Why Writers Need Critique Partners

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On September 4th, 2016, I had decided to use my knowledge gained from about sixteen years of writing in order to stabilize my income. I started freelancing as an editor and critique partner on Fiverr and Upwork.

For the most part, I love this job, because it basically pays me to read. A lot.

But there’s a flip-side: I sometimes have to deal with a lot of writing by people learning the craft. Don’t get me wrong. I love helping people. But the truth is that often, an editorial letter and comments written into the margins of a manuscript just aren’t enough to explain exactly what I mean.

The biggest reason for this is the huge disconnect in experience between me and my client. At the moment, probably close to two thirds of my clients for content edits are first-time writers. They paid for me to tell them how to improve their stories.

But when it comes to things that I take for granted, they never even thought about it. Within this blogging community, we’ve formed a sort of short-hand. When someone’s offering to exchange critiques with me, I know it’s okay for us to use that short-hand, because we do share a common background when it comes to how and where we find our knowledge.

So in a lot of ways, the bloggosphere forms a sort of hive-mind. Although the transmission of information isn’t perfect, I usually know, when I picked another blogger’s work up to critique, more or less what the level is that I’m batting for. So when I say, “Your opening isn’t really hooking me,” I’m pretty dang sure the writer I’m critiquing either knows what I mean, or knows where to find the information they need to correct this issue.

My belief that this is so is further reinforced by the general level of writing I’ve critiqued over the last seven years. You can see when someone has a concept of what’s going on.

I believe there are certain fundamentals to the plot and development of fiction (regardless of genre). And most of the time, people in my network get the majority of those fundamentals right. In this way, then, content editing is more about catching where the writer slipped than anything else. I think it’s because we are a network that shares what we learned and often I would critique someone, who critiques someone else, who critiques someone else, etc. Because a large amount of us are connected in multiple degrees (I have 20 people or more in my network who are also in your network), it means that the information I share gets refined and then applied to my work again when one of you reads for me. And just so, if I learn something new because of something one of my critique partners (CPs) picked up, I can take that information, refine it, and apply it to that CP’s work, and also the work of all my other CPs.

And so, overall, the quality of our output increases.

But when I’m freelancing, all those assumptions go out the window. I can’t say “This opening isn’t a good hook,” because the writer has no idea what a hook is.

And often, none of the fundamentals are there.

Without any of the fundamentals in place, it’s almost impossible to improve the writing without rewriting the whole thing first. And no matter how nicely I try to put it, that’s an incredibly demoralizing thing for a new writer to find out.

I’m talking about things like character arcs. I’m talking about motivation. I’m talking about internal logic. I’m talking about obedience to the set-up. I’m talking about having the set-up be in the writing, in a way that’s palpable to the reader. I’m talking about not having certain plot points in the writing because it’s “done” in the genre, but have that be at the cost of believability. I’m talking about the ways to create tension and to keep the pacing at a reasonable clip.

These things rarely come naturally to writers. They’re learned by trial and error. And honestly, I don’t think learning all that by paying an editor is the best way to do that.

So my suggestion: Don’t give up on writing. On the contrary, write more. Practice. But improve on your craft by learning from other writers. Get critique partners and learn both from the critiques you get and the ones you give. Read up to understand why your CPs are suggesting certain things. Learn.

That way, your developmental editor is there to help you perfect what you wrote and revised, instead of finding gaping holes that will make you want to write off your skill as a writer entirely.

Also, it’s easier for a content editor to write a thousand-word outline of why this one thing needs work. Not so much when all of your fundamentals are missing. It’s simply too much knowledge for someone to impart in one go, and it’s also too much for you, with your small amount of experience, to understand.

All of us had to start somewhere. But those of us who are here after ten years or more crawled before we ran.

And if you’re a new writer paying for an editor without having critique partners look at your writing first, you basically tried to skip to riding a unicycle.

Do you have critique partners? If so, how did you find them? Any tips for finding and being an awesome critique partner?

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4 thoughts on “Why Writers Need Critique Partners

  1. I have an excellent group and we’ve been together for years. I really appreciate them. Having others who can read critically for you is such a bonus for writers. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. That’s ABSOLUTELY true. I’ve probably amassed like… forty CPs over the years, and because of me using so many on a single book (at least ten), I’ve been able to self-edit my second book up to the same quality as the first one, and how I know is that they follow on each other, and no one commented on a drop in the quality.

  3. This blog makes total sense to me, just like it makes sense when I read – for example – what good writing should look like. I feel like I know and understand, but when it comes to actually doing it, that’s a different matter. For the memoir I am working on, for example, I wrote a 90,000 word outline exactly describing how I want my book to be! Little of that could actually become a part of the book… Yep, we all have to learn, and, while I think I understand the basics, I am not so sure that I incorporate them all.

    I totally agree that critique partners are important. I have not come to the stage of using them yet (still working on the first draft), but I am collecting names of people who volunteered and might like to help. Unfortunately, I am not part of any writing or critique groups yet, since I’m constantly on the move. But, when the time is ripe, I will look into online critique communities! 🙂 I have assisted others with honest and straightforward feedback and I hope to receive the same when the roles are reversed.

  4. It sounds like you’re going about the process the right way, though.

    You’re learning, and you’re getting involved with others.

    And yes, usually first drafts fall far short of what we want a book to be. Even after seventeen years. 😀

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