Critique Partnering 101

Hi! Welcome to post numero tres. As Pitch Wars nears, I wanted to chat about a major element of writing and that's becoming an effective critique partner (CP for short). Learning how to read and evaluate a manuscript is crucial not only for perfecting your own story but it will also help attract seasoned writers to return the favor. 

The most important thing to remember, before anything else, is that your book will be much better with feedback. You might be an incredibly talented writer but I can assure you, first drafts are never perfect. The sooner you realize that extra eyes on your book is a major plus, the quicker you'll be in finding the perfect critique partner(s). 

For some, learning how to be a great critique partner is the first step. You need to be able to offer something, right? I would highly recommend learning a few tricks to have in your wheelhouse, things that come easy for you. For example, are you a pro at character development? Have a knack for untangling pesky plot points? A wizard at spotting passive voice? Every writer has their strengths (and weaknesses but I'll get to that in a bit) so use that to your advantage. I'm going to list some tricks you can learn—all of which will help make a manuscript stronger. Pick one or two, or all, whatever you're comfortable with. The point is to identify your strengths so you know what you can offer potential critique partners.

TRICKS FOR YOUR WHEELHOUSE

Filtering: Filtering are crutch words we writers use that unfortunately distance the reader from your characters. They are unnecessary and it's like you're asking the reader to observe the character rather than inviting the reader to be in the character's head. You're telling rather than showing. Common words are watch, wonder, thought, saw, felt, know/knew, notice, look, etc. 

Ex: She watched the man approach her. Better: The man approached her. 

Ex: Sandy was worried as she paced up and down the room. She wondered if her boyfriend would miss the play. Better: Sandy's brow furrowed as she paced up and down the room. Would Adam really miss the play?

Once you know to look for them, filtering words will stand out on the page. Highlight the ones you see so your CP can edit them out later. 

Character Arcs/Development: The inner journey a character takes from the start of the story to the end, is critical on several levels. An interesting and relatable arc will ensure a reader's interest and loyalty. We want our readers to root for our main character. Stories with characters who remain the same, don't learn anything or don't have enough screen time inside the protagonist's head will suffer. As you are reading, ask yourself if you're invested in the characters? Do you care about the stakes and what would happen to them should they fail? Do you feel like you know the character? If you're wanting more from the MC, that's a great indicator that the writer can dive into their character's head more and have more of their inner thoughts on the page. The point is that as the reader, you ought to know what the character desires and what stands in their way, internally and externally. 

World Building: This is one of my favorite things to tackle as I'm drafting. Creating a believable and 3D world for your reader is both amazing and stressful. Knowing how much to put in and where is crucial. Think about your favorite stories? What did you love about the world your characters lived and fought in? What stood out to you? As your reading, check to see if details are vivid on all senses: do you have a clear idea of the setting? What are the characters smelling? Hearing? I gravitate toward stories that describe ordinary human actions—what are you're characters eating? What's special about the food to their world? Do people sleep under trees or in hammocks or in bleak environments? World Building is about having rules and using all of the senses to create a sense of time and place. Notice if there are any inconsistencies. It's ok to pepper the story with some questions regarding the rules of that world. 

First Chapter: I could spend an entire blog post on writing the first chapter but for the sake of what you need to look for as you're critiquing, I think sticking to the basics is fine. The first chapter of the story must do the following (no exceptions): introduce the MC and the biggest desire of their heart AND what stands in their way. This involves conflict. I can't stress this enough. There has to be conflict. It doesn't have to be action packed. It doesn't mean your character is getting into a verbal or literal fight to the death with someone. All it means is that there has to be something that stands in the way of your character and what they want. The first chapter has to hook the reader so do let your CP know what worked and what didn't for you. Too much backstory? Not enough? Could you live without the entire paragraph that was dedicated to the character's looks? Did you lose interest? SAY IT—politely and use specifics. 

Adverbs: I freely admit to abusing the heck out of this one. Adverbs are so addicting. But the truth is you don't need an overabundance of them. If you spot several of these on any given page, suggest cutting them. 

Ex: He ran quickly. Better: He bolted. 

Of the two, which reads stronger? More urgent and exciting? If you feel comfortable, offer an alternative word to use that trumps the adverb. 

I hope some of the above is helpful! There is so much you can learn about the craft of writing, I've barely scratched the surface. There are many, many resources out there on different elements of writing (plot, passive voice, the climax, etc.). To be an effective CP, you don't have to know everything. Master a few things and be clear and upfront about what you're offering! 

WHERE TO FIND CPS

There are so many hashtags to check out on twitter (and if you're not on twitter, I recommend that you get on there! The writing community is fabulous). Check out #CPMATCH by Megan Lally (@Megan_Lally)—she hosts a few events a year where writers can meet by following the hashtag. Back in the day, I used Scribophile a ton and that helped my writing early on, I can't recommend it enough. Finally, visit other writer's blogs and read through some comments others have posted. Do any of them read or write what you do? 

MAKING YOUR LIST

Usually, writers know where their weaknesses are as a writer. For example, I happen to stink at economizing my word use. I am, unfortunately, quite wordy and tend to have several additional words in one sentence that clog down the prose. If you know your weaknesses, point them out to your critique partner and have them zero in on this particular line item on your list of what you'd like to have them look over. When you've read your MS over and over again, it's hard to see errors, plot tangles or just clunky writing in general. The line items you add to your list should be things you need the most help with. 

After you've made your list, suggest to your potential CP that they make one as well. What do they want you to pay attention to? Are they expecting line edits? Big picture stuff? Are they wanting help with theme/tone? Nailing down expectations on the front end will save you so much heartache on the backend. As long as you're being specific, the chances of getting feedback that is effective are much higher. Also, be sure to discuss turnaround times upfront. 1 to 2 weeks is usually acceptable to ask for feedback on a full. If they are late getting notes to you, follow up on the 3rd week mark—life can get hectic and showing grace goes a long way. :) 

GIVING FEEDBACK

A word about honesty. I firmly believe that there is always a way to say something. Be clear and direct but also polite. Remember, showing your work takes vulnerability and courage. When making comments on a manuscript or writing an edit letter for your CP to work from, give specific examples of what is or isn't working for you. It's not helpful to say, "I hated this part". Instead try, "I'm having a hard time connecting with your character. Could you try adding more interior thoughts so we can get closer to him/her?" 

There is no real right or wrong way to format your feedback. This is something you can just ask at the beginning. Do they prefer an edit letter? Comments made directly on the MS? I personally have a CP who wrote her thoughts under each chapter. So helpful! I can turn to the specific chapter in question and easily find whatever it was that needs to be fixed. 

I hope this has been super helpful! Please let me know if you have any questions in the comment section below. I'd be happy to answer what I can. :) 

Besos!