How to Be a Good Critique Partner

Giving Helpful Feedback is a Craft in itself

Being a good critique partner is not reading someone’s story and saying “This is the best-est thing I have ever read.” (Even if it is.) It is also not saying “Wow, this sucks.” (Even if it does.) Most importantly, it is not telling another writer how to write their story. All three of these are useless as feedback.

Don’t give bad feedback; follow these guidelines.

Learning to be a good critique partner is like learning any new skill: it takes practice to develop. You will make mistakes and so will your critique partners. But learning to give better critiques will not only make you more valuable as a critique partner, it will also give you a set of tools to evaluate the feedback you receive.

Every time I critique a first chapter I always spend a good part of the e-mail reminding the author that opinions are subjective and something that doesn’t work for one person may work for another. This is the unavoidable problem with getting feedback on your work, and the more feedback a writer gets, the more likely that feedback is to be contradictory. That is why it is critical for an author to be able to evaluate the quality of the feedback they receive.

The first step

Always start by exchanging samples (Usually the first 10 pages or so.) This will give you an indication if you like the story well enough to give feedback on an entire novel. Also, make sure that you and your partner are avid readers in the genre/category you are critiquing. As you read through the pages, keep this list in the back of your head, or download a print copy:

Checklist for Critique Partners

World building:
Is the world consistent: Do all the rules make sense? Do they change for “plot” reasons?
Is the world believable, i.e. could a human society reach the conclusions that govern this world?

Character’s personal world:
Do the character’s circumstances match with their conflict?
Is the problem realistic?
Do you believe this character could find himself in this situation?

Character consistency:
Does the character react in a believable, consistent manner, i.e. do they always panic, or do they sometimes act defiant and sometimes aim to please?

Dialogue:
Is the dialogue natural?
Does it move the story forward?
Is it filled with useless chit-chat?

Conflict:
Does the conflict make sense?
Is the character’s response proportional to the seriousness of the conflict?
Does the conflict begin on the first page?
Does the conflict chain continue unbroken through the sample?
Does it continue to intensify throughout the sample?

Pacing:
Are there unnecessary info dumps? (Overt or hidden?) Are there any useless interactions? Small actions? (daily living things not plot related: getting dressed, brushing teeth)
Is there a good balance between high-intensity and low-intensity elements?
Are the transitions clean? Do the transitions happen too soon, too late?

Je Ne Sais Quoi:
Were you hooked? If so where?
Were you turned off? If so where?

Prose:
Is it clean or flowery?
Overuse of adjectives/adverbs?
Repetitive words? Clichés?
Do the word choices match the character/setting?
Is there too much setting in the prose? i.e. Is there too much slang? Or too grandiose?

POV:
Does the POV work?
Does the action feel too distant?
Are there too many filtering words? Does intentional distancing work?
Are there POV mistakes? Head hopping? Action/elements described that POV character could not have seen?

Try to answer all or most of these questions. Feel free to add your own as well.

What to do when the pages are great

We all know this feeling. You click open the file and suddenly are transported to another place and time. Words wrap around you in a blissful embrace. The pages are amazing. What are you, a mere mortal, possibly going to say to improve them?

First: It’s OK to say the pages work
Second: It’s not OK to throw out random suggestions just to have something to say.

Now that you have said you like the pages, give detailed reasons using the list above about what you liked. Chances are, the writer will need to hear this because someone else might have told her to change it.

What to do when the pages are not great

We’ve all been here as well. Every time this happens to me, I’m crushed. I know how much work goes into writing, and when I see pages that need to be scrapped, I’m devastated. Some pointers:

You can say this doesn’t work for me.

BUT…

Now, you must go through the above list and tell the author, very specifically and without editorializing, why it doesn’t work. What do I mean by that? Don’t try to soften to blow by dancing around the issue and using soft language. You are not saving their ego; you are insulting them by treating them like a child. Keep feedback clear and specific.

Example: “Concrete” is a contemporary word and it jarred me out of your ancient Aztec setting.

is better than

Example: Have you thought about whether “concrete” is the best word choice here? I’m not sure if an ancient Aztec person would know about concrete or not.

Really? If you’re not sure about whether someone with stone age technology would use concrete construction, you should probably watch more PBS. The second example insults both you and your CP.

After you have gone through the list and made very specific criticisms, I would also encourage you to find something positive to say about the sample. Usually, I find that if a person struggled with the plotting aspects, her prose might be really strong, or vice versa.

I’ve never seen a sample that did not have one redeeming element. Was there a particularly well-drawn character? Or a place where the story pacing finally clicked and the wordiness evaporated? My favorite: look for places where an element that was a problem previously was handled well. This will let the author know she where her writing shines, which is the best encouragement.

Good Critique Partners Never:

  1. Blindly apply blanket advice without considering whether it works for this story. (Don’t tell your CP to cut her prolog just because you’ve heard they are out of fashion.) Same goes for telling her to write in 1st POV because all YA is. (Not true)
  2. Tell a CP something doesn’t work without offering a specific reason why. It is OK to say you aren’t sure why, but don’t just say something sucks without further comment.
  3. Tell a CP to change something for the sake of change. (If you suggest a change, make sure it actually is an improvement: i.e. raises stakes, fixes a plot hole, etc.)
  4. Tell a CP to add something just because it’s trendy. (Writing to trends is the fastest way to make your MS cliché.)

Being a good CP isn’t about giving each other a pat on the head. A good CP will challenge you, call you out on your mistakes, and ultimately make you a better writer. But being a great CP will also give you to tools to properly evaluate your own work. The more you critique pages the better you will become at spotting these problems and avoiding them all together in your own work meaning you will spend less time editing/revising with better results. And isn’t that what we all want?

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