Criticism without brutality – the importance of critique partners

I have waxed lyrical a few times about my critique partner but now I’m going to devote an entire post to her and her noble race. I may also reference a few other people, as necessary, because I’m like that.*

When we initially got together and started emailing, she said to me, it’s a bit like falling in love. At first I thought, hmmm, how far away does this woman live again? Ah, one ocean and an entire continent, yes, I should be safe.

But she was right. Finding someone who understands the genre you are writing in, your particular style and doesn’t want to change any of that is very difficult. Isn’t that what falling in love is based on? Meeting someone who loves you as you are?

We were emailing again last night. She’s been ill and we had a lot of catching up to do. She had been looking for a critique partner for two years without success when we ran into each other.

God bless Twitter.

I feel incredibly lucky to have run up against my perfect critique partner so early in my writing career. Anyway, last night, she said this:

“It’s hard finding a critique partner who is honest, interested in more than one genre, flexible and not cruel with their honesty. I’m sometimes still afraid to tell you when I find a problem but then I remember your emails and think she’ll get it 🙂 The hardest part for me is describing what I’m feeling succinctly in a way that is helpful to you as a writer.”

And that’s what it’s all about. I have had a couple of people say, oh sure, I’ll read your stuff. Then I get the comments back and find that they have taken it on themselves to correct things. And these so-called ‘corrections’ either make no difference whatsoever (so why do them) or they completely change the meaning of what I was trying to say.

I just have to say, I HATE it when someone does that. A critique partner’s job is not to correct specific parts of the text. Certainly not in a first draft, anyway. That’s an editor’s job. Editing comes later in the process.

A critique partner helps you to see where you might be going off track and suggests ways of getting back on it. Even if it’s just that you aren’t explaining yourself well enough, that is still something you need to know. Another aspect is how to tell the other person that something isn’t working. Will they freak out? Another writer friend of mine calls this “Gollum Syndrome”, when a writer won’t take even friendly and constructive criticism.

The lack of cruelty in one’s honesty is paramount, of course. I have seen people comment on Twitter about editors being smug and patronising. It doesn’t help your self-confidence, especially if you are still very ‘young’ in terms of professional writerdom. Constructive criticism where necessary and a meeting of minds is paramount to a good critiquing relationship.

So yes, it is very much like falling in love.

*I really wanted to link to a particular blog post about passionate friendships that I read just yesterday but I can’t find it. If anyone knows the one I’m talking about (mentions a best friend called Tosca, and letters from a century or two ago between friends) then please let me know and I will link to it.


About Mhairi Simpson

Writer, dreamer. Magic, dragons, pink mice, cake. Come say hi!
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18 Responses to Criticism without brutality – the importance of critique partners

  1. aarongraham says:

    Wow…I’m a little jealous. I have been looking for an ally for awhile.

  2. ellieswords says:

    I totally agree! I adore my critique partners and they’ve shaped my writing (in a good way) more than they’ll ever know.

  3. alberta ross says:

    when I first read about critque partners and beta readers I worried that I should find some but how when i didnt even know what genre I had written – but after these months of listening and reading I have discovered I had one all along.

    My ‘bestest friend’ from forever who doesnt particular like sci fi – doesnt agree with climate change being our fault – never reads love stories – thinks genetic manipulation is a no go area – is passionate about correct grammer (I’m not) – knows the roots of words -likes reading has from the very beginning lept me on track – has spotted inconstinicies (I can’t spell either!) echo words – told me if it makes no sense to read has suggested only suggested how she thinks order of words or words themselves may be changed etc etc – am I lucky or not.

    I think the fact of it not being her favourite writing makes it easier to see where I go wrong

    • Yup, sounds like a critique partner to me. I think you’re right about it being easier to see things that aren’t right when it’s not your favourite genre. It’s easier to be objective about the writing if you’re not swept away by the story just because you love the genre.

  4. Diana says:

    I have a great critique group who I adore. They are my best friends. When I let them go to work with my stuff, I don’t care what they mark. “Color my world” I say, the more they mark the more I have the opportunity to really explore my work. I’m always in control of what I accept or not. Critique groups are invaluable, but finding the right one takes a bit of time.

    • The red stuff is rather disconcerting, but as long as it’s helpful suggestions, rather than active edits, it’s fine by me. That said, I do get frustrated when it seems like the critter has just gone red happy and doesn’t seem to have actually read the words, but that could be put down to differences in style.

  5. Akoss says:

    Um… I’m jealous and it’s ok… right? 😉
    I mean you found a perfect match, and I have yet to find one. There wasn’t too long ago I was hunting for one desperately, but now I took a break from it. I guess it would happen when the time is right.
    However when I do exchange critiques, I try my best to say what needed say in the most friendly and courteous way possible. You don’t want people to shy from you next time they see your name in the writing group or forum right?

    • Exactly. And yes, it’s ok to be jealous. I was hugely jealous of people who rave about their critique partners, or worse, critique groups! I was like, you have to be kidding me. All I want is one person to critique my stuff and you have a group???

      It’s a fine line to walk because you want to be honest, otherwise there’s no point. It often depends more on the writer and how well they can accept constructive criticism than on the critiquer. If you are being honest, without being mean, then if they can’t take it, that’s their problem. Unfortunately, they then tend to make it your problem by getting antsy about it in public. That happened to me once already.

      • Akoss says:

        Sorry you had to go through that.

      • Ah, the world’s made up of all kinds, which includes idiots. Time was I would have been so sensitive about my writing that I might have reacted the same way. Who knows? The closest I have come is in this post, ranting about people who *correct* things in a first draft. I really do thing suggestions are better than corrections at that stage.

  6. Susan Fields says:

    I just received my ms back from a critique partner, and I feel so blessed to have found her! I’m glad you’ve found your perfect partner. 🙂

  7. Sonia M. says:

    Great! I think critique can be a delicate thing. I can see how important it would be to find the right person.

  8. Interesting post, lol I should coin the gollum syndrome.

    I don’t agree on all aspects of what makes a good beta reader but each to their own. I actually appreciate corrections from readers for many reasons.

    What we right and think we mean and what people read can be different things and we don’t want that lost in translation. If I don’t agree with a correction, suggestion or change I just ignore it. After all, that is my privilege as a writer.

    Although if I do critique more of your work, I would keep corrections out of it for you.

    I have many beta readers all with different strengths.

    What you don’t want to end up with is a beta reader who mostly tells you everything you want to hear… As an editor, agent and publisher certainly won’t do that.

    Food for thought,


  9. Carol Riggs says:

    Yep, it IS tough to find a good critter. But everyone wants someone slightly diff, I think. My prob as a critter myself is probably concentrating on the small things before I take a look at the overall picture/plot/character arc, etc. I will have to try to do better…(altho it’s sorta my “style” to do line-edit types of critiques).

    • Everyone has a different style. I think that’s where the problem, or at least part of it, lies with finding the right critique partner. You need someone whose style fits yours. All styles have their places, it just depends on what the writer is looking for.

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