Critique Partners: For Writing and Living

Before I began writing seriously, I saw it as a singular pursuit. I imagined a disheveled person at a desk in a windowless room with a half-drunk cup of cold coffee and maybe a sleeping dog. I don’t know why the writer in my mind was unkempt, perhaps because I imagined them to be so focused and inspired that they forgot to sleep, shower, or change their clothes.  I was wrong about all of this. After a couple of years writing my blog and starting my first novel alone, I longed to be a part of a community of writers.  I had questions—so, so many questions. I needed to connect with people who understand what it feels like to stare at a screen, fingers poised at fdsa jkl;, and have absolutely no inspired way to show she was sad without the word ‘was’ or any word ending in ‘ly’. I wanted to continue to learn and grow as a writer. I knew I would not, if I continued alone.

I set out to find my people. Like any journey, I made some stops, got a few flat tires, but eventually I found myself right where I was supposed to be. Through my Shut Up and Write chapter, I met a talented writer who invited me to be a part of a critique group. I hit the Holy Grail of critique groups—two  successful, published writers. It’s luck to land in a group with even one published writer, if for no other reason than their industry and craft knowledge. Not everyone with knowledge is inclined or able to teach others and that is where I really hit the jackpot.

To be completely honest, I didn’t appreciate what I had at first. I found the experience of sharing a chapter and listening to constructive criticism intimidating. In the beginning, I missed hearing any of the praise over the blood rushing from my brain past my ears to my appendages in an effort to expedite my departure. In fact, after the second session, I considered quitting altogether. I was writing a novel in the genre of women’s fiction which, in my mind, was vastly different from what the others were writing. Their feedback was hard to hear, frankly. I wondered if they did not understand the goal or standards of my genre, or perhaps the rustic Alaskan setting, replete with my headstrong protagonist and the dog who adopted her, did not appeal to them.

When I reached out to thank them for including me and share my feelings, one of the writers did something that made me stop, pull up my boots, and give it another ride. He sent me his first novel. I think he was on number seven at the time and, having read part of that one, I could attest to his exceptional writing skills. He told me, This is my first novel. It’s not great. It’s not as good as your first novel could be. It’s hard to hear what you can improve but you have a strong first draft. If you keep working the problem, it will get published. I hope you will stick it out.

I am grateful for his compassion and honesty—especially the honesty part. I would not have stuck it out without those words. Writer or not, I am sure you can relate. Everyone has something they care deeply about and want to be skilled at, but they have much to learn. It’s hard to hear what you need to improve. If you don’t stick it out though, you might never get to the part where you hear what you are doing well on the road to accomplishing your goal.

After our last critique session in the spirit of the holiday season, I was reflecting on the gifts my writing critique partners have given me through the years. Though there are many more, here are the top ten.

  1. Perspectives: Because they are writers of different genres, they notice different elements of prose. This allows them to ask why without a preconceived notion of the answer. Why did you make that choice? Use that word? Emphasize that object in the scene? It also allows them to share why they might have done it differently.  It is ultimately not important that I agree. By sharing different perspectives, I have the opportunity to think more deeply about my own. Writing is not an accident. It’s an intention. When I am questioned about my choices, it is a chance to explore, rethink, or solidify those decisions. On the other side of this relationship, I explore their work from my perspective.  Absent the focus on the standards of my genre, I get to explore exquisite writing. They are both so different. I learn equally from both. I don’t need to emulate their style, but what I discover in their writing helps me to find my own style.
  2. Accountability: I pride myself on being very focused. Still, when things get tough, my pace slows especially if I am not sure of my best course of action.  Being responsible to share my writing and to critique theirs every other week keeps me on track with my goals. Because they have greater experience, I also feel particularly responsible to be thoughtful about their work. The side benefit of course is that the more energy I put into analyzing their work, the more I reflect on how I can improve my writing in concrete ways.
  3. Hope: Ask anyone who is working on a debut novel (or their 56th best seller), the publishing road is rocky and mostly uphill. My critique partners are generous with their stories of both the highlights and the low points in the journey. Rejections are an inevitable part of this process. Hope keeps my fingers on the keyboard.
  4. Reality Check: Like every writer, I have a word, a paragraph, a scene I love so much that I cannot imagine cutting it. It would change the book! Nay, ruin the story! Do you not understand the deep and meaningful symbolism held therein?! Here is the truth. I will write twice as many beautiful sentences as I will keep. I will cut half of the garbage I write (even if it looks like gold to me), and I will revise half the garbage I write. The latter half will become platinum and I will guard those words like that dragon at the end of Lord of the Rings. Finally, I will eventually forget everything I cut because I will keep writing. My brain has limited storage capacity. My critique partners, because they care about me becoming the best writer I can be, will give me a reality check. I need that honesty. It is one of the greatest gifts my critique partners give me. They are compassionate. More importantly, they are honest. I take notes. I let it percolate. So far, they’ve given me great advice.
  5. Challenge: Whether it’s upping the word count in a scene, patching a hole in my plot, or letting my characters off too easy, I need to be challenged to do the hard work. When the end is in my head, I tend to rush. I feel like the stagecoach driver in an old western whose team has been spooked and he’s lost the reins. I am racing toward the cliff at breakneck speed because I just need to write The End. Like the hero jumping from yoke to yoke to get a hold of the reins and stop the coach just in time, my critique partners help me put the brakes on and stay the course. After writing 70,000 words, the last thing I want to do is damn the story with a weak ending. I’ve learned from them how to challenge myself until that last perfect word is written.
  6. Mirror and Window: We’ve been meeting for more than three years. I have seen them grow as writers. Even though I view them as accomplished already, I have watched them learn and evolve. They share those insights with me. This requires a high level of trust and a willingness to be vulnerable. Sharing only the polished and positive impedes your growth and does not create a safe place for your critique partners to bare their imperfections. Likewise, they have watched me develop as a writer. I find it hard sometimes to see how far I’ve come. That’s natural I suppose because the small changes that accumulate over time are not as obvious when I am looking in the mirror every day. They take me out of the incremental mirror view and show me how I have grown. They help me to see myself through a window, as they see me.
  7. Craft: I have a library of craft books. Every one of them is a treasure trove of knowledge on the art and science of writing. I take classes and attend conferences to hone my skills. I belong to several writing associations that are instrumental in my development as a writer. The most powerful learning I do is with my critique partners. There is no replacement for a skilled analysis of your work by writers who have read your pieces over a long period of time. There is no substitute for listening to them critique each other. There is no better way to improve your own writing than by analyzing the work of others.  
  8. Secret Handshake: I knew I would have a lot to learn about the process of publishing. I had no idea what a mountain of information and social norms I would have to climb (uphill both ways, in the snow). Manuscript standards, copy editors, developmental editors, and line editors. Beta readers. ARCs. Traditional, small press, or indie. Agented or not. The norms of contacting agents. Mastering the query process alone should qualify you for an advanced degree in Marketing with a minor in Diplomatic Relations. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Complete transparency here, I didn’t even know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. My critique partners have been generous with their knowledge. When they don’t know, they help me locate a source who does. It’s the secret handshake that gets me in the door. I still have to do all the hard work, but I don’t have to decipher the code alone.
  9. Voice: Meeting with these critique partners through several books, I have observed their distinctive voices. Each of their books and the characters within them are unique and fresh. Still, even if they both wrote in the same genre, I would know them by their voice. They have helped me to appreciate and embrace my own. Their advice and observations over the years have helped me to recognize my style. I can feel that voice strengthening and becoming clearer. It is not the tentative voice of a novice. It is not the parroting of other authors. It is my own.
  10. Connection:  Writing can be an entirely singular pursuit if that is what you want. It doesn’t have to be. Connections with other writers are priceless, and not just because of the reasons above. There are things about writing that only another writer can appreciate and have empathy for. My husband is unbelievably supportive of me as a writer (Sainthood is not out of the question). He gets that it takes time, persistence, and thick skin. Only another writer really understands what it takes to sit down every single day and add words to the page or cut those words you fell in love with. Having time with my critique partners every other week is the most precious gift of all.  

I realize that I have critique partners in other aspects of my life, and I need them as well. I need people who understand my experience. I need people who can see my growth even when I cannot. I need people who know me well enough to give me the constructive criticism that helps me to be a better X (friend, professional, partner, mother, child, sister…). I need people who will let me in on the secret handshake and share their knowledge with me. I need people who want to share the gifts of time and compassion. I need to be able to give all that back to them and that is the hallmark of a true partnership.

Who are the critique partners in your life?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2022.

7 thoughts on “Critique Partners: For Writing and Living

  1. I actually haven’t met my critique partners yet, because as you said, getting one (especially two published writers) can be a tough mission. Glad you’ve found your people, and that only makes me realise how much I need to do the same! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stuart- Thanks for the note! It can be a challenge to find the right people. It didn’t happen quickly for me. Any activity that connects you to other writers will bring to closer to finding the right CPs. Try Shut Up and Write or look for active genre associations. Good luck!

      Like

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