Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Writing Wednesday---Being Critiqued

Has this ever happened to you: You're getting ready to go out, whether for an evening or just to lunch, and you ask your spouse/friend/mother "how do I look?" and they say "Fine/Great/Fantastic!". Then two hours later you catch your reflection in a store window as you go by and think "Who let me leave the house looking like this?" Then you ask your spouse/friend/mother why they didn't tell you that your shirt was too short or  the back of your head looked like you'd just gotten up or  your bra didn't fit right and they say "I didn't want to hurt your feelings."

You want someone who will lovingly, but firmly, tell you "Don't leave the house yet. You've got serious VPL (visible panty line) issues."

And that's the kind of person you want for a critique partner.

If I want someone to say "Oh, I love everything you write. You're awesome" (and admit it, sometimes we all want someone to tell us that), I have just the friend to ask. I'm not even sure she reads my work, but she always gives me lots of praise.

But, if I want to improve. If I don't want to go into publication with virtual spinach between my teeth, I need a critique partner who will tell me the things that are uncomfortable.

What's worse---I have to be willing to hear it.

What makes me willing to listen?

First, I need to respect their abilities. It's like playing a sport with someone who's just enough better than you that you have to push yourself harder than you really want to.

Second, I have to believe that they are looking out for my best interest. I have heard some horror stories about people who tear apart their partner's work, mostly just to build themselves up. Yuck.

Third, I have to trust them with my work and my fragile writer's ego. I know I need to hear the hard truth, but I want it delivered with love and respect.

What about the rest of you? What are some of the hard things about being critiqued (whether as a writer or in other areas of your life)?

Any tips for how to find a good critique partner?


  1. I haven't been able to find a critique partner yet. (Hey Celeste, can you set up a dating site for us to find CPs? Single writing female here who loves long walks on the beach...except if there's too much seaweed or I cut my foot on a shell.)

    My problem is that being a good writing critiquer and being a good friend are usually mutually exclusive. As a friend I want to support; as a critiquer I want the work to be good, better, best! It's absolutely important that to have that friendship-based nurturing but as Kyoko Mori says, sometimes we workshop a piece politely suggesting word-choice improvements instead of saying, "I know you spent a lot of time on this, but it's not working."

    Being a good critiquer is a lot like being a good dominant/discipliner, now that I think about it!

    1. Ugh. It's absolutely import TO have...scratch that extra "that".

    2. As I was writing about the loving correction of writing, I had the same thought about a good disciplinarian.

      I agree about the friends/critique partners. I have a couple of cp's who I consider dear friends, but we met as cp's with a clear understanding of our roles...oh geez, this is like a dom/sub thing...anyway, the roles and rules were clear from the beginning and friendship developed as a result. I'm sure that's not always the case, I was just lucky.

  2. First I'll share a story:

    Many years ago, I worked for a very large corporation. At my particular location, there were more than 3,000 people. In the house that my husband I are were living at the time, our bathroom sink/vanity was in an alcove off the master bedroom (shower & toilet in an adjacent room.

    I got up one morning to get ready for work and didn't want to wake up DH, so I cracked the door to the bath, and put on makeup at the vanity in the dark (do you see where this is going?). I got to work about 6:30 a.m. It was one of those days when I needed to go many places around the plant and I must have been seen by hundreds of people. Around 9:30 a.m., I went to the ladies' room.

    To my shock, I discovered I had grabbed the wrong eyebrow pencil, and my eyebrows were bright blue! I went back to my office and asked my coworkers, "why didn't you tell me?!"

    Once of them said, "We thought you making some weird fashion statement."

    Your analogy about wanting to catch mistakes before they appear in print is a good one. I think there are several things to look for a critique partner. First, you need to know what you want and expect. Do you want STORY critiquing or writing technicalities (grammar, punctuation). Not everybody is good at both. Second, your CP should be familiar with your genre and the market, to know what is an appropriate. Good writing is good writing, but every genre has its specific tropes that work or don't work.

    A critique partner, like an editor, will be able to set aside his or her personal preferences, to help you develop your story.

    Trust is key. You have to trust they will give you the truth, trust they know your genre, trust they have your best interests at heart.

    And you have to develop a thick skin. You do over time.

    Critique groups can be beneficial because you get differences of opinion.

    1. Thanks Cara. That story is sooo funny and haven't we all done something similar?

      Good point about being clear about what you want and expect.

      I may do a separate post about finding a partner, so thanks for the suggestions.

    2. Love your story, Cara. Maybe you *were* making a fashion statement.

      Can we please see a photo of you with blue eyebrows? ;)

    3. I've been lucky to find some great critique partners. One of the qualities I look for is someone who tries to help me get to the best version of my book possible, and not try to change it into the book they'd most like to read. I try to keep that in mind when I'm on the critiquing side.

      I think it's always at least a little hard to get negative feedback. But it can be really valuable. I don't believe in making every change anyone suggests (even an editor), but I do think if I get the same comment a couple times I should really pay attention.

    4. I agree about not necessarily making every change suggested. Sometimes it can become a "too many cooks spoil the soup" situation.

    5. OMG, Cara, I'm dying about the blue eyebrows!!

  3. Cara makes a great point. If someone were critiquing my work, I'd want grammar, punctuation errors and such pointed out. Also passages that did not make sense, plot holes and uneven characterizations. Don't know if I'd want criticism on substance. For example, I've written several essays on plausibility in spanking stories and I'm not sure anyone necessarily would ascribe to my views on this subject. Just because I think it's important doesn't mean everyone else does too. So to me that's a choice of substance. So as a critique partner I would not critique someone else's story on this point unless they asked me.

  4. I don't have a critique partner. Maybe I should though. I've always hesitated because I know it's a time commitment. But when it comes to editors, I prefer them to be direct and to the point. I check my feelings at the door and take their advice seriously. Oh, and I'm with you Celeste, I'd hate to go into publication with "virtual spinach between my teeth." Love that analogy. Great post!

  5. Thanks for all the great comments everyone. I think there is much more to this topic so I'll probably do a couple more posts on the topic. And maybe launch that CP matching service that Ana suggested. :)

  6. I'm really easy with receiving feedback as well - I only get frustrated when I get confused, and I think that's what happens when your critique partner is trying to "rewrite" for you. Offering suggestions for fixes isn't usually helpful - saying what doesn't work and why, is.

  7. Hi, Celeste,

    Great post and the comments were fabulous entertainment too! It can be so very hard to find the right CPs. I've had many over the years. Some have been great, and some not so much.

    I think you need to be able to trust your CP and, to me, the best way to do that is to cultivate a friendship. To have a relationship outside of the CP exchange or else it's very hard to accept candid feedback.

    One Cp, who is a dear friend, can tell you something and you'll readily accept it, while another cp that you don't have a relationship with can tell you the same thing and it can feel like criticism.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, you need to be friends with your cp in order to trust her completely.


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