At any of these stages you may have found a critique partner or a critique group along the way. This relationship can be as formal as exchanging chapters every two weeks with only track comments shared back and forth, or as intimate as daily emails about your ongoing lives along with exchanging chapters and your dreams and goals.
Our lives ebb and flow and circumstances change. As do critique partners. Over the past twenty years I’ve had four partners who I spent significant blocks of years, critiquing full books back and forth, and I learned many things from each of them. We’ve each gone on to other things, become published or not.
Disclaimer: There are no personal references to any persons in these rules
So, here’s my Seven Rules of Great Critique Partners:
- Treat your initial “meeting” online like a dating relationship–you’re there to find out about each other and determine if you’re compatible. Be honest about your expectations of what you need/want at this stage in your career/writing life. Don’t say you can critique three chapters a week if you can’t–that leads to upset if your partner’s a fast writer and you’re not. It takes time to get to know someone so treat the first 2-3 months like you’re dating and agree to a probationary period and if it’s not working, agree to part ways amicably, no harm no foul.
- Write out what you need critiqued for the next project: how many pages, chapters, first draft, second draft, beta read? Send it to your partner with the time frame needed–is it for a contest? An editor? Can she do it for you? Being specific means everyone’s “on the same page”–sorry for the cliché! Repeat this once a month or a quarter or whatever the two of you decide works for the two of you.
- Be up front about confidentiality. If you’re just getting started as a writer, you may not even think of this… but believe me I learned this one the hard way. Confidentiality means what’s written/said stays between the two of you. Obviously, you can’t police this and you have to trust the other person but state it right up front from the beginning. Let your critique partner know you don’t expect your emails to be shared with other people, screenshots to be shown elsewhere, conversations are private, etc. You’d be amazed what some people think are “harmless” gossip. And if you don’t want your health, an event, your mood, your marriage etc. shared with the world, the Board of your RWA Chapter, Facebook, etc. then it’s best not to tell your critique partner. Save it for your mother or your priest.
- Riding on the heals of this is that bugaboo: plagiarism. If your critique partner can’t stop herself from copying your ideas, your hero’s name, your next police procedural, your next historical time period, wake up and realize you’re not a good match. No, “ideas” can’t be copyrighted but if your partner has no original ideas of her own she will end up sucking your dry emotionally and professionally. And if her next contest entry suddenly “just happens” to have the same “general” content–run for the hills.
- Be committed. Once you’ve done all the above, unless there’s a flood, your house has burned down, your child is in the hospital, etc. please don’t send your critique partner an email that says “thanks, I’ll get to these chapters when I can.” Um, no. Just no. Refer back to Number 1. “Part amicably–no harm, no foul.” You don’t get to send that kind of email. Instead, you can say “Child #2 is down with a fever. I’ll get these back to you on XYZ date.” That’s a GREAT Critique Partner. See the difference?
- Communicate, communicate, communicate! This is crucial to any relationship and especially to one carried out by emails and texts. The written word can’t be infused with the nuances of your real emotions. So be clear and if you’re in a bad mood or stressed for whatever reason, that’s NOT the time to sound off on your critique partner. Better to send a “Things are crazy right now, will get back to you shortly” message. But let your partner know what’s happening–if you honestly can’t get that promised critique for her contest entry back to her in time TELL her that–it’s part of being a professional which is what you’re both striving for and what you need to learn to be eventually dealing with professional editors and agents.
- Ending the relationship. Be professional. What does that mean? By this time, you’ve spent hours working together, invested in each other’s work. Professionals treat each other with respect. They recognize the time they gave each other, the good things they learned and the bad things they hopefully worked through. Not every relationship will last a long time. Some are only meant for a short season. Some will last years. Give each other the thanks and appreciation due to each other and part as amicably as possible. And hopefully, enjoy a friendship for years to come.
Why are these Seven Rules important to live by? Because they teach you how to become the professional writer that editors and agents want to work with and promote. Editors and agents don’t have time to teach you how to be respectful, be committed, meet deadlines, communicate clearly and succinctly, and understand what’s confidential and what’s not. And by the time you sign with a publishing house and an agent, you’d better understand that plagiarism and stealing someone else’s hard work is death for a writer.
Now, the next time someone approaches you to be a critique partner, I hope you’ll think of these things and be ready to think of it as a business relationship as well as a friendship. You both have a lot to learn from each other on this writing journey. Enjoy the trip!