Wednesday, May 11, 2011

4 reasons to give as good as you get with critique partners

It’s easy to get a little selfish in love or critique partner relationships. Who doesn’t fantasize about lying back against the pillows while someone strong and skilled and devastatingly gorgeous does all the work and you just savor the feel of…

I’m sorry, where was I?

Critique partners. Right.

I have three, and through some bizarre twist of timing, I haven’t been called upon to read new work from any of them for at least six months. They’ve all done critiques for me in that time, setting up a slight imbalance that’s all take and no give.

Not that I’m complaining about being the taker.

When I saw the new file in my inbox from a critique partner last night, I confess I felt a tiny stab of disappointment. It was the end of “it’s all about me.”

Or was it?

Truth be told, there’s a lot to be gained from being on the giving end of a critique partner dynamic. Here are four things I can think of:

Reading is a good thing
Whenever I’m asked for the best advice I can give writers hoping to improve, I tell them to read. Read fiction, non-fiction, novels, magazines, and cereal boxes. Reading new material from a critique partner fits the bill, with the added perk of forcing you to read more closely than you might if you were merely studying the back of the Lysol can in the bathroom.

Do it to yourself
Show of hands for those of you in critique partner relationships – how many times have you torn up a partner’s chapter and then opened your own manuscript to discover you’re guilty of the same damn offense you just nailed someone else for? Whether it’s plot holes or “telling” instead of “showing,” we’ve probably all done it. There’s something about nit-picking another person’s work that sharpens your ability to see similar errors in your writing. Use that to your advantage and turn your finely-tuned critical eye back on yourself.

Give a little, get a little 
One of the best things about working with other writers is that no one does it quite the same way. The critique partner who sent me her work the other night is a neurotic plotter, while I take the seat-of-my-pants (pantster) approach. Our individual strategies work fine for us, but we can always learn from each other.

In plotting her new cozy, my critique partner created a Q&A document to answer important questions like “Who is the murder victim?” and “What motive does the heroine have for wanting him dead?” and “Who is the real killer?” She’d already answered most of the questions for herself, but since she’d left the last one blank, I took the liberty of joking that half the fun of being a pantster is finding out whodunit at the same time the other characters do.

Then I found myself looking at her Q&A chart with envy, thinking, “hey, that might make life easier the next time I write a cozy…”

It’s fun to swing both ways 
Brainstorming together is a big part of my process with any critique partner. Sharing ideas about writing gets your brain chewing on crunchy nuggets of story ideas that may not all fit into one manuscript. While I’d never suggest stealing anything from a critique partner’s work, it’s unlikely all the tidbits you brainstorm together will be used in a single story. If an idea gets tossed in your partner’s trash bin with no hope of resurrection, there’s no shame in asking if you can dig it back out, dust it off, and fit it into your own story.

What do you gain from being on the giving end of critiques? Is it better to give than receive, or is the balance what makes things gratifying for all involved? Do you prefer to lie back and take, take, take, or do you find satisfaction in giving, too?

Is it hot in here?


Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I love critiquing far more than getting critiqued. It is probably a result of years of teaching English.

The only downside is when I have a critique partner who either cannot take criticism (ANY criticism) and/or who cannot read without making it clear how much he/she HATES everything about my writing--every single character, the overall plot, the setting, even the dialogue.

Only had BOTH of these once, though. And I still found that reading this writer's work was helpful (and her scathing criticism was also somewhat helpful, once I'd gotten over the sobbing).

I love critiquing, especially because it gives me a chance to feel the purpose behind another author's work... and help that author be as successful in fulfilling the purpose as possible. Just as you say, very often I'll see a weakness in someone else's work, only to realize it's in mine, too!

Sarah W said...

I'm told I give good critique. I'd like to think I can take it, too.

I have great First Reader. She can put her finger on what's wrong and confusing in a scene without making me want to cry, rage, or give up. She and I have different styles (and genres), but she always remembers that it's my story.

Back off -- she's mine!

Claire Dawn said...

I think I spend too much time here. I know which critique partner your talking about. lol.

I agree totally. Especially on do-it-yourself. I always feel my MS is a reasonable effort. Then I go read something else, and I'll find one weakpoint and it will expose 43 of mine.

I think I learn more critiquing/reading than from the writing itself...

Linda G. said...

Pencil me in for sometime next month. ;)

I do know exactly what you mean about critiquing other writers -- it's way easier to see the rough edges in somebody else's work. And then, if you're lucky, you can apply what you've noticed to fixing your own.

Giving --> Getting.

Matthew MacNish said...

I will say that it can be incredibly enlightening to read while critiquing. It's not quite like any other type of reading. You really have to use a precise eye, and if you take the time to do it properly there is nothing that teaches you more about writing, at least not for me.

My own critique group is still trying to figure things out. We were exchanging sections only at first, which really helped to focus on the writing, and line edits and details like that. But then we switched to exchanging entire novels, which is far better for big picture stuff like pacing and character arc.

I think there are advantages to both methods.

Judy,Judy,Judy. said...

I am new at the critique exchange. I got lucky. I'm involved with a really good critique er.
I like both give and take. I critique her and I realize - hey I need to look at my own conflict dynamic.
I receive her critique and I know, it's making my WIP better.

Trisha Leigh said...

I think giving is getting. Like you pointed out (in a much more amusing way) I learn so much from critiquing other people and often go back to find the same mistakes in my own work. It's important to keep the old noggin as sharp as possible.

Unknown said...

I love taking and I love giving - and most of all I love the discussions during the writing. Alas, I have no crit partners that swing both ways, which I dearly regret. If anyone's interested, give a shout.

Lynnanne said...

Love the critique process… it's the one thing I looked forward to in writing classes. Most of us have / had critique partners who we respect(ed) and value(ed) their opinions. It's a give-n-take process that when it works, there's nothing any better. It almost makes me want to go back to school…. I said almost.

Keli Gwyn said...

I've been blessed with two awesome critique partners. I learn so much from them, both when I read their work and when I receive their feedback on mine.

Jacqvern said...

It's a good exercise and learning process to critique others' writing. One gets to improve reviewing, editing and even learn points that might never cross one's mind.

Thank you for the post :)

Jacqvern said...
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Jacqvern said...
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Jacqvern said...

Sorry, browser froze and same comment was posted three times.

Unknown said...

I like doing beta reads, since most of my study is in story structure, and many of my critique partners don't have that background. They also each have different perspectives when they look at mine, giving me multiple ways to look at my WIP.

In general, both ways are fun!

Jill said...

The give and take should go both ways, but I've had situations where it's all take or all give for a time, but it always evens out in the end. You reap what you sow.

Mary Kate Leahy said...

Great post :) I think it is best to do a 50/50 split but sometimes that gets a little off kilter, like if one partner has a looming deadline. It's just like any relationship you have to make sure everyone is being taken care of.

Matthew MacNish said...

I would really like to read today's post, but I'm guessing blogger is being just as mean to you as it is to me.