Finding and Being an Excellent Critique Partner… And Friend

Mémoires d'un critique (1896) by French writer...

Mémoires d’un critique (1896) by French writer Jules Levallois (1829-1903) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every time I come across a blog or forum with “critique partner classifieds”, I enter a description of my manuscript. Usually no one responds, but, even so, I’ve been blessed with a handful of short, helpful partnerships throughout the past three years. Recently, I entered an ad on Mary Cole’s blog Kidlit, hoping some magic might connect me with the long-term partner I’ve been seeking.

It didn’t.

A writer (who will remain Nameless) contacted me, saying something like: I”‘m writing a contemporary YA romance and would love to exchange query letters and first chapters.”

Even though romance isn’t my thing, I responded. I let her know that I haven’t yet written a query, but offered to exchange first chapters. I also gave her some background on myself (always a good idea when attempting to build any type of relationship out of thin air) and my first chapter. In the background, I gave her the basics… unpublished, unrepresented, big-picture critquer who is good with plot structure and character development… Plus, the personal… 28, interested in minority main characters and the church, high school English teacher, etc…

My expectation: I thought Nameless would probably write up an email about her background and her manuscript, letting me know what she wants feedback on, her vision for her current manuscript, and her writing experience. I thought she’d probably attach her first chapter, and take a week to look over what I sent her.

Reality: Nameless responded two hours later with her critique of my work. It was two paragraphs long. The first paragraph said that she thought I should show rather than tell. The second paragraph was a quote from Writer’s Digest. Then, she attached her query letter and the first three chapters of her manuscript.

Okay, so I get that there are writers out there who haven’t done the critique partner thing before, and they deserve some slack. It seemed like Nameless was one of those. However, what she did was INCREDIBLY rude for at least two reasons:

  • She didn’t give me helpful feedback. EVERYONE who’s done ANY research on the craft of writing knows the phrase “show; don’t tell”. Everyone. Therefore, the point of having a critique partner is to help with that. She’s supposed to SHOW how to do it by pointing out specific sentences/passages in my writing where I should have done it, but didn’t. She’s supposed to offer her thoughts on individual words in my manuscript as well as an overall critique. She should also be asking questions, offering opinions, and editing my conventions. Instead, she spent a few minutes meeting an obligation so that we could move on to her.
  • She sent me MUCH more work than I sent her. In the beginning of a partnership, there’s a balance that has to be achieved. It’s chapter for chapter, because neither of us has committed to the partnership or knows what the partnership will look like. She sent me AT LEAST three times as much work as she did for me, which left me with the unfortunate dilemma of how much feedback to give her. I knew I didn’t want to be her partner, but I didn’t want to be a critiquer like her. I wanted to be helpful and selfless in the relationship even if she wasn’t.

So… I took almost exactly a week to get back to her and began my email with the following:

“Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I was having a dilemma about how much feedback to give you. I’m used to inserting comments into the document, and giving specific feedback, but I decided to mirror your style as best I can.”

That was my polite way of pointing out her error. I figured she just didn’t know how things work and needed a gentle nudge,

Then, I wrote close to ten paragraphs of critique on her first chapter and query letter. Normally, I’d have written those paragraphs AND inserted my comments into the actual document, investing about 45 minutes per page she sent, and it killed me to only complete less than half of the job.

My expectation: I thought Nameless would see how much feedback I’d given her, and realize what this critique partner thing entails. I thought she might even go back and re-read my first chapter so she could make the trade a little more equal.

Reality: She responded with two different emails. In one, she wrote that my critiques were right in line with what she was hearing from agents (whoohoo!), but that she wasn’t sure what she should do to fix the problematic premise of her story. In her second email, she wrote about how she’d written an alternate version of her opening chapter and wanted me to look at it. As an afterthought, she suggested I send her more of my manuscript.

After that, I realized that my true annoyance didn’t have anything to do with her inexperience; it stemmed from my expectation that critique partnerships should be similar to friendships. I believe that being an excellent critique partner requires the same character qualities and skill set that friendship requires. In order to critique well, I have to put aside my thoughts about what I’m working on… and replace them with thoughts about what my partner is working on. I have to resist the urge to use her… and instead help her. And she has to do the same for me.

Sadly, I’m not 100% sure Nameless even read what I sent her. She was so focused on her story and her characters that she couldn’t even spare a week to think about mine. She was looking for a hired hand rather than a friend. She wanted someone to serve her, but she was unwilling to serve another oblivious to her call to service. Had she hired me as a freelance editor, I would have gladly worked on her project without any help for mine, and perhaps she would be better off taking that route, but a voluntary partnership shouldn’t be quite so one-sided.

Last week, I let Nameless know that it wasn’t going to work out, but now, I’m wondering if I should tell her why. Should I just move on, or provide her with a bit more feedback? Does she need help understanding the etiquette of critiquing? Or am I an ass to even think about telling her how it should be done?


2 thoughts on “Finding and Being an Excellent Critique Partner… And Friend

  1. Nah, you’re not an ass. You just expect someone to give you the same level of thought and analysis you gave. I don’t think that’s so much to ask. They’re called ‘Critique Partners’ because it should be a partnership. If it doesn’t work out that way, it’s time to look for a new partner.

    If you’re still looking for critique partners, check out Ladies Who Critique’s website. I’ve found some helpful partners there.

  2. What a frustrating disappointment! I don’t think such a relation should start out like a friendship- I think it should be like a business relationship. Sometimes, in a friendship, you do more than your fair share and get little in return. In business, there are expectations which must be met if the relationship is to remain viable. Business relationships are all about getting something from someone, and giving something in return- mutual and equal benefit. It sounds like you had a mismatch in expectations.
    The fact is, most people are way lazier than you when it comes to critique of writing. Also, maybe this person did not have an adequate framework to critique from. You could lay out some ground rules in advance. Or, you could only work with English teachers/authors already published, and only other highly skilled people. At this point in my life, I might only give you a couple paragraphs of feedback out of ignorance or laziness or both (but I would NEVER cut-and-paste it!). But then again, I not trying to get published.

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