Agreeing to read someone’s novel-in-progress and offer up comments and suggestions is a pretty big commitment.
Even scarier is letting someone read your book. But that’s what a Critique Partner is. You read their book, and they read yours. You exchange suggestions, confusions, critiques, what you enjoyed, and what put you off.
Having another writer (as opposed to a beta reader) go through your book can be invaluable. A writer understands and recognizes issues and plot and arcs in ways that not everyone can. Oftentimes, people can identify what doesn’t work or what does work. They like this section but aren’t feeling very strongly about that one. A writer can tell you why.
If you find someone you trust enough to exchange stories, here are some tips for staying safe and for making sure you pair with an appropriate critique partner.
Where To Start: Asking the Right Questions
If you’re committing to reading someone’s book-in-progress, it’s just like picking up a book at the bookstore. You want some base information to make sure it’s your type of story. Obviously, if the story isn’t something you’d normally read, you won’t be an objective reader.
Just like when you sort through bookshelves, ask the following questions:
- Genre — You want to make sure it’s your type of story. Love romance but hate scifi? Devour suspense but cringe at YA? Make sure you’ll enjoy the book you’re critiquing.
- Movie Rating — If their/your book is a movie, would it be appropriate for all ages? Suitable for the strong-hearted? Filled with saucy romance? This goes closely with genre, and it can be a deal breaker with some books.
- POV and MC — Hate reading present tense? Love multiple POVs? Can’t handle multiple perspectives? Do you find that male or female or young/old main characters turn you away? All of this ties into whether you’ll enjoy the book and receive it well enough to critique it.
- Topic — YA Fantasy can cover anything from witches and wizards to vampires. You’ll want a sense of what the story is about, even if it’s just a vague overarching subject.
- Length — Word count. This is important. If you don’t have a lot of time or you don’t know how much effort you can expend in critique, then length is a big issue. You wouldn’t want to agree to read someone’s WIP and then find out it’s 600,000 words, you’ll up the creek, heading for a waterfall of words.
- Number of Chapters — Length of chapters can say a lot of things. Thrillers and high-action stories generally have shorter chapters, while narrative fiction tends to have longer chapters. If there are six chapters for 100,000 words, then that tells you a little about pacing and context. If there are 100 chapters in 50,000 words, that tells you something too. This is less of a big deal, but it gives you an important sense of the scope of the book.
- Time Commitment — Depending on length (and of course quality of the draft), you’re committing a lot of your time to this book. That means you’ll need to be interested in the genre, length, and topic. Get a sense of how long you want to spend exchanging critiques. A week? A month? However long it takes?
- Turn-around — Deadlines keep you moving forward. How often do you want to correspond? Every other day? Every week? Every four chapters, but no longer than a fortnight? This will depend on your reading speed and theirs, and also on the lengths/chapters.
- Type of critiques — Are you on polish-stage? Do you want line-edits, typos, weak dialogue, and odd syntax singled out? Or is it an earlier draft and you want broad plot, pacing, character, and premise commentary? Let your partner know what you want and know what they want so that you can accommodate each other.
First Steps: Have a Test Phase
Exchange the first ten or twenty pages or the first few chapters. Give each other a hard deadline. This is the trial period. If you read through the sections, it’ll give you a sense of how much work your cut out for and what type of work the draft needs.
Go through, make your comments, suggestions, etc. Add a page at the beginning of the document that has overall commentary. Make sure to include something that you liked about the story. As important as it is to key in on the issues that need fixing, it is just as important to let the author know what they’re doing right. You want to know what you’re doing right too!
In that page, include your overall comments. Include things like “I really liked the characterization, the pacing worked well, but I wasn’t sure where the plot was heading and I felt a little lost.” Essentially, that first page is where you describe what the issues and good parts are. Adding comments to the story is where you point out where those issues and sections are.
This test drive will tell you a lot, such as:
- Are you and your partner both reliable and able to meet the deadlines?
- Are you both friendly?
- Do you give/get the type of feedback and critiques you were looking for?
- Is the other person in the same general area of revision as you are?
- Did both parties enjoy working on the other?
- What type of conversations did the feedback and commentary start?