September 22, 2010

Critique Week: Building a Relationship

Steel Truss Bridge

During this two-week long Critique Week extravaganza we’ve looked at how criticism can help us improve, we’ve learned what a successful critique partnership looks like, and we’ve identified our strengths and weaknesses so we’ll recognize our perfect critique partner.  Now let’s put that all together and talk about how to build a supportive, helpful relationship with a critique partner.

A successful partnership is all about whether or not you feel you’re getting enough out of it to make it worth your time.  Being a critique partner takes a lot of time.  Time that takes away from your own writing.

The only thing that will make all that time worth it is if you feel like you’re receiving just as much as you’re giving.  If you don’t feel you’re getting enough out of it, then you will feel resentful when requests come that take away from your own projects.  That doesn’t make you selfish, that makes you smart with your time.

Potential Issues

As we’re trying to decide if a critique partnership will work, some issues are bound to come up.  Some of these will be deal-breakers and some won’t.

  • Writing in different genres is fine if you each read and/or are familiar with the other’s genre.  However, someone completely unfamiliar with your genre might not be able to give advice about acceptable pacing, character development, dialogue, word choice, etc.
  • Mismatching schedules (one is on deadline and the other isn’t, etc.) can be a problem depending on expectations of each other and the ability of the partners to switch gears.  If one is in push-through-to-the-end drafting mode, not in editing mode, but they hit a wall in their writing, switching to a different project might let their subconscious mull the problems over while they’re editing something else.
  • Communicating what you can and can’t do is essential.  If the communication is good, it should be perfectly acceptable to tell your partner when you could look at their work and make sure it wouldn’t cause a problem.  That said, a critique partner shouldn’t be put off for more than half a week to a week if at all possible.  After all, we need to recognize that we’ll get out of the relationship only what we put into it.

It’s okay to decide that a partnership isn’t working out if you’re each looking for something different from it, or if you’re feeling that you’re not getting enough out of it to make it worth your time.  If one person expects line-editing and the other person can deliver only high-level read-throughs, it might not be a good match just because of the difference in time commitment.

When I first started with my awesome critique partner, we agreed to exchange 3 chapters each, one at a time.  With each of the initial chapters, we slowly upped the brutality-factor of the critiques to see how the other one handled it.  That doesn’t mean we were ever mean or disrespectful, but now we don’t worry about holding back (“Gee, I’ve already picked on so much here, I should probably let this other little thing slide.”).

Just like any other relationship, it can take time to work out the details, the communication triggers, the expectations, etc.  For my partner and I, it took about 5 chapters over 2 months for us to feel that we could be honest with each other and comfortable in the give and take of criticism.

Critique partnerships can be tricky things—you’re friends, but you’re also picking on each other constantly.  No, let me reword that.  You’re picking on each other’s work constantly.  Someone who can see and feel that difference will be much more successful in any critiquing relationship.

A good critique partner will help you grow more than you ever thought possible.  They’ll enhance your strengths and correct your weaknesses until you’re within reach of your goal.  Like the proverbial bridge, they’ll help you get from here to there.  If you’re ready to grow from where you are now into what you can be (and potentially even beyond what you think your potential is), then reach out to other writers and find yourself a critique partner or critique group.

If you have a critique partner, how have they helped you improve?  How much negotiation did it take at the beginning of the relationship to get things where they are today?  If you tried a critique relationship and it didn’t work out, what made it fail?

Comments — What do you think?

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They’ll enhance your strengths and correct your weaknesses until you’re within reach of your goal.

I like that line best of all!!!

Great post, Jami!



This was great! YES! Up the brutality factor!

My group was very gentle at first, and then gradually we figured out that we could be more direct with each other. We’re still very quick to point out all of the wonderful things that make the story work, but we can say, “Hey, this didn’t work” and not have the author fall into pieces. It took a lot of time to earn this trust, but the honesty is so appreciated!


[…] months ago, I ran a post about what to look for in a critique partner.  One of the points I’d made was to evaluate whether a potential critique partner was […]

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