The Value of A (Good) Critique Partner

Showing your work to someone else can be very scary.

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It’s something I know better than anyone. Showing your work to other people is . . . painful. But, coming out of the closet to find the right critique partner is one of the most valuable steps an aspiring author can take to improve their work.

To illustrate, I’d like to show you a long abandoned draft of the (deleted) prologue to my upcoming novel, Old Souls. Even though this prologue was something I worked on WAY too long, I knew it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t until I found a great critique partner that I realized my writing left a lot of room for improvement. But, this critique partner did what all great partners will do, encouraged me to KEEP GOING.

Jenny,

Very good work. The story is engrossing and you’ve brought life to the page. I like the character’s internal voice and his situation is interesting. You’re on the mark overall with what you’re doing. You do have some writing problems/weaknesses, but if you focus, you’ll be able to correct them easily. Or maybe not easily–what’s easy? But you’ll be able to correct yourself. I like the project. Stick with it.

She then proceeded to rip the work into shreds. Below, my original work is in bold, and her notes are italics:

I would like you to know right from the beginning, that I do not (DON’T –GO FOR CONTRACTIONS –WHY ARE YOU USING STEPHEN KING’S LANGUAGE?) enter into the writing of this story lightly. Because you see, as far fetched (FARFETCHED) as you may come to believe it, it is (IT’S) my story. I can only hope that on your part, you will not (WON’T –ETC–CONTRACTIONS ARE MORE NATURAL) enter into the reading of it lightly either.

During the course of the last month or so, I have begun and discarded [its] (THE)  first chapters several times, trying simply to decide where to begin. There is (WEAK SENTENCE OPENING–WHAT DOES `THERE IS’ MEAN? –IT’S A PLACEHOLDER) just so much to say. I have since decided that writing it (WHAT IS THE `IT’? USE A WORD)  from it’s (ITS)  beginning would make for a book which (THAT–LOOK UP `WHICH VERSUS THAT’) would be, in it‘s (ITS –THIS MEANS `IT IS’ –GET OVER THIS HABIT) thoroughness, entirely to (TOO) long to be read by even the most curious members of the fast-paced culture that we live in today.

And, I want my story to be read.

Besides all of that, if I were to start the tale at it’s (FIX) beginning, much of it would take place long before I was born, and[,] although that part of my history is coming back to me more and more every day, I’ll admit to you openly, here and now (COMMA) that I still do not remember much of it.

I had (CONTRACTIONS) thought for some time that I could simply start on the day that I was born, and relay to you all of the things that, over the years, Vi has told me about myself as I was then. Or (I MIGHT GET UNDERWAY –OR WHATEVER –IF YOU LET THE WORK REST AND THEN READ, YOU’LL FIND YOURSELF GOING `HUH’ JUST AS A READER MIGHT) on the afternoon that I killed the only boy in my school who had ever been nice to me. And then I considered beginning by describing the weather on the morning that I was committed to the J.L. (GENERALLY A SPACE BETWEEN INITIALS) Doucette Psychiatric Hospital of Nova Scotia, and follow up with all of the horrors that I endured during the eight insufferable years that I was locked behind it’s FIX solid, red oak doors. I even wrote a few drafts that began on the day that I was released, and while walking aimlessly around the hospital gardens for the last time, realized that despite serving my sentence – (DO YOU KNOW HOW TO CREATE A DASH? NO SPACE ON EITHER SIDE AND TWO HYPHENS OR `INSERT SYMBOL’ AND INSERT AN EM DASH) though it had never been called that, I would never be free of the burden of guilt that clutched my heart.

But I am (CONTRACTIONS) not going bore you with all of that. I might, should the whim arise, tell you briefly about one or perhaps even all of these things, but I certainly will not (WON’T) start there. Because I want to begin at the exact moment that I woke up to the world around me and the jigsaw pieces of my life, jumbled as they had been, began to come together. So that you, dear reader, will have the best chance of believing me, when I tell you that I am not crazy.

And we can begin (YOU REPEAT THE `BEGIN’ VERB A LOT–VARY WHEN YOU CAN) our revolution.

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Now, when I read her notes I was embarrassed–but I also felt like my world opened up. My writing needed work, but it was worth saving. In one fell swoop, my critique partner highlighted several weaknesses that I could easily address to improve the quality of my writing.

In a five hundred word piece, I learned:

  • Writing with contractions dramatically improves the flow of first person narration
  • Its is the possessive form of ‘it’
  • The difference between an EM dash and an EN dash, and when to use them
  • To watch for word repetition, highlighted here with the repeated use of begin
  • Not to begin a sentence with: ‘there were,’ and ‘it was’ (these are filler words, which don’t mean anything)
  • Generally, a space is required between initials
  • Farfetched is one word

Now, many of these points are obvious (in retrospect) and a couple are not. But, whether you are a writer who is just starting out, or one who has been published with shining 5 star reviews, chances are your writing leaves some room for improvement too. In my mind, you will never learn as fast in the closet as you will with a great critique partner.

In turn, you will have to offer suggestions to benefit your partner’s work. Sometimes you will find yourself looking up grammar and punctuation rules to ensure you’re right before passing out advice. This will help your writing too. If you don’t feel comfortable examining the technical aspects of other people’s writing, you can focus on their plot, plot holes, and pace.

If you’re just dipping your toe in the writing waters, find a writing circle that works for you. And, if your partners don’t encourage you, if they don’t add fuel to your fire and offer helpful suggestions, dump them and find replacements.

15 thoughts on “The Value of A (Good) Critique Partner

  1. Thanks for sharing this!

    It’s great for writers who’ve never had their work critiqued to see how much of a benefit it truly is. I’ve been fortunate enough to find several great critique partners, all with different areas of expertise, and I have learned so much from them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks CJ!
    I think people often write in secret because they’re scared they might show their weaknesses–that was my problem anyway. But really, there’s no better way to learn than having a great critique partner identify those problems and offer suggestions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your favourite other mom here … I love your blog. You are such an interesting person and it takes so much guts to open yourself up like this in a blog – never mind open up critiques on your work in a blog. And there you go – doing both in one fell-swoop! I would never be so brave.
    Rock on Jenny!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Barbara!
      If there’s anything I’ve leaned it’s that pretending to know everything is a real stumbling block to learning. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      Like

  4. Pingback: The Value of A (Good) Critique Partner | Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

  5. Great post! Having one (minimum) or maybe 3 people who can break your work down and see the things you are blind to is key to a better story (my opinion). It doesn’t mean you have to make those changes, but a different set of eyes always sees into the dark corners we can’t. – Junior

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Exactly!
    That’s the other side to taking on a critique partner… building the confidence to keep the aspects of your story that are important to you in spite of a little criticism.
    I’m glad we connected outside of Twitter, Junior. Looking forward to more from your blog.

    Like

  7. This is good advice as it is important to have someone look over your work to find all those little typos and grammatical mistakes you may have missed, as well as provide a critique. Recently, I read an ebook written by someone who normally writes op-eds for a newspaper and therefore should know better. He obviously didn’t get anyone to check his work before self-publishing, and I couldn’t go for two minutes without running across yet another typo. About 10% through, and I probably found 50 or 60 errors. That makes it hard to concentrate on the content.
    With that being said, take the advice with a grain of salt. For example, perhaps your writing will be stronger if you don’t use “there is,” and find a better way to say it. On the other hand, popular fiction readers do appreciate simplicity nowadays, and the best advice I can give is to write how you talk- and then go back and fix it up. If you stress over the details of every sentence, you’ll publish your first novel roughly around the time you retire!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, DM–
    You have more patience than I do. If I read a book with that many typos I would have given up long before you, regardless of the content. While agonizing over every sentence is not in the author’s best interest, chucking error-ridden spew into the self-publishing pot ruins the smell of the stew for the rest of us.
    I agree, keep it simple and go back to fix what you can. And, when you’ve finished, get another opinion. Authors go blind to their mistakes. Editors, beta-readers and good critique partners can help a writer when they need it most!
    Thanks for stopping by. It’s always great to hear another writer’s perspective!

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  9. Hi – first it’s been really good getting to know a little of you via tweets, you made me feel welcome in what is a new world for me, thank you. I started my blog based story on the back of a ~500 word ‘Concept’ which I printed out and shared with ~ 20 folk, not all friends, some I hardly knew, but we’d connected in some way, between the ages of ~20 and 60, mostly women as it happens, one a published writer too. Some read it in my presence, I’ve never felt so exposed, well not since the last time I dropped my towel while changing on the beach. One kept saying she loved it as she read it, I asked her why, she said it was the flow, she could feel the emotion and a sense of energy coming through, which as you can imagine quite pleased me! This became a common theme, no one said much about the words it was all about the flow, that I even had empathy (whatever that means?). The writer loved the poetic style and too didn’t really notice the words, and isn’t that the point, writing’s not about technicalities and using the write verbs, its about captivating and letting something of your spirit show, it’s about feelings that bubble up from inside your reader, things that makes them smile or moistens their eyes a little and think (not too hard) a while. Perhaps I’d been a scientist for far too long living in a highly disciplined and pedantic world, published plenty where every word mattered, everything refereed and judged. I no longer want my writing to be like this, I need my writing to be free, and if I’m looked down on literally, doe’s it really matter, as long as someone, somewhere, feels something of how I feel when I write because I want too, I need too … my long overdue emotional therapy.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s wonderful to hear that you have such a solid group of women to write with. I’m glad we connected outside Twitter! I agree that sometimes writing is about flow and pace.
    Without a doubt, writing can be a release, just like music and painting, or any other art form. I admire your perspective, and am looking forward to reading your future blog posts.

    Like

  11. I’ve dived back into your blog Jenny. Love this post. Showing my writing to others is very, very difficult for me. Your Sunday challenge is helping with that fear and just sending my own posts out into blogspace is a way of overcoming this ingrained reticence to be read. I love to write but I’d also love to be read more. Thanks again. You are playing a big part in making me push myself out onto open seas. Juliet

    Liked by 1 person

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