Thursday, October 25, 2007

Critique Partners: Only your best friends will tell you the truth.

When I first began to write--seriously--I ran out and bought a slew of 'how to' books. I rearranged my computer station, stacking the books next to the keyboard. I purchased the newest edition of Writer's Market, so I could offer my first pearl (as soon as it was finished) to the writing world. I had everything I needed. Well, not quite.

I started to hear about critique partners and critique groups. I wasn't clear about how these functioned, but I knew I had to have one. Unable to locate a group in my area, I went out on a cyber-limb and started an online critique group-the Women's Fiction Writers Exchange. This has proven to be my greatest resource as a writer.

Critique partners and groups come in all shapes, sizes, genres, temperaments, levels of experience, and writing skills. The purpose is to obtain constructive, clear feedback and suggestions on how to improve your writing--not just grammar and punctuation--but characterization, story line, flow, point of view, consistency, readability--and much more. To be truly helpful, feedback should be balanced, both constructively critical and affirming.

I struck gold in my group, finding a collection of women writers, published and working toward publication, whose gifts complement one another. Each of us has her own particular strength. What one of us may miss, another catches. Just as each writer has her own writing style, each person has her own style for providing a critique.

I've heard the horror stories of writers receiving harsh feedback (bordering on cruel and unkind), with comments such as: This sucks. Don't quit your day job. This is usually justified with: You have to develop a thick skin. If you can't take the heat... Well, you know the cliche. I disagree with those who think that, in order to be helpful, a critiquer should shred someone's work, take it apart, letter by letter, and hand it back as confetti.

It's true that a critique relationship that becomes a mutual love fest, without constructive criticism, is not helpful. I think there's an art to offering a balanced critique, one that clearly shows the ways you can adjust your writing to improve the quality and, at the same time, affirms what you've done well. We also need to know what we're doing 'right.'

My advice: Find a critique partner or group that serves to challenge and encourage. You do have to develop a thick skin in the sense that you have to be willing to consider that your writing can always improve. If you don't want to know what someone thinks, don't ask. But, always keep in mind that your book is your baby. The suggestions from your critique partners are just that--suggestions. You choose what you use. But, it's wise to consider all suggestions first. Otherwise, why bother?

Some things to look for: You want to stay within genre, somewhat. In my group, we write romance, romantic suspense, women's fiction, and chick lit. These are cross-over genres generally targeting a primarily female readership. We share a common understanding of our target audience.

If you choose a critique group, keep it small. I learned this the hard way. In my enthusiasm to get started, I opened my group up to as many as twenty writers. We've had up to thirteen at one time. The volume of work at this level is overwhelming, because the group runs on the principal of reciprocity--you return a critique for every one you receive. Well, you can imagine.

I don't think all critique partners in a group have to be published. Of course, basic knowledge and writing skills are necessary.

You need to find the critique relationship that works best for you, either a single critique partner or a group. This should be a relationship in which there is reciprocity, mutual respect of both work and person, honesty expressed in a clear and kind manner, flexibility, and professionalism.

Many on-line writer's sites offer critique partners or groups. You may have to shop around a bit to find the critique relationship that works for you, but it's well worth the effort.

Happy writing.


1 comment:

Carol said...

Great writeup, Linda; I would further add that once you know your critiquers it's wise to consider the source. Personal problems may influence the writing of a critique, so the writer must keep her wits about her and feel free to use or refuse the advice offered. Generally I've found gems among suggestions I didn't agree with at first blush. A writer must keep her mind open, yet not throw the baby out with the bath. Carol McPhee