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Want to be a trusted critique partner?

2012 March 21
by Andrea Graham

Most serious writers seek to partner with other serious writers in mutually beneficial critique exchanges. What can you do to be the critique partner everyone wants?

The obvious, of course, is to know your craft and what you are doing, but being knowledgeable isn’t key, trust is. To build trust, you need to not only know what you are doing and how to spot craft errors, you also need to have good interpersonal skills. I have honestly been learning that on my feet, but in my studies of this strange people I find myself a member of, I have finally figured out a thing or two, through much trial and error.

1) We must discern between our subjective viewpoint and objective reality. To complicate matters, there are different schools of thought that offer a suggested objective reality on what good craft looks like and some of them contradict. Unless our critique partner has the same literary values and beliefs, we’re going to be hopelessly mismatched and talking right past one another. First and foremost is learning to respect differences of opinion. Our craft isn’t like either scientific or spiritual laws.

2) We have to be humble.

Outside of the objective craft techniques of the editorial schools of thought that you and your critique partner have agreed to critique according to, when it comes to our subjective experience, we have to be aware a novel will have lots of readers before and after publication. The author has to consider all of those readers  equally. Further, we cannot know for certain what any reader will think but ourselves and authors need to only be concerned about the opinions of members of their target audience and their target first line readers: agents, contest officials, acquisition editors, etc.

3) We have to be tactful and considerate.

When the apostle Paul said, “Speak the truth in love” he didn’t mean to bluntly and tactlessly tell someone our honest opinion out of a genuine love expressed by wanting to see the work improved in our eyes, but takes no consideration for how hurtful our choice of words may be. Love is, among other things, kind and gentle. Good intentions aren’t enough, we have to have love permeating how we speak and how we act, especially in sharing a negative opinion.

Realize your critique partners may have put a lot of themselves into their novels and their characters. That plot twist, setting, or character you personally dislike? That might well be based upon an experience the author had or identifies with. If we’re not tactful and careful in how we address the issue, our attempt to help them improve their work will come across as a personal attack and criticism of the author. That is never helpful to anyone and not what an author should need a thick skin for . Since those are at best skin deep, this sort of thing can put an “inexplicable” chill on the relationship, though women tend to struggle here more often than men.

4) We must respect the author’s Vision

In my experience, giving a critique that attacks the author’s vision of their work is the supreme mistake that I suspect is behind most unpleasant encounters with an “unteachable” author who is  impossible to work with. From their vantage point, however, we’re audaciously indignant they’d dare rebel against our will for the novel we envision and brazenly expecting them to cooperate with us destroying their novel in order to create our novel. Both sides walk away from this battle of wills telling their friends a horror story about their nightmare critique partner or nightmare author/editor.

When we have our editor hats on, it is always vexing when an author wants everything their way. The complaint is sincere with student writers and some of them will make the mistake of sending us stuff before they are ready for us.  However, it is the author’s novel, not ours. We have no right to force on the author our will of how it should be written. Before you groan or protest, consider whether this will be good news to you when it is your novel.

The only exceptions to this are the publisher-author relationship, mentoring relationships, and partnerships where a co-author or ghost writer is  working in your world with your characters. Even in these cases, the author we’re working with will have voluntarily submitted to us, either to learn or for the writing credit opportunity.

Otherwise, whenever we’re critiquing someone else’s completely original work, we should respect the author’s vision of what their work should be. In that regards, an author does have a right to get their own way and can only surrender it voluntarily.  Again, only people paying the author money for their work have the right to ask them to give any of their rights up.

5) We must ask questions rather than assume we know the answers.

Readers come to a story and subjectively interpret what the text means through the lens of their life experiences and the core beliefs so important to them,  they refuse to suspend disbelief if we violate their core beliefs. If we’re not alert, we will also do this as critiquers and develop a vision in our minds of what the story is. When it turns out we were wrong, if we don’t know better, we assume our vision is accurate and that the author must fix their story so it continues to fit our vision, which we again are assuming is the author’s. Some of us, however, wouldn’t care if our understanding wasn’t the author’s intent.

When we decide we know what a text, a character, or story world should look like better than the author who created them, we’re being arrogant, prideful, and demanding.  Note, I don’t mean situations where the author clearly did poor research and all we’re doing is politely citing the research or firsthand experience we have handy–so long as we’re tactful, most will be grateful. Oh, they’ll be annoyed if an important plot point turns on it, but they can’t blame the messenger if all we’re doing is helping them with their research and we might also have the knowledge to help them untangle that, too.

So how do we critique humbly, tactfully, respectfully, and with objective discernment that doesn’t ignorantly or callously bull doze over the author’s vision, but also provides them more help than cheerleading’s moral support?

Instead of pointing out errors with a value judgment of how it must be fixed, point out potential issues and areas of concern and label whether something is an objective craft pointer or  just your opinion. If offering solutions is ever necessary, offer multiple possibilities or ask questions that will help them come up with their own answers. The important thing isn’t how it gets fixed, but that it gets fixed. If something goes seriously awry in your eyes, you can ensure you understand the author’s vision by stopping to ask them what it is.

Explanations are widely smeared, and we  shouldn’t volunteer information with a defensive posture when it’s our novel that’s being critiqued. However, we can critique far more effectively if we ask questions rather than assume we know the answers.

Respecting the author’s vision and helping them build according to that vision is key to a successful critique exchange. If we fail to do so, the best outcome we can hope for is the author politely nodding and thanking us, but quietly ignoring everything they consider our personal bias and/or an arrogant demand they rewrite their vision according to ours. If we’re lucky, they’ll figure out the “real issue” and fix it according to their vision on our own, but we may still find them unwilling to work with us again.

So what if we’ve done all we can and still don’t understand an author’s vision or don’t know how to edit a story according to the style and techniques they feel is best for it? We should pass politely and without judgment. That way, maybe someday they will have a project that we are perfect for and we might be able to partner with them then.

We should keep to these standards even if they fail, but when possible, choose to work with people who will be trustworthy in kind.

Also, when seeking a critique, we’d be wise to help potential critique partners by disclosing in advance what we are trying to do with a project, our vision and the styles and techniques we’ve chosen, especially if we’re not using the most commercially in-demand ones, such as writing in past tense or deep POV. This will help us find fans of our type of writing who will know how to critique it. It’s best to avoid problems to start with by making it clear in advance what kind of help we are desiring and looking for so our critique partners don’t waste both their time and ours.


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