Critique Styles/Working with Critique Partners

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How do you actually work with a CP? What should you do, what should they do, and what makes a good relationship?

First, it's important to know yourself and your emotional limits. What do you want from a CP... and what do you need? Most of us *need* honest feedback about our work and how we can make it better--if that's even possible. But most of us don't want someone to eviscerate our work and stomp on our souls. Though I will say that over time, you will work up to the point where you CAN handle such brutal feedback, because when you get to "a publisher bought my book" level, some editors dish out some really tough feedback. I know authors whose editors have asked them to rewrite their books.

But we're not there yet! You are looking for your first CPs. What do you want them to do? What are you good at doing? Pinpoint and identify that (if you're from the fanfic world, you'll usually have a sense of your strengths/style). Do you want to read the whole book and then give an overview of your thoughts/notes? Do you like to go through the manuscript in a Word Doc, leaving comments and track/changes as you go? What do you want someone else to do for you?

When you are at the point of sharing sample chapters/your manuscript, in your first email lay out what you're hoping for and ask them what they're hoping for. It can be along the lines of:

I'd like to know if the main character and her arc is working, and specifically if the romance hits the right notes in the right places. What questions do you have while reading? Were there spots where you are confused or bored? I don't need a line edit or copy edits, but big picture feedback. What works and what doesn't work? Con-crit welcome, but nothing too brutal!

Or, you may say "be gentle with me" or "brutal honesty, please."  I'll be honest: in the middle is best if you really want to dig in and do proper revision. Here are some of my favorite critique styles, both for giving and receiving. You are by no means limited to these, but I recommend starting with the below if you are brand new to CPing.

Critique Style 1: Compliment Sandwich

This is my preferred method of crit, both for giving and receiving. This mostly refers to "edit letter" style critiquing, which is when you read an entire work and then write a letter laying out both what works and what doesn't, ie: Big Picture feedback. Note that this is how you will receive feedback from an editor, when you get to that stage. However, this method can be adapted for line editing/commenting in a Word Doc--just pepper in positive comments throughout the manuscript, as well as critical ones.

If you hit someone with a wall of criticism with NO compliments, anger/rage/frustration/denial will kick in and the author won't be able to see the forest for the trees. When an author goes on the defensive and gets upset, they shut down. Brutal honesty with NO compliments is typically the worst crit style and not recommended.

Start with what works in the book. What you loved. It can be voice, character, twists, setting, etc. It may be the writing itself, if the author has a firm sense of sentence level craft/beautiful prose. It may be how fast you read it--a page turner is a good thing!

Then lay out major issues--and I only focus on over-arching things as opposed to nitpicking little ones--organized by theme. So for example, I'll talk about the main character, the love interest, romance arc, mystery arc, worldbuilding, etc. separately (though feedback on one often diverges with another). I identify issues I found while reading, suggesting solutions. Not every CP is solution-oriented, but that is my style. I think it's constructive to say "here is something I saw, here is one way to fix it, but by no means feel obligated to do this." Suggesting ideas--and asking questions--can unlock solutions when the writer reads your notes.

Critique Style 2: Questions & Points of Confusion

Instead of a long edit letter with paragraphs of notes, ask for a bullet-pointed list of questions they had while reading (or write one yourself when you read). Note the page numbers and/or chapter where these questions came up. 

Questions are great for identifying areas where backstory, character motivation, foreshadowing, or story logic is missing. Often as authors, all of these things exist in our heads but don't always make it to the page. Asking these things in the form of questions or judgment free statements ("I don't understand why X does Z") can help you identify issues without anyone feeling overly judged or criticized. Questions are particularly helpful for shoring up story logic, plot threads, and character motivation.

Critique Style 3: What's Boring/Where Did You Stop?

You can also ask for a CP to pinpoint any places they got bored/their eyes glazed over/they skipped over things/they stopped reading. The latter can be VERY critical for identifying where in your novel an agent or editor might stop reading.

Where are the natural stopping points in your book? Can you introduce more conflict, or a chapter cliffhanger to keep the pages turning? Is something boring because you're info-dumping? Because you have too much dialogue and not enough action/proper dialogue tags? Is the scene unnecessary to the plot/character development and acting as filler? Is there a more dynamic way to convey the same information? Maybe it's taking a conversation that takes place sitting at a table and putting it into a more active scene.

Sometimes just observing something is useful, but learning to pinpoint WHY something reads the way it does is when you can develop from "useful reader" to "essential CP." So if you are able to say "I was bored because" or "I stopped reading here because," or "the main character read as unsympathetic to me because," you will be able to deliver more useful feedback. This won't happen overnight, but is something that will develop over time.

What if you try out CPing with someone and it's not working out? Sometimes a CP match is just not a fit, which is why it's recommended to swap only a few chapters at first. Exchange a little bit of writing and do a sample crit on those pages and see how you feel about each other. If it's not a fit--you're just not that into their stuff, or what they send back to you is not the feedback you need--politely say "Hey, thanks so much but I'm not sure this is going to be the best overall fit."

Now, if you get deeper into a relationship--you've already agreed to crit and have exchanged full manuscripts, it is polite to follow-through on critiquing the whole book, or as much of it as you can, and then quietly parting ways. You may end up in a situation where you agreed to leave comments in a Word Doc but it becomes too tedious to finish, so in that case I recommend switching to Big Picture feedback--send them longer form notes with an apology for not finishing your Word Doc comments. The important thing is follow-through/finishing.

In all honesty, usually when it's not working out, you can ghost each other. It's pretty common. You CP on one project and then just quietly part ways. They don't reach out to you for their next book, and you don't reach out to them. But if you're a braver person than most of us, it would be grown-up and mature to formally step back from the relationship. You can thank them for the work you've exchanged, but say you're not the best long term fit.

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