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You’ve done your search, you found someone who’s interested. You talk, they respond, and now you’ve done it — you’ve decided you want a partner in critiquing. Where to start? How to start?
Critiquing is a lot like a marriage and with proper nurturing and care, a critique partner will be your most avid fan and your greatest critic (much more honest than your mother, less clueless than your husband). Here are some suggestions for establishing a solid and productive relationship.
1. First decide what you want from your critique sessions. Do you want line-edits? Grammar checking? Or are you just interested in finding out if someone thinks your heroine is a ditz?
2. Are you ready to receive criticism for your work? This is a very important and usually overlooked rule to critiquing. A critique partner may actually tell you that, well, your plot sucks, or the hero is just a little too much of a girly-man. Are you comfortable enough with your writing to have someone tell you what is wrong? A critique partner can be the first step in strengthening your writer’s hide, so to speak. If you are not ready to receive criticism, you are not ready for a critique partner. Find a fan, instead [i].
2a. Do you respect you CP’s opinion? For goodness sakes, find a critique partner whose work you like. I don’t think Nora[ii] needs a critique partner (Hilary[iii] might, but — nah, never mind), however there are many writers of all levels — beginning to published — who write very entertaining stories. This solves two problems. One, you will find you actually enjoy reading your CP’s stuff, and two, this usually means that you think your CP has talent and will be more amendable to receiving criticism from her. It is difficult to receive criticism from someone you think writes like crap.
3. Talk to your CP and state very clearly what you want from the sessions. Ask her to do the same. Over time, this may change, but you need to start somewhere.
4. The first critique session is worse than a first date. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, yet, this a critique, right? So, what do you do? Be very gentle in what you say. Do not immediately quote from GMC[iv], or tell your CP she needs to learn to write. Start out with the good stuff (always start with the good stuff, makes you her friend), and then progress slowly into the negative criticisms. Take note of your CP’s reaction. If she starts to cry, or starts turning red in the face — stop immediately.
5. When you find flaws in someone’s work, it is only your opinion. The characters, the story, the words belong to the author alone. Always. The author has first and last right of refusal and can choose to ignore whatever you say. This doesn’t mean you’re an idiot or a bad critiquer, it only means they disagree. Don’t get offended and don’t shove your opinion down their throat, even if you believe your right. Bite your tongue and move on. A healthy critiquing relationship is about give and take.
6. Suggestion number five works in reverse. Do not think you must incorporate every bit of advice from your critique partner. Think about it, decide if you agree, and then either implement it, or discard it.
7. Last suggestion, which is one of the most important: never ignore the positives in a critique session. They are as important as the negatives. Tell your critique partners which parts made you laugh, which parts made you cry, and which passages you thought were very good. It is as important as a writer to understand her strengths as well as her weaknesses. Hearing praise of your work — for the first time — from a peer is an experience that everyone should have, especially your critique partner J.