Why finding good crit partners is vital to the writing process
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
If you'd asked me three years ago, when I was still in my teens and couldn't get further than five chapters into a new idea, or kept telling myself that I just wanted a book written at some point in my life, I would have no idea about what this blog post is even about. In fact about half a year ago I wouldn't have been able to really tell you what critique partners are from experience.
A little bit of history of my personal experience on the critique front
The first time I properly heard about critique partners was in 2018, when my boyfriend started his Masters in Creative Writing. He almost spent more time reading and critiquing his peer's work than writing anything himself. I didn't think more about it. Thought, that's a good exercise, but tiring, oh well. And dropped it.
When I then started applying to Faber Academy and Curtis Brown Creative (two courses which I am currently taking) back in February they both stressed the fact that we'd spend a lot of time critiquing each other's work. You'd critique more than you'd submit of your own work on both courses. But you would also receive massive amounts of critique yourself. You don't give without receiving after all.
And then when I started these two courses in April this year I was already off critquing without thinking twice about it. And a lot of time is spent on critiques right now. In all honesty, with both courses combined I very likely spend more time on crits than my own work, but hey, it's okay. And it's not all that bad. Not bad at all.
What actually goes down in a crit
So what do I actually do? Well, I read my peers work (different amounts of words and peers on each courses).
Then I annotate their work keeping in mind what they want feedback on. Some don't have anything in mind and just want general thoughts. Other are struggling with something specific and want points on those. It's almost easier when I know what to look out for. On the other hand, sometimes it's very clear what needs improving, even if they didn't ask for feedback on that topic. I still bring it up. I annotate going in blind. Any other reader would, so I want to go in without expectations, or knowing the synopsis, to experience (and potentially find areas of improvement) the way a reader would.
Once I've read and annotated it all, I go back and pick out what was great (there is always something fantastic!) and what could need strengthening. I address everything they've asked about and more if I can. Depending on the course and the length of the work, the crits will differ in word length.
On one of the courses we then go off and chat on the forum about the submission. We brainstorm each other's work, read everyone else's feedback and add our own opinions. This is really fun as you get to see what others thought of the work and as a receiver of feedback you see where the same points are brought up over and over again. Often after having taken a break from writing the crit I think of new things to bring up on the forum and it's a great discussion.
Why does it help giving crits to other people:
So it sounds great receiving all that feedback and critique. But like I said it's a lot of time spend on other people's work. And why would you want to do that when you can just keep writing your own?
Well, apart from missing out on receiving a crit back (you give one, you get one in my scenario) you actually miss out on an important part of the process.
As a writer working hard on your WIP, you get writer's blindness. You miss things in your text that sticks out like a sore thumb to others reading it with fresh eyes. Your eyes will never be fresh for your work. Not truly. Not if you wait two weeks or even a year. You know your work inside out and you need to allow someone else to look at it. But approaching other's work, and finding the sore thumbs in their work, helps you pick them out in your own.
You often know your own world so well (I'm a fantasy writer so this is quite literal for me), but it might not come across just that well for your readers. It's the same in other people's work. And when you find that 'fault' in theirs, you will start finding it in your own.
As you give feedback on certain points you'll realise that you're guilty of the same crimes. And that's okay. That's part of the process, if not the point of this exercise.
Reading a lot of people's WIP with your "crit-brain" switched on is also very good. I found that even when I sat down to read fully published books for pleasure (unless the book was incredibly good and just swept me away) I couldn't help but criticising every sentence, evaluating and almost tucking away my thoughts for a crit that would never be written. It was incredibly frustrating at first, BUT incredibly useful.
You'll start to notice that your crit brain keeps going when reading books that could actually be a tad better than their published selves. But you also notice when books have really succeeded as you forget about critiquing and genuinely start reading for pleasure. And you learn! From reading.
Because when I then returned to my work, not only did I noticed the faults I found in other writers' work in my own. I started reading it with a critical eye. I was more brutal, less emotionally attached and with my "crit-brain" switched on I couldn't help but picking it apart. And this is ESSENTIAL in order to improve your own work and keep moving forwards. You have to learn to kill those darlings. Without having someone else tell you to. You have to learn to find them yourself and kill them without being convinced to do it. It took me almost three months of intense critiquing of other people's work every week to get to this stage.
Why you want people to critique your work
Okey, so you're going to have to show your work to people. People who aren't just readers, but writers. And might even be better writers than you. It's daunting. It's awkward. It's a little embarrassing. Scary even. And you'll feel vulnerable.
If you're not used to showing your work (which I wasn't) you'll find it terrifying. I had told a handful of people that I was writing a book. Why not more? Because it's embarrassing if you don't finish it, I guess. If you announce it on social media and then don't follow through people might call you out on it. How did it go with that book you were writing? Oh, you didn't finish it? Well, most people don't? On the other hand by telling people, they can hold you accountable. (On publishing this blog post, I have officially announced that I'm writing a book on Instagram.) And if you haven't told many people you probably haven't let that many people read it either. You're going to have to do that.
Anyways, when you've just finished your draft 0, or you're still writing it (as most people on my courses are) your work will feel raw. It will feel rushed, and cringey, and unpublishable. It probably is unpublishable to be honest. That's okay. That's why you need the critiques. The feedback you get, even if it's only based of 3 000 words, will most likely be applicable to the rest of your work. Not just the few thousand words you submit to your peers. They will not (or should not) sit and correct your grammar. There is no reason to at this point of the writing process. They will comment on a general sense. Plot, structure, characterisations, craft. Maybe particular scenes and why they work. Or why they don't work. And you need this. It will influence your editing of what you've already written, but you'll automatically keep it in mind when you keep writing fresh stuff. It's incredibly useful.
Where to find crit partners
So for me they came naturally. They came through my courses. They were the main source of learning. Through the courses I got feedback from almost everyone and I know that I will keep in touch with them afterwards. All of us still need out work to be critiqued after all.
I have also made really close friends through those courses, who write within the same genre as me and really get my target audience, who I chat with outside the course and end up having long Skype calls with, talking through my whole plot and character arcs.
I've had friends who haven't had the same luck though. When you sign up to a course you pay for the education and the possibility of being put in a group that you click with. I know people that have ended up in groups where this didn't happen. So I cannot guarantee that everyone is as lucky as I've been. You will always get crit partners, if that is what the course promises, but you might not get lost in WhatsApp group chats or have Zoom drinks with them, or continue your work ethic after the course.
But there are other ways. There are Facebook groups of supportive writers. I've never used one myself. Almost anyone can be on a group like this, and there's no knowing who will read your work. On my courses we were fifteen people in each class. It was perfect. And we signed an agreement clarifying that we wouldn't share each other's work outside the course.
I know that some indie authors invite you to a critique friendly platform if you become a patron for example. Or you can try and find any local book clubs.
Start by showing your work to someone you trust. I showed it to my boyfriend (with his Creative Writing MA) and he helped me sort out the character arcs for two major characters, and that in itself, was criticism that made a huge difference.
Hope this has helped and that you get a sense of what critiquing implies and how you can benefit from it. Hopefully, when you are ready for this part of the process, you can find your own group of critiquing partners and really bring your manuscript to the next level. It certainly has for me!