Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Role of a Critique Partner

Many of you already know fellow Alley Cat Angie Dicken is my critique partner. What you may not know is how much I value Angie’s friendship as well as her investment in my stories. When you look at our friendship, it just goes to show the way God knows exactly what we need, even before we do.

Angie and I “met” online through ACFW Scribes, then in person at the ACFW conference. We kept gravitating toward each other’s stories in the larger Scribes group and decided to break off on our own. It’s been so cool to have someone to share this writing journey with—the highs and the lows—and to help me learn how to write to my strengths.

Some of you may be in the position where you want feedback on your writing, but are not sure how to go about finding a critique partner relationship. Others of you might be in a larger critique group but may be wondering if it’s functioning the way it should. Today I want to talk about some ways to find a critique partner, some things to look for in that relationship, and some “rules” of critiquing. 
  • Where to Find a Critique Partner
    • A well-established writing organization like ACFW. As I already mentioned, Angie and I found each other through ACFW. We both joined ACFW’s larger critique group, Scribes, and then found we were continually drawn toward each other’s writing styles. We seemed to “click” from the beginning.
    •  In-person writing groups. Many towns have writing groups that meet at places like local libraries, universities, or coffee shops. The advantage of this kind of setup is that you get face-to-face interaction. However, it also has limitations because you’re going to get less diversity in the group, so if you’re looking for a highly specialized group (like other people who write Regency zombie stories), you’re probably going to want to look online.
    • A critique group. Joining a critique group can be a great way to get several different perspectives on your work and see who you best “mesh” with. You may find you end up working more in-depth with one person in particular, and decide to form a critique partner relationship.
  •  What to Look For
    • Someone who understands your writing voice. It’s completely fine if your critique partner writes in a different genre than you. Look at Colleen Coble and Kristin Billerbeck. What matters more than actual content is that someone appreciates your voice and will be able to give you suggestions about how to bring it out more.
    • Someone in generally the same stage of the writing journey. You don’t have to be completely equally matched, but if you’re a significantly more advanced writer than your critique partner, you’re going to end up in more a mentor relationship than a critique partnership.
    • Someone you “click” with. Angie and I have become such close friends through our critique relationship. You may not end up as close as we are, but chances are, if you are going to spend a lot of time investing in someone else’s stories, you are inevitably going to have heart-level discussions. For that reason, it’s imperative that you connect with someone who you get along well with. Otherwise, the critique relationship isn’t likely to last long.
  • Rules of Critiquing
    • The first rule of critiquing is that you and your critique partner make the rules. You have to find a system what works for you, and tht just takes trial and error.
    • Be clear about expectations with each other from the outset. Are you looking for someone who’s going to read one chapter per week? Five chapters? Maybe your whole book in various draft stages? Angie and I have been fortunate that we always seem to be on the same timetable, but that’s not the case in all critique relationships. Be sure you’re clear about your expectations so you can avoid possible frustration that might result.
    • Always point out the good. I am a teacher, and I am used to seeing bad papers. But you know what? There is always some good I can find in my students and in their work. This should be your attitude with your critique partner as well. One of my favorite things about Angie’s critiques is whenever she writes little happy faces next to my jokes, because I know she gets them and thinks they are funny. It may seem obvious to you that your critique partner has a particular strength, but they may not be aware of it, and may even avoid repeating that strategy in the future if they don’t get validation. So always point out what is working well.
    • Be clear about areas needing improvement, and always try to offer suggestions. The more comfortable you get with each other, the clearer you get about these kinds of things. Sometimes Angie and I just write things like, “This isn’t working. I don’t like this.” But we didn’t start off that blunt. Ease your way in to harsher critiques because they’re always easier to take if they aren’t about your own writing. J Also, always try to offer a suggestion when you give a bigger, plot-level critique. Instead of just saying, “This isn’t believable,” say something like, “This isn’t believable to me. What if you gave her a deeper motivation by making her dream career in New York City?”
    •  Accept critiques graciously. Ultimately, the only thing limiting your ability to learn is your own willingness to. We can only grow, in life and as writers, if we are open to critique. Sometimes it may conflict with our plans for a story, but the only way to get a fresh perspective is to first hear that perspective graciously. You don’t have to accept everything your critique partner suggests. But you should consider it all. AND that is part of the reason why it pays off to take time to find the right critique partner, because you’ll trust the feedback they give you.

Ultimately, a critique partner relationship is a long-term commitment. It’s not a three-month thing. So take your time finding someone who  really compliments your strengths and weaknesses, and vice versa, so you can really develop a lasting partnership.

Do you have a critique partner? If not, is there a reason why? If so, how did you two meet and what have you learned from that relationship? 


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Sherrinda said...

Excellent advice, Ashley! Finding the right critique partner is a tricky thing. I was in a couple of groups before that just didn't work out for various reasons. I think the one on one is a better choice for me..especially when I already know them before hand and trust them already.

Angie said...

Look at me, I am the first to comment! Aw, Ash, I am SOOOO thankful for you! Your advice is's my advice as well, Ha! Really though, I can't say enough about finding a good fit for a crit partner. My writing has grown leaps and bounds! Thanks, girl!

Angie said...

Oh man! Sherrinda beat me to hit send! By one minute!

Sherrinda said...

Muwahahahhahaaa....I've been doing good this week. :)

Lindsay Harrel said...

How funny you should write this because I wrote a guest post for tomorrow about my CP and how awesome a gift from God she is. Melissa Tagg and I started critting each other's stuff during a trial period in June, and by the end of the month, knew it was right. Like you and Ang, we are really good friends and that makes the partnership all the better! I really don't know what I'd do without her.

Beth K. Vogt said...

You Alley Cats are so funny, trying to beat each other to the comment!
Great stuff, Ashley.
I think most writers want a crit partner--at least most writers who want to progress and get published.
And you've hit on a lot of good attributes of partnering with another writer.
I've learned that crit partners can be "the best of times and the worst of times" because we're people. We have foibles and failures and frailties ... and we make a mess of critiquing sometimes.
But for all that, it's worth it to develop relationships and find someone (or someones) who get you, who can help you become a better writer -- and for whom you can do the same.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Great stuff here, Ash! And so true. what a blessing to have such a great support for your dreams! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, everyone! Beth, I especially loved what you said because it's so easy to idealize relationships when they are good, but it can be very difficult to find that right fit and someone whose advice you can really trust. Also, even with the right fit, there are always moments of miscommunication. I know I've probably confused Angie with my comments on more than one occasion!

Jeanne T said...

Ashley, great post. I actually just got home from meeting with my critique partners. This is the first critique group I've ever been part of, and it's been a good experience. The three of us write different genres and we look for different things in stories. The good thing about this is we see each other's stories from different perspectives, we have different strengths and we are able to make solid suggestions to help each other. We also know that we comment with the intention of helping the writer improve her story/craft. Not for any other reason. It's been a good experience. I always appreciate it when they tell me something isn't working, and I feel good when I have written something that works or resonates.

Great points today! Sorry for the long comment. :)

Karen Schravemade said...

I LOVE my critique partners (there are 5 of us in a group). How I joined that group is a story all of its own... I'll have to tell it one day! Definitely a God-thing!

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, I loved reading your comment... Very insightful! Isn't it great whenever you find a group that compliments your strengths and weaknesses? Such a rare find! Karen, I'll look forward to hearing that story sometime! :D

Cholay Amine said...

I'm Speechless ! Great work