Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Critique Partner(s) of Your Dreams

How do we know he’s (the manuscript is) the one?

Writing is a lonely endeavor. We sit in front of our computer screen, churning out a rough draft over many weeks, months, or even years. When we type “The End”, we grin with the realization this manuscript is the most awesome piece of literature that’s ever been written. Move over Harper Lee.

Then we listen the sage advice to stick the manuscript in a drawer for at least three weeks. We know it’s easier to kill (delete) distant cousins (old words) than it is to kill (delete) our children (new words). So we bring up our Word Document and begin reading the carnage, and realize, This isn’t as awesome as I thought. It’s really rough. Of course it is – it’s a ROUGH DRAFT. Our first instinct may be to chuck the computer against the wall, run into our bedroom closet, and sob while in a fetal position. But berating ourselves won’t make our manuscript better.

What will make our relationship (with our manuscript) better?

Writers have different methods. Some start by fixing all the spelling and grammar errors before tackling the larger issues. Others go through it and jot notes about all the things that aren’t working, ponder the notes, and return to the manuscript for triage. Still others print the whole document in miniature, highlight the problems, and overhaul the manuscript. Writers like me just read and edit it over and over and over and over until it’s better. Now we’re certain THIS time the manuscript is the most awesome piece of literature that’s ever been written. Move over J.K. Rowling.

Now what?

There are the writers who query at this stage. A few are successful, landing that dream agent in two seconds. Most are not.


Because we need other eyes on our manuscript. We have our strengths and weaknesses, so we need other people to tell us what’s good and what’s not working. Anyone can read our manuscript: our mother, the letter carrier, the dog, a student, our ten-year-old son, the local librarian. While some use family and friends, I recommend using other writers.

Where do we find our soul mates (other writers)?

I write children’s books. I’ve used the SCBWI board to find a manuscript exchange partner. NESCWBI (the New England chapter) also has a critique group finder. Mary Kole, an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. has written posts to help writers find each other to set up manuscript exchanges. Conferences are also a good resource because most people live in the same area and we can see if we hit it off in person. If we have a blog, we can write a post we’re looking for a critique partner. If another blogger mentions s/he needs feedback on a manuscript, we can volunteer to provide that feedback.

How do we know we’ve found the right person?

We find the special writer online or at a conference. We hit it off. We agree to send the query and the first chapter. This is like preparing for a first date as we wait to hear back on pins and needles. When we receive that person’s query and first chapter, do we like what we read? If we don’t, how do we let the person down easy?

“It’s not you, it’s me. I’m swamped right now, so this may not be the best time for me to exchange.”

Or we can be one of those people and not respond back. (Don’t be one of those people.)

And if the other writer is unenthusiastic about our writing, we try not to take it personally.

If we do like the other writer’s work and they like ours, congratulations! But when it comes to critique, being exclusive may not be the best relationship for us. We need more than one reader because we need more than one person’s perspective on our writing. One option is to repeat the process and find one or two other writers to read our work.

Do we like online dating or prefer to meet face-to-face?

Local writers may come together as a critique group in either the virtual or real world. We may have to try these different scenarios to see which one makes us the most comfortable. If we find people who are too far to meet in person, we have to decide if we can live with a long-distance relationship.

Can we date only one person at a time or do we like to play the field?

Only we can figure out what will work best for us. There are many things to consider no matter which one we choose. Do we exchange frequently enough? Does the feedback provide constructive criticism or is it too positive or too negative? Remember, we’re doing this to become a better writer, not to be ripped to shreds. And we shouldn’t rip anyone else to shreds either. Everyone has the potential to improve. Everyone. It’s not our job to crush dreams. We’re not qualified.

What if our first date didn’t go as well as we’d hoped?

Maybe the feedback is too negative. Maybe we don’t respect everyone’s opinion. Maybe our gut is telling us we’re being steered in the wrong direction. My advice is to separate our ego from our instinct. If everyone is telling us something is wrong, it probably is. If we’re getting conflicting advice, then it’s up to us to decide. Conventional wisdom states to sit on the feedback for three days, so we’ll be less defensive and more receptive to the critique.

What if we date a few times and it’s not working?

Then it’s time to move on. If the chemistry isn’t there, we shouldn’t prolong the agony. There are plenty of writers out there. Somewhere out there are the perfect critique partners for us. Good luck finding the critique partner(s) of your dreams!


  1. This is such an apt comparison, I mean, we're sharing some of our most intimate thoughts with these people, so our povs had better gel. I'm lucky enough to have some tough-love critters who keep me honest!

    Great post!

  2. Great summary of the CP process! It is hard to know what is a right fit and sometimes it takes years (as in my case). The trick is making the most of coop for both the giving and receiving.

    Have a great day, Theresa!

  3. I love this post, Theresa! It's my favorite one you've done. So someday, when you ask us what our favorite posts are, this is it! :-)

  4. Great post. I don't have CP's, but I've been in critique groups, and I had to test a few before finding the right one.

  5. Great post, Theresa! Lots of information here for me. Thanks so much for this post! They are like answers to the questions in my head! :)

  6. Gosh it really is like dating and finding your soul mate isn't it?! The anticipation, the excitement, the first date, the make or break up, the next one...! Thank goodness there are organised forums like the SCBWI as a first step to looking for a critique partner/group!

    Good luck to everyone looking for that perfect partnership! It looks like it's not easy and it's hard work but the results are worth all the effort!

    Take care

  7. What an intricate, involved process, but so necessary to our work. And it's a wonderful process too, when we've found the right, insightful, diplomatic and compassionate reader. Some parts of writing really are such teamwork.

  8. My ideal crit partner is someone who genuinely loves reading my genre (thrillers/crime/suspense), and who will be very honest and very specific, but not mean. It took me a long time to find that person, but it was well worth the wait!

  9. Great post, Theresa! I'm so grateful for the beta reader I have. He's given me such helpful advice, and I've even learned a lot just by editing HIS manuscript.

  10. What a great post! By the way, if you're ever looking for a critique partner, I'd love to swap with you... if you're interested! I really liked the opening of "The Mist Chasers" that you posted on your other blog :)

  11. Oh Theresa this post is just great. Filled with great advice. I want and need a critique partner. I keep putting things aside because I feel they are not good enough.

    I will have to look into this. Thanks!!!

  12. Gosh. Pretty intense.
    I recently was asked to do some free lance work on some websites. They saw my blog and love my writing (Blush).
    I don't really consider myself a least not like you, Theresa. But I am starting to think about what other people think. You know....the does-he-like-me-or-does- he-LIKE-me-Like-me feeling of a first date.
    I never really thought of that as a blogger....

  13. I found some really great critique partners. They treat my baby gentle and yet firm. They know what my manuscript needs and I accept their advice. Great!


  14. @ Tere Kirkland, it really is trusting someone with a piece of us when we let them read our manuscript. I'm glad you have good critique partners.

    @ Judy, I'll have to e-mail you and ask you what you mean.

    @ Jackee, you've been an excellent critique partner.

    @ Shannon, thank you. I'm blushing.

    @ Medeia, I'm always a little envious of people who have been in a critique group for years and are like BFF's.

  15. @ Old Kitty, boards like SCBWI are like eharmony for writers.

    When I let another writer read a whole manuscript, I have to really, really trust that person.

    @ Joanne, it is about teamwork. We need fresh eyes, a fresh perspective. When people say they don't have critique partners or a group, I'm amazed.

    @ Jennifer, I'm learning that someone who reads my genre is usually the best. But at least YA, if not fantasy.

    @ Amanda, you are so right! Editing other manuscripts has made me a much better writer.

    @ Lisa, I'd consider swapping. Thanks for asking. E-mail me tmilstein at gmail dot com

  16. @ Ann, maybe I should've used this post to help writers find one another. Lisa is looking for someone. Recently, someone else said they needed a partner. I'll have to look back in the archives.

    @ Barbra, you have, what... five blogs now? And you've been asked to freelance? You're sounding like a writer!

    @ Clarissa, those are the best partners. You need constructive criticism, and some people don't understand what that means.

    @ Len, I skipped you. Sorry! I'm glad this answered questions. Are you looking for a critique partner?

  17. I loved your comparison... and when I get through a few drafts and I can't make it better on my own, now I know how to go about developing online critique partners. So far I'm very fortunate to have found some wonderful like-minded (for our goals, I mean) local writers with whom I'm exchanging my early work... and so far they are golden. Thanks again. Lovely post.

  18. Great post, Theresa, it is a great analogy. I can totally understand the great leap of faith you need in someone else to read your work.

  19. @ DL Curran, local writers is just as good as writers from anywhere else in the world. My first manuscript exchange partner I found through SCBWI, but she wound up living in the same town.

    @ Brigid, it is a leap of faith. I've had two people be less than kind over the years, and it tore me up. But then I think back to my first attempt at joining a critique group with a messofamanuscript, and the person was so nice.

  20. Great article Theresa. I find the SCBWI the best place for manuscript exchange. It's great to have like-minded writers exchange views. I don't have any one critique partner, as I usually prefer to get critiques from as many people as possible. Sometimes, the feedback can be so varied.

  21. Ooo I am so still hunting for that person *sigh* in the mean time I make sure that any work I critique is turned around within the week and I give honest and thoughtful answers. Always remembering that brutal won't be better - honest thoughts however will be. Always on the look out if someone's interested out there :)

  22. Hello, I have some lovely friends and a couple of serious critique partners who are fab.

    And - I have a shiny star for you at my blog, please pop over when you have a few minutes.

    Hope you're having a lovely Friday! ;)

  23. @ Olive, I like to limit my feedback or it makes me too confused. If everyone is saying the same thing, I know I need to take that advice, but with varying opinions, I have to go with my gut.

    @ Nicole, I try to be fast with my critiques too. A few people seem interested in finding partners from this comments section. Maybe I'll do a follow up post so you can all connect.

    @ Talei, how great you found good critique partners.

    I'm heading over to your blog. Have a lovely day too!

  24. And when you do find the right match it is wonderful and can last for years.

  25. What a great comparison. I think it's hard for friends to be the ones to read the manuscripts. All sorts of muddy waters there. I want a tall, dark, honest stranger. (It wouldn't hurt if he was handsome too, though.)

  26. Good post Theresa. I never really thought about the right way to find a match (as you detail).

    I thought of it more as luck, but I can see how building the creative relationship would be beneficial for both persons.

  27. I've been lucky enough to find two great partners who fit my needs well! It is difficult to find a good group but they are out there! Thanks for sharing the tips :)

  28. @ Cleemckenzie, a critique relationship is just like a romantic one. This post wrote itself!

    @ Bossy Betty, I agree. When I show it to family and friends, I just want an overall impression. Critique partners can feel free to dissect.

    @ Slamdunk, I've exchanged with a few people where it hasn't worked out. You need to feel confident in what you can do with their work and feel confident about what they're saying about your work. If the styles are too different, it won't work.

    @ Julie, finding the right group means you have to gel with everyone instead of one person. It's not easy to find!

  29. *dusts off* Im back to the blogsphere, weee!
    Ok, so this was brilliant! Like I always like to say: everytime a writer gets a good Beta, and angel gets its wings.
    Great, great post, Theresa!

  30. Nice post. It is important to find someone whose judgment you can trust.

  31. @ Clara! I've missed your comments and posts. I think every time a writer gets a good beta, an angel DOES get its wings!

    @ Angie, that's so true. If I don't trust the person's judgment, how can I believe the critique?

  32. I edit like you do - read it over and over, making corrections as I go. And then I have two test readers (local) that are great. They really see the issues and bad dialogue, and they work with me to make it better.

  33. You know, of all the critical aspects of developing one's craft, this is still a huge "TBD" for me.

    I know I need a good critique group/person, but have yet to find it/them... a combination of ensuring I love what they're writing and can contribute, and vice-versa.

  34. @ Alex, I think two or three people are plenty. After that, I begin to reach what I've termed "Too Many Cooks in the Pot Fatigue".

    @ Bryan Sabol, a few commenters before you are looking for critique partners too. Good luck finding the right person/people.

  35. I would love to have a critique partner...I'm willing to wait if it takes time to find the right one. At the moment I don't have one! Ugh.

  36. Great post, Theresa. You're right. We can't afford to skip any of the steps you mention. Many people say they use beta readers so I've been researching this and it may be a help somewhere in there before finding a critter. Some people say is good. Hmm, it would be perfect to have a group of 3 people to exchange work with.

    Sometimes it looks like writing the first draft is the easy part..:)

  37. Wow, Theresa, this is some awesome advice! You point out things that would never have occurred to me. I like how you put things in there for all of us-because we're all different.

    I love the whole dating analogy and it's so accurate. The 'separate our ego from our instinct' and the 'we shouldn't rip anyone else to shreds' and 'we need more than one person's perspective on our writing' ....these are all very, very great points.

    Filing this in a Word doc. for later use.

    Thank you for posting this!

  38. Online crit buddies are the best! Or at least mine are :)

    I completely lucked out. When I was just starting out I stumbled onto a writing forum and into a small group of wonderful writers.

  39. I am sooo lucky. My writer's group was love at first sight and we are still going strong after four years. We try to meet every two weeks, which keeps me on track. My husband's Australian, and we often talk about moving back there; my writer's group is one of the main reasons I hesitate.

  40. Great post! Without my beta readers I'd probably be in trouble. ;)

  41. @ The Words Crafter, I'm glad you found the post helpful. At first it's stressful to have someone judge our work. But if I didn't, I'd never have a shot at getting published.

    @ Jemi, how nice that you found your group so easily. I know other people struggle.

    @ Missed Periods, I can see how you wouldn't want to move over a critique group. But does your husband?

    @ SuzanneWrites, I like how you put it!

  42. Well said! And thanks for directing me here. It's been a while since I've visited. BUT, I'll be back soon! christy

  43. @ Christy, thanks. I hope the post helped.