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I wrote here about ways to find a critique partner, and today I want to talk about how to BE a good critique partner.
1) Discuss a good return time with your partner and make sure to have it back to them by then. I like to return my critiques within two weeks, some people like a month, some even like six months to read. Make sure you are on the same page as far as expectations of timing go—and return it within the promised time frame.
2) Ask if there is anything in particular they want you to look at. Again, setting expectations right at the beginning is really important. You may spend your whole time doing line edits when they’re not at that stage yet.
3) Look closely at plot, pacing, characters, and structure. If you find holes in motivation or consistency, point those out. Comment on the places where the book lost your interest for a scene. Believe that the person you are reading for is highly capable of writing an amazing book and help them dig deep into their story. Don’t let them be lazy with clichés and boring, overused tropes. They can do better, and if you believe it, they’ll believe it.
4) Look for threads of theme that they may not realize are there—or that they could explore more and point those out. Sometimes an author can be so close to a manuscript, they may not realize a reoccurring image or idea that they could play with.
5) Read a lot so you know what’s out there. Some of the best critique partners are voracious readers. à This is also good writing advice as well. JUST READ.
6) Learn the “track changes” function in Word. For too many years, I didn’t know that existed—and I may be the last person on earth to realize that it’s there—so I had an entire complicated, time-consuming code for editing. What a waste of time! Track changes marks every change you make to the manuscript and with the reviewing pane, makes it easy for the person you’re reading for to go straight to where the changes were made.
7) Be Kind! Remember that this manuscript is someone’s baby. They have poured an irretrievable chunk of their soul into that story and those pages, and they need to know where the good parts are JUST AS MUCH OR MORE than they need to know all the areas they need to improve. Because this business is hard. And rejection is around every corner. And it is so, so easy to doubt yourself, your story, and your ability to write because someone gave you a very harsh critique. You can give a thorough and honest critique, and still be kind.
8) Don’t rewrite their book the way you would have written it if it was your story. It’s not your book. Instead, point out the places that aren’t working for you. If you know why it’s not working, let them know. Ask questions that will get them thinking.
9) Be willing to answer follow-up questions they might have. For my very close critique partners, I will often reread passages (and in a few cases, whole novels) and brainstorm new ideas. We’ll even chat on the phone to workshop the story. For everyone—even for first chapter reads—I am willing to answer as many follow-up questions as is needed to help them understand my thoughts.
On that note: One thing that’s helped me the most is to make sure me and the potential critique partner are a good fit before I commit to critiquing a 400 page manuscript. To do that, I suggest exchanging first chapters to start with—especially if it is someone that I don’t have any sort of prior relationship with or have never read anything they’ve written.
It doesn’t do anyone any favors to read a book you don’t connect with because you’ll likely give it a harsher critique because you don’t like the genre/writing style/etc. Additionally, if you spot a lot of problems in the first chapter—no clear sense of character/place/time, an implausible plot, lacking in research, starting at the wrong place, etc you don’t spend hours (and hours) on a manuscript that can be revised based on the feedback from chapter 1.
*Note: Just because I only read a first chapter and don’t ask for more doesn’t mean I hate your book. I love mentoring and I love critiquing, but I’m so busy with my family, writing, church, and conference planning that I don’t often have time to read entire manuscripts—and for that reason alone, I will read pretty much any first chapter that someone sends to me, but rarely more than that.