Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Get the Most From Critique Partners by Jess Riley

From time to time, I’m contacted by local writers who have questions for me about publishing. Typically, the other writer is a woman in my demographic who has written one or two novels and simply wants to hear how a fellow Cheesehead has pursued publication. We meet for coffee or lunch, and in two delightful cases, we’ve become good friends.  In one of these cases, the writer and I have actually become critique partners.

People often ask me how I find critique groups or partners, and my own process has evolved over the years. In college and shortly after, I participated in a few larger critique groups, which I was not a fan of. Stephen King eloquently summed up my own feelings in his fabulous book on craft, On Writing. The section begins on page 231 (I know you have your own copy, right?), and boils down to the difficulty of “writing with the door open.”  I feel that ongoing, immediate feedback impedes my creative process; now, I don’t want to share anything with early readers and CPs until I have a finished draft that I feel is ready for criticism.

When I started writing with an eye toward being published, I joined an online group of other writers in my genre and found a few long-distance CPs. This worked fine for a while, but eventually I also began securing feedback from friends who were avid readers—lucky for me, they also understood how to give constructive criticism. 

Currently, I have roughly six early (beta) readers comprised of grammar fiends, avid readers, and fellow writers. My husband isn’t an avid reader, but he weighs in on a nearly-finished draft as well, because he has a great ear for dialogue and humor. Altogether, these people comprise my “Ideal Reader.” Once I receive their feedback, the book goes through another edit, and then it’s off to at least two professional editors, regardless of whether I’m indie-publishing it or not: the conceptual editor for the “forest level” view: structural guidance, character development and motivation, overall story arc, etc.; and then on to the copy editor for a close-up of the individual trees: grammar, overused phrasing, inconsistencies, wordiness, excess adverbs, and the kinds of embarrassing goofs eagle-eyed readers always seem to find. 

After I made the changes suggested by my copy editor, I also sent my last novel, Mandatory Release, to a freelance proof reader.  And finally, my mother—who actually found two sneaky mistakes all of us had missed. 

So how do you find your trusted inner circle of critique partners? They’re incredibly valuable and rare, so be prepared to commit some time to finding just the right group of people. And if they are also writers, be prepared to read and weigh in on their work as well. It’s only fair, right? Sometimes finding the right people involves luck (sitting next to the right person at a conference, for example). And sometimes it won’t be a good fit, so don’t worry if you have to move on and keep looking. If you’re looking for a CP or two among a network of fellow writers, here are some general considerations:

  1. What genres do we all write? You all don’t have to write romance, but if you critique a story in another genre, it helps to at least read books in that genre from time to time, to have an understanding of readers’ expectations.
  2. What stage is everyone at in their career? Your fellow CPs all don’t have to be published if you are, but you should all have a solid grasp of the craft. And it’s much easier to find people in your same literary boat.
  3. Set some ground rules. What exactly are you looking for in terms of feedback? Be specific. Communicate to avoid hurt feelings or disappointment. If you don’t ask for what you want and need, you may not get it. (This also applies in most other areas of life. File under, “Duh.”)
  4. How do you feel your new CP has handled his or her first review of your work? Is their feedback critical yet tactful? If your partner says nothing but, “I love it, it’s just fabulous!” you may want to hire a professional for the raw, honest criticism a close friend or family member may be afraid to give you. This person WILL be reading with the knives out, and you are paying him or her for the privilege. (How to find a good conceptual or copy editor? Word of mouth … acknowledgements in novels you like …)
  5. Flip it: how does your new CP take YOUR constructive feedback?
  6. Finally, schedules and turn-around time frames: how quickly do you work? How soon do you need feedback? If you send a novel to a CP and don’t hear anything for two months and you’ve been a knot of anxiety while you wait, either check in politely and next time communicate a target date, or move on to someone who can be as prompt as you are. All of us have experienced the epic waits involved with agent or editor submissions; it’s nice to reduce at least some of the waiting when part of the process is still in our own control. That said, respect that your partner has a life, just as you do. It boils down to give and take and communication.
JessRiley is the author of three novels and one novella, and for the first time in nearly four years, does not have a project on submission or with a critique partner.  Her latest novel, Mandatory Release, was published this July. She recently made the leap to freelance copy editing, which she absolutely loves. Find her on her website, Facebook, or follow her on Twitter (@jessrileywrites).


  1. I am jealous. It sounds like you have a whole community of readers. This is ideal.

  2. I would be nowhere without my gentle readers and the ones with the knives, as you say. Thank you for a great post! Every word is true.

  3. Good stuff. Shared it on OWFI and Book End Babes. Saralee, yes it does take the knife and the scalpel, doesn't it?

  4. It's interesting how our approaches to getting our work critiqued evolves over time. Sounds like you've got a great current method!

  5. Great information, Jess! So incredibly helpful.