Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged: Critiquing

Before I start blathering on about critiquing and critique partners, there’s freebie in this for you. I’m offering up a chance to win a free one-chapter critique (limit of 25 pages) to one lucky writer. I’ll pick a winner the night of December 25. It’s my way of celebrating the holidays. To get your name in the hat, all you have to do is head over to Twitter and tweet about the little contest-lette. If you like, you can use this tweet:

Need a chapter critique? RT for a chance to win a free 1-chap crit from @nicolewolverton! Happy hols! Winner chosen on 12/25.

Or just go and retweet this tweet.

Speaking of critiques, I know people–newer writers mostly–who are petrified to seek feedback on their work because of horror stories they hear about critiquing. I always tell them to suck it up and find a couple of critique partners (CP), but I understand the hesitation.

criticism medsLook, the point of critiquing is to find opportunities to improve your writing, right? I think a lot of people forget this (and I am just as guilty of it sometimes), but it’s also a chance to find out what you’re doing right. It can be hard to find someone with a critique style that’s right for you, someone who can provide the right mix of love and nitpickiness. No one wants the CP who rakes you over the coals–if you break into a sweat at the idea of opening up a new critique of your manuscript, you’re with the wrong CP. I’m not saying a critique should be completely painless, or that it shouldn’t help you develop a thicker skin . . . just that it shouldn’t feel like an assault on your soul. Save those feels for when your agent or editor sends you feedback or an editorial letter, okay?

When I’m searching a new CP, there are certain things I look for:

  • I’m a punctuation junkie. Seriously–I’ve studied the topic. For years. Chicago Manual of Style. AP style. A good CP knows the rules. The real rules, not some made up crap that passes for knowledge. I’m okay with having a CP who doesn’t know the rules…if they acknowledge it and never try to correct punctuation to something incorrect. The same goes for grammar.
  • This sort of goes along with knowing punctuation and grammar rules, but I appreciate a generally smart CP. Being smart is knowing when you don’t know something–and not giving bad advice about those things. That goes for anything from guns to tooth whitening strips. It’s okay to question if something is right as a way of double checking…but unless you know for a fact you’re 100 percent right, don’t tell your CP partner to change facts.
  • You end up getting to know your CP. Well. In an ideal world, a CP relationship is long-term. As with friends in real life, I don’t want to hang out with a total jerk. There are nice ways to say you’re not digging something in a manuscript. That doesn’t mean you have to sugar-coat anything or be dishonest; you just have to avoid being completely and genuinely unkind about it.
  • It’s difficult to be a good CP if you’re offering feedback based on how you would write something. This is probably one of the most difficult things about critiquing. We’re writers; of course we’re thinking about how we would do in the same situation. Being able to separate yourself that way is critical, though; otherwise, you run the risk of being hypercritical in an unhelpful way and creating a toxic situation. The idea, as a CP, is to provide the kind of feedback where your partner can see a way to improvement, not batter them so hard the whole project seems like a huge waste of time. Part of that is finding a CP whose writing you actually like to read.

I have two really excellent regular critique partners. One is Chase, a retired English professor from Montana. Then there’s my friend Randi, a Toronto advertising exec. Both are great writers (Chase writes mysteries, Randi writes dark dramas), both are great people, and both find different things wrong with my drafts. I’m lucky to have them. Still, they have lives, and they’re not always available for feedback . . . so I’m always keeping an eye out for an additional CP. You never know when an opportunity will pop up!

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