Critique partners are important. Sometimes as writers, we get so involved with our own work that we can’t see what’s not working. Or, we think that some aspects of the story will never work, and it turns out that those moments are the strongest. If we have our noses too close to the page, how are we supposed to see the bigger picture?
That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with people who love to read — especially your work. But it’s important to note that this system works both ways. Just as you need a critique partner, your writer friends do too. That’s where the “partner” part comes in.
So, how do you be the best possible critique partner you can be?
1. Commit Some Time
This should go without saying, but it takes time to read, reread, and comment on others’ work. Even if it’s just a chapter that needs fresh eyes, you may need to take a sizable chunk of time out of your day to commit to what you promised.
Keep in mind that you agreed to give your friend feedback because you care both about them and about their writing. Life can get busy, and it’s okay to not have much time. As long as you can read even a little bit, it’s best to use that time as efficiently as you can and fully commit to reading the story, not just skim it. Your friend will thank you!
2. Read as a Reader, Then as a Writer
There are typically two or more modes for your brain to be in when you read.
A lot of the time, we read for pleasure. Think of your very favorite book or a fascinating article. We can usually shut off the part of our brains that deals with being overly critical when we’re reading just for pleasure. And that’s great! Writers love to get feedback from a reader’s perspective to see if they’re getting the right feeling, tone, etc., across.
As a critique partner, though, it’s important to also read as a writer. What aspects of this story are working and why? What aspects aren’t working and why not? What can be improved? What don’t you understand?
Many college fiction courses will have workshops where the students/classmates aren’t allowed to refer to the writer by name or as “you” at all; instead, they have to say “the author” or “the writer.” A bit of distance from the story and the person writing it might offer new, objective perspectives on how to better a story.
3. Give Helpful Feedback
I can’t stress this enough. Don’t you hate it when you get feedback from a fellow student or a friend that just says, “I liked it” or “It wasn’t for me?” Of course, it’s great to know that your story struck a chord and arguably even more important to know when it missed the mark. But knowing why and how are even more crucial.
How can a writer know to keep doing the things that work if they know what’s working but not why? Similarly, how is a writer supposed to grow when they don’t know what, specifically, they need to improve? Giving detailed feedback improves the quality of the comments you leave, and that’s what helps writers the most.
Instead of saying, “This is great,” or, “This is bad,” try thinking of why you feel that way. What’s the story doing that makes you love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it?
You can even go a step further and offer suggestions on how to fix problem areas. Although, do be wary of point #4.
4. Be Honest, But Gentle
Writing is very personal, so it can be hard for a writer to let others read what they’ve written. Personally, it took me several years to show my work to my sister, who didn’t even know that I’d written a novel. I only opened up to more people because I had to for college classes, and it’s been an extremely helpful experience. Getting other people’s feedback and perspectives is important to growth.
What’s not important to growth, and can even set a writer back a couple steps in terms of self-confidence, is feedback that’s just plain mean. It’s good to let your writer friend know what’s not working in the story; in fact, that’s probably the most helpful type of feedback. But an offhand comment — an indirect insult, or even a well-meaning suggestion to “fix” a perceived problem — can be destructive if you’re not careful.
Be sure to let your writer friend know what they’re doing right, as well as what isn’t working. What part of the story gets you interested, invested, or excited? By highlighting these positive areas, you let your writer friend know that there are good parts of this story too and that you aren’t just digging up negative aspects to critique.
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If your writer friend has given you their book baby to read, then that means they value your opinion. Your feedback is important to them, so much so that they’ve let you see, read, and interact with a portion of themselves.
Being a good critique partner can take practice, but with patience, you and your critique partner will be cheerleading each other and improving your own writing in no time at all!