Donna Norman Carbone
The Nuts and Bolts: Guide for Critique Partners, Part 1
While I am not an editor by trade, I have been editing my students’ creative and expository writing for 20+ years in addition to working with some amazing critique partners (CP) on my own work and theirs.
Critique partners essentially barter: you critique my work and I’ll critique yours. This is a free and effective way to get eyes and opinions on your work.
What does a CP do?
The goal of a critique partner is to help a writer discover what is and is not working in their WIP (writing in progress)/ manuscript, provide another perspective to the work, and make recommendations for change.
It’s essential that the CP not coddle or give false feedback, but provide meaningful notes in a positive way–to really help the writer make her/his/their work better.
How many CPs do I need?
I have worked with anywhere from 3-9 CPs on a given work. For example, the book that is in the works for publishing went through 3 major phases (meaning I upended both perspective and timeline for the story completely), so through each phase I worked with at least 2 people.
For my newest book, I’ve worked with a total of 4 people through 2 phases. Sometimes that means handing over the whole work or chunks of it.
A few of my CPs have not read the entire manuscript for either project.
What does a CP schedule look like?
In terms of scheduling, it’s important to arrange a schedule that meets both of your needs (based on the time you have to dedicate to each other’s work and the goals you set–more about that later). Plan for what is doable.
For example, you could swap 25 pages on a weekly basis. Or 50. You could also send the first 5 chapters and plan to exchange bi-weekly. One of my CPs prefers to get the whole work and we set a goal for a month-six weeks.
Consider what other obligations you have in your life. Communicate. And set a schedule that is mutually agreeable.
Should I work with more than 1 CP at the same time?
I have worked with a critique circle (more than 1 CP) and it’s doable. The benefit is that you get multiple perspectives on the same work at the same time. However, it would be important to consider page count and make a determination that you could actually give each work within the circle your full attention.
I’ve also worked with 2 CPs at once, but separately, staggering the work we exchange on a bi-weekly basis. Essentially, you’re still getting multiple perspectives on the same work but aren’t necessarily tied down to critiquing two different works in the same week.
What platform should we use?
Again, communicate with your partner to see where their comfort level is. I have used both tracking on WORD and Google Docs comment & suggestion features.
The benefits to using WORD is that you have one document where your CP makes comments or edits that you can accept or delete as you move through them when you receive the document back. The drawback is that you need to use the save feature frequently and download the document when you’ve finished making your notes. You also cannot see the comments until your CP sends them back to you as an email attachment.
The benefits of Google Docs is that you can see the comments as your CP makes them. So technically, you can be revising based on them in tandem. You also don’t have to worry about saving frequently, since GD saves automatically, or downloading and sending because it’s a live document. The drawback is that maybe you don’t want your CP to see your edits as you’re making them. Perhaps you want more time to mull over them before exchanging documents.
A word about Scrivener. IF you draft on Scrivener, you’ll need to download the doc to a WORD file OR copy and paste it into a Google Doc. Just be aware that the spacing will be off. And, if you have OCD tendencies like me, you’ll have to adjust them.
Are there other ways to provide feedback than on the document?
Something that has been very helpful to me and that I’d highly recommend is to touch base either by phone or Facetime or Zoom periodically throughout the process or, at the very least, at the end (once you have both finished a given project). I like to make a list of questions to send to my CP, so they know the specific kinds of feedback I’m looking for. I try to limit it to 10 and these vary based on the project. SEE BELOW for a downloadable sample.
What I love most about this is that it inevitably becomes a brainstorming session to work out the kinks that still exist and really points me in a direction for the next revision/edit.
Where do I find a CP?
There are various Facebook groups for this very purpose. I found some of my best CPs through Megan Lally’s CP Match on Twitter. Also, belonging to the Women’s Fiction Writing Association, you can find them simply by asking on the #WFWA Facebook group or through a CP Match they host on occasion. Look to see if you could find a similar association for your genre. That will be a good place to start.
What kind of feedback should I ask for?
Depending on where you are in the process of writing–I would suggest not using a CP until you’ve had the opportunity to revise your work at least once to get it in a presentable fashion.
Think about what kind of feedback you are looking for based on where your story is. For example, the greener the story, the more global you should want your feedback to be. Likewise, if you’ve revised it a few times and can ascertain what is lacking, you can be a little more specific.
Regardless, it’s important to communicate the kind of feedback you are looking for. This helps eliminate disappointment and frustration down the road.
Look for Part II of this series where I’ll go into much more specific guidelines for the type of feedback you can provide and ask for.
CPs are gold. Not only can you get amazing feedback and suggestions to aid your story, it’s an opportunity to create a nurturing support system for you, as a writer. I have CPs I’ve been working with for years. Sometimes we go a year between looking at one another’s work, but it’s important to maintain that relationship even if you aren’t actively critiquing. Appreciate them, support them, thank them.
And a big shout out to all my wonderful CPs: Bella, Andrea, Linda, Diane, Michele L, Michelle M, Janet, Kelly. Thank you.
If you have any CP tips or stories, I'd love for you to share them in the comments below.
Check out Part 2 of this series coming in a couple of weeks.