Friday, March 28, 2014

How To Be A Good Critique Partner

The last few months I’ve been talking about critique partners, who, to me, are a non-negotiable must-have for anyone serious about writing. In January I talked about where to find critique partners and in February I covered what kinds of critique partners you might want to have in your stable. This month, I’m going to focus on how to give good critique (stay tuned for next month when I discuss what NOT to do in a critique).

Most of us would not invest our time and energy into reading purely for the sport of tearing down a fellow writer. But we could all probably stand a reminder on how to deliver tough news in sensitive ways. Yes, your CP is looking to you to help her identify problem areas in her manuscript. Basically, she is asking you to find fault. Which makes you a bit damned. Most writers describe the first draft as falling in love. We love our words, our concept, our characters. We have fallen asleep plotting their actions and woken up thinking of their worlds. When your critique of that beloved manuscript lands in a writer’s inbox, it’s akin to that writer discovering her dream date lives with his mother. Probably not a deal-breaker, but the bloom is off the rose. And you’re the one who plucked the petals.

There’s no way around that, but there are ways to deliver a thoughtful critique that will likely include some bad with the good. First of all, remember the compliment sandwich. Your CP doesn’t want you blowing smoke up his butt, but he would probably greatly appreciate if your notes started out with some things that are working well in the manuscript. This lets the writer know that the problems you’ll be mentioning next may exist, but overall the work has merit and potential. It’s also always nice to end with a brief note thanking the writer for sharing his words with you and reiterating your confidence in his ability to make the story even better!

Frame your critique constructively. Make comments designed not to tear down, but to build up the work. Phrases like “Have you considered…”, “It might be interesting to see what would happen if…”, and “I think you could solve this by…” are all helpful and kind ways to point out issues.

Admit your own subjectivity. Every reader brings his or her personal tastes and experiences to a story and sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “This could just be me, but…” For instance: if your best friend in high school had an eating disorder, which also happens to be the topic of the manuscript you’re critiquing, that is helpful for the writer to know because you may be both more attuned to the realities of the disorder and whether the author captured them realistically and also more sensitive to some of the content explored.  When CPs prefaces a comment by saying something like, “I’ll admit I’m kind of an overprotective mom, but this scene made me cringe because…” that’s actually helpful. By quantifying, you’re raising a flag that lets the writer know she should get some further feedback on this concern before making any decisions on a change.

Ask questions. “Would she be wearing that tank top if your manuscript is set in January?”, “If one of his hands is in her hair and another at her back, how is he texting his friend right now?” “Would she really do this/say this/think this here?” are all far better ways to point something out that “Uh, hello, it’s WINTER”, “Is he a three-armed freak or something?”, “The voice is wayyyy off here”. Often we’re so ensconced in the story that we dash off a quick note so we can get back to reading, and don’t take the time to think about how that note could be interpreted. If that’s something you do, take a quick scroll through your comments before sending back to the writer.

Remember to point out the good. It is every bit as useful for a writer to know what scenes, sentences, and word choices are working as it is to know the ones that aren’t. My CPs and I have all adopted the method of one, who uses a green highlighter to quickly mark sentences or scenes she loves to death. I get so happy when I encounter green in my manuscript, even if it’s in the middle of lots of comment boxes of issues that need addressing. I’ve found personal or funny notes can have the same effect. A quick “Oh man, that’s so embarrassing for the MC. Reminds me of the time I spilled milk on the Pope” or “Great, now I’m crying!” or “I wanted to go to sleep at the end of this chapter but, curse you, because now I have to know what happens!” is a welcome break from more critical notes and reminds the writer that you do indeed like her story!

How about you? What do you love to see in critiques you’ve gotten back? How do you frame your own comments to others?


  1. Wow Jennifer, I want to have all my future CPs sign an affidavit saying they have read and understood this blog post before proceeding to read my manuscript. I don't think that's unreasonable AT ALL. ;) Seriously, great advice. Luckily, I'm blessed with an awesome critique partner (@ifeomadennis) who does all this and more, which is a good reminder that I need to cling on to her for dear life, and I need to be that kind of CP for her and others when my turn comes around.

  2. Thanks Jen! Great post - I'm going to share it with my critique partners!