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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

It’s a Writer Thing -- The Many Faces of Critique Partners

This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss. 


I’ve been very much looking forward to writing this next post in my It’s a Writer Thing series on feedback. In the first, I wrote about general considerations for receiving feedback, and in the second, I discussed types of feedback. 

This time, I’ll be talking about critique partners. As we know, one of our biggest sources of input comes from our critique partners, or CPs. These are trusted friends or colleagues who we give our babies to and hope they’ll thoroughly, but gently, tell us how our darling is flawed. Not an easy role, for sure. When we’re on the receiving end, it can be challenging—like find me a big old bucket cause I may be at risk for emesis challenging—but we’ve already discussed why this is an important process, and we’re strong—right?—so we can get through it. 

So, we wrote a story, and we braved feedback from our CP or from multiple CPs, which is even better, therefore, we must be good to go and start submitting or querying. Right? 

Maybe. 

It turns out, it pays to be strategic about the people we solicit critiques from. Having only one kind of CP can result in feedback that is one-sided or not broad enough. We can suffer from too much here’s-what-you-need-to-do-differently and not enough here’s-what-I-loved. We may get only line edits or suggestions about tightening our prose, but nothing on overarching plot problems. We may get a perspective that is too focused on action and not enough on emotion. 
See my point?

Finding good CPs can be a challenge, but actually, if we consider that there are many types of CPs, we can learn to think about how each individual’s input fills an important niche for us. These are the various styles of CPs I’ve encountered in my writing, so far.


The Lover: 

Ah, the Lover. This is the person who basically hands the MS back and is like: I made a few suggestions, but I pretty much loved it, and it’s awesome, and you’re awesome. PROS: We all need a Lover in our lives; they help us keep sight of our strengths and what’s working in our MS. Lovers can be very hard to find; the whole point of CPs is to find someone to help you make your story better, so what do critique partners do? They critique. If you find yourself a Lover, don’t let him or her go. They’re a rare breed. CONS: The Lover does little to push us toward improvement, and seeking feedback only from Lovers can set us up for failure (i.e., rejection) if there are too many problems in our MS.

The Interrogator: 

The Interrogator doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about your story, but simply throws a bunch of questions in the margins for you to mull over. Maybe these are things they were confused about (and if one reader has a question, there’s a good chance others will too) or things that seem to be missing. They might want to know more about a character’s emotional/behavioral reactions or what the setting looks like. PROS: Interrogators help us think more deeply about our stories, and they often help us transcribe more of what is in our heads onto the page. CONS: Interrogators may inspire us to delve too deeply in ways that could result in our veering from the main course of our story, maybe digging into too many details in a spot where keeping the pace tight would work better. They may also get us questioning our choices, so it’s important to remember that just because a question was raised, it doesn’t mean we need to change our MS to address it. Not every time, at least.

The Big Picture Thinker: 

The Big Picture Thinker (BPT) sees plot threads, character arcs, and themes. They’re good at stepping back and considering our stories from a broad perspective. They’re the most likely to really comment on the overall experience of delving into this WIP. PROS: The BPT can help us see threads that tie various plotlines together, which when strengthened, can add new depth to our WIP. They can tell us where large, important pieces of the plot are missing. Forget to resolve a loose end, the BPT will notice. CONS: These CPs may not be the best at looking at the nitpicky details or helping us with our prose.

The Nit-picker: 

The detail-oriented Nit-picker bring the most sensitive magnifying glass to our WIP. They’ll be likely to question small details within our scenarios, facts, and are likely to supply every missing comma we omitted. PROS: Did we make a mistake about the exact location of St. Maarten in relationship to Anguilla? The Nit-Picker will tell us. Did our MC start the car before she actually got in it? The Nit-Picker will catch it. Did we put a double period at the end of the third paragraph on page 162? You get the picture. CONS: They may miss the larger, over-arching themes and plot. More subtleties may be overlooked by these folks. In other words, they’re so focused on the trees, they forget they’re in the forest.

The Narcissist: 

The Narcissist is a bane to the developing writer. There are no PROS to speak of. The Narcissist will turn any feedback session into a chance to reassure themselves of why they’re so great. They’ll talk about plotting tools you’ve never heard of and that nobody uses. Like a Nit-picker, they may zero in on a particular detail of your story, but not to make sure you fix a problem; it will be to highlight your ignorance. You’ll know you’re talking to a Narcissist when you are able to extract very little actionable feedback and find the discussion going on forever, long past the time when you could listen without wanting to stab yourself in the ears with your red marker. Also, you may want to cry.

Your Mom: 

We gotta love Mom. Not really a CP in the traditional sense, Mom is nonetheless an important person to consult during your writing project. PROS: Seriously, I mean it. Our moms know us, right? They know our experiences and histories, so they’ll pick up on tiny little personal details in our stories. For example, put a reference to something from your childhood in there, mom will know. Having that kind of intimate detail reinforced can be very rewarding, plus, who doesn’t want more quality bonding with Mom? CONS: She may tell everyone, including the lady in line in front of you at the grocery store and her doctor, that her baby is an author, which might lead to some embarrassing moments. But, come on, that’s so awww. DISCLAIMER: Everyone’s relationship with their mother is different, so if yours is more of a critical type or doesn’t support your writing goals, find your “Mom” via some other close personal connection. A dad can be just as great a CP as a mom, or maybe your sibling, second cousin, or BFF from childhood.



Not only are these categories useful as we consider which CPs to ask for feedback from, they’re also good for our own self-analysis. When it’s our turn to give the critique, we can use these to figure out what kind of CP we are and share that with our writer friends so they can determine whether our feedback will be useful to them at that particular time for that particular story.

Thank you for being with me for this third installment of my series on feedback. Next time, I’ll cover my own process for receiving constructive input in a simple, easy-to-follow set of steps you can begin to use immediately. It will keep you from doing unhelpful things like tear your hair out, hide in a dark closet for obscene amounts of time, and, most importantly, it can help you not give up on your writing (that’s what it’s done for me, at least). 

Until then, You can do it. You can write!


This article was also posted on www.jessicabaylisswrites.com as a part of the "It's A Writer Thing" series. 





Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially her husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand.