What is a critique partner & why do you need one? (or more!)

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We write in a vacuum, but we shouldn't revise in one. Getting qualified outside feedback is an important part of the process, and also the community. Critique partner--or CP--relationships will form the backbone of your experiences in the writing community. Your CPs tend to be your closest writer friends. If you're from the fanfiction world, CPs are basically betas. However, typically critique partners are fellow writers, whereas betas don't have to be writers. I've found people's definitions of CP vs. beta can be fluid, but you'll find here how I see and approach CPs for novels.

Why do you need a critique partner? Because as good as some of us are at self-editing and self-critique, an outsider's view of our work is essential. They can see things we miss, ask questions that unlock solutions, and bring a new perspective, especially when your CPs are writers. Fellow writers understand craft, character, plot, and genre on a deeper level than the average reader. And good writers are well-read in the genre in which they write--which is often your genre, as well.

A CP relationship is usually, but not always, reciprocal. This means that you exchange manuscripts to read. The best CP relationships work because you are mutually invested in each others' work and want to see each other succeed. This doesn't always mean you exchange manuscripts at the exact same time, though often in your earliest CP relationships you do. Over time, as you write at different paces/manage projects differently, you may end up reading for a CP while you have nothing to share with them, or vice versa. It's not always quid pro quo in the moment, but you know you'll reciprocate eventually. It's also OK to not want to or need to reciprocate--if you find you really enjoy CPing (I do!), you can critique someone's work with no expectation that they will critique yours.

There is also a broader set of skills and supports that close CPs bring, which includes but is not limited to, helping with queries and pitches, sharing information on agents and publishing, providing a shoulder to cry on/someone to vent to, offering advice during all the ups and downs of the writing & publishing journey, brainstorming with you on new projects/projects either of you is revising. Sometimes you find someone who may not always be reading your manuscript, or have a manuscript for you to read, but they are your rock for day to day things, such as the above.

CPs can be good at different things, and thus you can use several of them to bring a variety of perspectives to your work. You might use one person for character and plot arcs, story logic and worldbuilding, while you'll have someone else read for dialogue, pacing, description. You might have someone read just to tell you where they get bored, or another to tell you if a specific character or romance arc is working. You can use CPs in waves (having a second string, like a football team), or have just one or two CPs, max, who read your work many times.

Not all CPs are created equal, and it may take some trial and error to find the best matches for you (and vice versa). It's a process of figuring out what you need, how you like to work with someone else and receive feedback, and striking a balance of taste & "vision." Having someone cast a critical eye on your story is helpful, but not if that person doesn't *get* what you're trying to do, and thus hates everything and tells you to change it all. At the same time, someone who tells you everything is amazing and has no constructive notes isn't going to be helpful with revision, though there is something to be said for having a "cheerleader" CP/beta when you just need a boost. We all have readers like this, and they are valuable, too. They just shouldn't be your only readers.

It's important to find CPs who are on or around your same level, in terms of craft and career.  It's going to be frustrating to you if you have already mastered the basics of grammar, usage, plot, character, etc. if you are paired with someone who wants their CP to basically copy edit them. If someone doesn't yet understand the basic mechanics of storytelling--how to set-up story and characters, rising & falling action, conflict & stakes--it's going to be more work and more stressful for you to help them. And more importantly, what are they bringing to your story? Often when you try to pair with someone who hasn't mastered the same skills as you, you'll get either cheerleader feedback OR incredibly nitpicky feedback, as the person thinks they "are supposed to be" highly critical of everything, and they'll offer ultimately useless suggestions.

That said, you may WANT to help someone who hasn't yet mastered story mechanics, and there is some value in pulling someone up to your level, and satisfaction in seeing them become a better storyteller. But you may also find that your suggestions and the time and work you've invested go nowhere, because a writer who is too attached to their words and their execution, who has not yet mastered the art of "darling killing," is likely to ignore most of your notes/suggestions, leaving you frustrated. There's a lot of trial and error involved.

This is where "career level" matters. If you are writing seriously towards publication, you'll find there are tiers of writer and manuscript readiness among the pool of writers and potential CPs, and you'll want to identify and pair with those on or around your "level." This builds on the previous point in terms of craft and story mechanics, but you can often tell by where you are finding your CPs, and by their pitch, and writing samples.

If your aim is to query this manuscript and get an agent, you'll want to look for other writers with juicy, commercial, sellable hooks (or beautiful, niche literary work, if that's your arena) and somewhat polished writing. Someone who can pitch their work reasonably well (on a CP forum, for instance) already has a certain level of sophistication. Do they make their book sound interesting to read? Are the pages good? Note: if the pages are good but the pitch needs work, they might just not be great at pitching. There are great books by authors who suck at pitching. So always consider the full package!

As you ascend the publishing ladder, the "levels" will become more and more clear. When you are agented, you may still pair with CPs who aren't agented (but whose work is good enough to be represented), but generally you'll find the best CPs among other agented writers, as well as those who have book deals. Published authors usually exclusively CP with other published authors. You want to pair with CPs who understand where you are in your career, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get there (and vice versa).

You'll need CPs at various stages of the drafting, revising, querying process and beyond. Most of us have "core" CPs who read first drafts, or even as we are drafting. They know the ins and outs of the story and see it before anyone else. It can be very useful, once you've revised, to have the reread (if they have the time), to reflect on the changes you've made. However, at the point where you have significantly revised, fresh eyes are incredibly useful.

This is where "second string" CPs come in--it's smart to keep a few people in reserve so you can use them on subsequent drafts. Some CPs are able to read and reread your work, but some only have one "go" in them--they'll read once but not again, so wait until you really need them. A fresh reader can be helpful in that you can get a sense of what an agent, should they read this draft, will likely see.


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