission insensitive or offensive--you can choose to give the your fellow writer the benefit of the doubt, while pointing out the problematic subtext.
Of course, be honest.
But choose your words carefully. It should come across as well-meaning, constructive feedback. Never an attack or a dismissal. Start with what is working, then address what needs revising.
When you're the one receiving feedback, listen. There's a difference between defending your work and being defensive. After all, you did ask for the critique. As long as your partner is being kind and respectful, then give her comments careful consideration. Ponder the feedback for a few days. You probably won't agree with everything. In fact, you shouldn't take every piece of advice--if you can't tell where to go with your edits, then you don't have a great handle on your project yet. And regardless of whether or not you take her advice, don't forget to say thank you!
If you're lucky, those critique relationships will blossom into real friendships. Which is a good thing--because writers can get really moody and annoying. We need each other. Who else would be able to stand us through all of this?