Friday, August 14, 2015

How To (Not) Be An Awful Critique Partner

I’m not going to mince words or tap dance around the pink elephant blowing bubbles in the family room last Thanksgiving*…I’m probably the last person in this particular sliver of the Milky Way you’d want to come to if you got a manuscript or some other work and need a critique. I mean, if your options are me, Simon Cowell, and Donald Trump, I guess I’d do, but totally only in that “lesser of three evils” kind of way.

Technically, I think that’d actually be one of those “lesser of one MG writer and two arch demons” situations, but let’s not split hairs.

The point is, if you want a good critique, I shouldn’t be your first stop. Believe me, I know a good critique partner when I see one. In fact, I have several excellent critique partners imprisoned in my basement, who I’ve apparently befuddled in some kind of inexplicable mystic thrall which keeps them willing to continue reading my scribblings despite that fact that I’m about as helpful a “partner” as a T-Rex is at a team LEGO building competition.

The problem is, when I read a book or watch a movie, I tend to have a singular, binary reaction to it. That is, I either love it or I hate it. And while love and hate are fantastic sources of conflict for a story, they aren’t so helpful when it comes to making something better.

“I LOVE this! It’s like rainbows and pixie dust are dancing in my head! Don’t change a word!”

“I HATE this festering pile of armadillo puke! It makes me want to burn things. ALL the things! You need to change every word!”

See? Not so constructive.

But if you do this writing thing for long at all, you’re soon going to want another person’s opinion of your work. But nobody wants to be the kind of leech who asks someone to critique their own stuff and then seizes up like a startled clam when asked to return the favor. Seriously, that’s how Bond villains get started. One day it’s, “Sorry, no, I don’t feel comfortable critiquing your ode to Jessica Rabbit” and next it’s, “I’m going to unleash my plasma sharks into the world’s oceans, which will destabilize the currency markets allowing me to rule from atop my mountain of actual gold bars!”

Ahem.  Sorry.

Anyway, in the interest of making sure I didn’t end up sporting an eye patch and a fancy polyester suit, while spending my weekends shopping for Secret Subterranean Hideouts, I figured I needed to get a handle on how to read someone else’s stuff and give them useful feedback. Here, then, are the things I try to keep in mind after reading something I’ve been asked to critique:

  • Be Upfront – I’ve finally gotten to the point that I’m happy to read something for a writer friend, but only if I deliver my caveats first. This doesn’t have to be the legal fine print of a car commercial, but you do want to set expectations. I always tell whoever I’m reading for what it is I’m good at, and not so good at, when it comes to critiquing. While I don’t particularly like admitting that my eyes fly over misspelled words in a story like a squad of F-18’s at the start of a NASCAR race, but the fact is that I’m terrible at copy-editing. Seriously, I even need a proof reader for my tweets. My brains sees what it wants, not necessarily what’s on the page, and it’s only fair that my critique victim partner knows that. Likewise, though, I do well when it comes to evaluating plot, and pace, and picking up odd character threads within it. As long as all parties know what to expect, everyone is happy.
  • Be Selfless – This is critiquing business is important, and it’s not about you. In fact, let’s repeat that, because it’s something most people (myself included) struggle with these days and it’s sorta basicall critical: This. Is. Not. About. You. It’s not about what you want from your writing or even what you want from the story your reading, it’s about helping your critique partner developer their story into the Most Fabulous Awesome Story possible. Put yourself aside, then, as you make your way through the critique, and focus on what’s important. 
  • Be Specific – Telling someone their story has less conflict than an aisle full of Strawberry Shortcake figures isn’t giving them anything to build on. Even if their story does need more conflict, a good critique means offering examples and suggestions. For instance, “Hey, that part when Muffet sits on her tuffet all day and enjoys the sunlight is great – I loved that we learn about her obsession with curds and whey there – but it kind of drags a little. Maybe toss in a visit from a lizard or a mouse or spider or something to spice it up and keep the reader on edge!”
  • Be Honest – This is kind of a no-brainer, but you’re not helping anyone if you can’t be square with them. Whoever you’re reading for wants to query or submit the very best work they can create, and if you offer a critique that glosses over parts that need serious work but might be difficult to discuss, you’re not helping anyone but yourself. And if that’s all you wanted to do with your day, you could have stayed at home and binge-watched Netflix.
  • Be Thoughtful – As a human, there are few things worse than bearing your soul to someone else and getting a kind of “meh” reaction in return. In fact, for every first “I love you” in life that’s met with “I need to pick up the dry cleaning”, a puppy morphs into a bridge troll. And let me tell you, a writer sharing their work with you is every ounce that same defenseless, soul-bearing experience. Don’t give them the feedback equivalent of “meh”, give them something with meat, something they can really chew up and digest. Think hard about what could make their story stronger, and would keep you turning from page to page to page.

Is this all likely to make you Critique Partner of the Year? No. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing that’s real. But a thoughtful approach to a critique, even when you know it’s not you’re a-game, is, at least, likely to help your critique partner developer a better manuscript. And at the end of the day, isn’t making sure we all help each other share our best stories with the world pretty much the whole point of all of this?

Well, that, and making sure you keep from getting the critique cold shoulder yourself.

Did you ever suffer from Critiquing Cold Feet? How did you go about conquering it?


*Was that pink elephant only at my house? I knew I shouldn’t have sipped Aunt Edna’s “Coke”


  1. Actually, you sound like an awesome critiquer. I find that the most helpful feedback is *specific* and, unlike some, I love examples of how it might be fixed/addressed. Those are the sort of things that send me into a soaring revision mode.

  2. Awesome advice. Editing/critiquing another writers work is tough. The best part of having a CP is that you have someone to share the crazy ups and downs of the publishing world with. Someone to cheer you on when you get discouraged, or cry with over a bad review. Or who understands the struggles of rejection by agents or publishers. A writer friend who you can chat with about the creative writing process when your non-writer friends just don't get it.