Questions for Critique Partners

Questions for Critique Partners

While I’m off tending to family business this week, I hope you enjoy this oldie-but-goodie post from the archives. Happy critiquing!

If you’re blessed, as I am, to have some of the best critique partners (or, as we fondly refer to each other, “critters”) going, you undoubtedly realize the benefit of having a watchful pair of eyes to run over your manuscripts, a merciless tongue to point out the weak points, and a gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) touch to encouragingly push you back onto your feet for another go.

Although writing is largely a self-taught craft, even the most determined among us can only take ourselves so far without the input of others. We all have our blind spots and our weaknesses. We can’t always see when a character is extraneous or a plot point doesn’t make sense. We don’t always realize we’re copping out on the endings or welching in the climaxes. But critters—God bless ’em—tend to these things with 20/20 vision.

Even the best critters, however, aren’t mind readers. They can’t know what it is we’re trying to accomplish in a story. They won’t know which scenes we’re particularly worried about. And they aren’t likely to give us a blow-by-blow recount of their reactions as they read through our stories. Most of the time, they wade into our stories just as blindly as we wade into theirs—especially if you’re as secretive a writer as I am. So I’ve developed a game plan of my own to help guide my critters through my stories.

By the time I finish writing a story, I usually have quite a few pressing questions I need to have answered by an outside source. I need to know for certain that specific plot elements worked and particular characters were sympathetic. Some of these questions are too overt to send to a critter before he’s read the story, since the last thing I want to do is influence his original reaction. So I divide my questions into two sets: before and after.

Questions to Send Critique Partners Before They Have Read the Book

I send the before questions in an email with my manuscript. Usually, these questions are very general in nature and apply to things I want my critter to be aware as he is reading. For instance:

1. Is anything confusing?

2. Are any scenes boring or repetitious?

3. Do you spot any general tics (repeated words, etc.)?

4. Do you spot any confusing plot points (let me know when and where I lose you and what needs to be clarified)?

5. Does the opening grab you?

6. Is there an appropriate balance of action with the other subplots?

After that, it’s just a matter of spending the next month or so keeping my mouth shut and trying not fidget while my critter reads through the manuscript. I encourage critters to keep their own questions to themselves during this time, because it’s important for me to not only avoid influencing their reading experience but also to discover if my narrative is strong enough to answer its own questions by the end.

Questions to Send Critique Partners After They Have Read the Book

Finally, when my critter has reached the last chapter and is ready to present his concerns and overall opinions, it’s time for me to bring out the after questions. I try to be as specific as possible in my questioning, in hopes of leading the critter to dredge up as many of his reactions and complaints as possible. Most of my after questions are general enough that I can use them on every manuscript, but, of course, I insert as many specific queries as necessary.

1. Was the setting clear? Did you feel like you had a clear idea of what things looked like in the scenes?

2. Can you give me a brief opinion of the main characters? Did you understand who was who and what their problems/goals were? Any characters that felt extraneous? Any characters you felt you were supposed to like, but didn’t? Any characters you had a hard time keeping track of?

3. Did the plot keep you engaged? Did the overall arc make sense?

4. Any problems with the dialogue?

5. Ditto for the narrative? Were there any places where you were bored with it?

6. Did the beginning grab you?

7. Did the middle keep your attention?

8. Was the ending satisfying?

9. After reading the first scene, what expectations did you have for the story? Were those expectations fulfilled?

10. Did you spot any purple prose?

11. Did the action rise appropriately? Did it move too abruptly?

12. Was it repetitive or overlong? Can you think of anything it would be good to cut? Is there anyplace I need to trim some fat and include less information?

13. Did you understand the themes, and did they become more complex and interesting as you read? Did the character arcs express the themes well?

14. Was the climax both inevitable and yet unexpected?

15. Was the story easy to follow?

16. Does the overall tone welcome you? Or is it off-putting in any way?

17. Was there any point at which your interest faded?

By guiding my critters with my questions, I’m able to receive a much more thorough response, one that is specific to my story’s needs and my own concerns. By the time my critters finish answering all my questions, they’ve usually given me enough food for thought to keep me chewing for a long time.

Tell me your opinion: How do you guide your critique partners to get you useful reactions?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Liberty S says:

    Excellent advice! I think I’ll send this to my local crit group, except we don’t read (as a general rule) our stories all at once. :( I think your thoughts here would do every fiction writer (and most non-fiction writers) some good in the editing process. On point 14, though, do you mean both inevitable and yet unexpected???

    Thanks for a good quality blog entry, again!!! :)

  2. Yes, indeed. Thanks for catching that. My mind plays tricks on my sometimes. 😛

  3. Great post! It is great to have critters. We always need to remember that they are there to help us not to criticize.

  4. It’s good to remember, though, that sometimes (make that most of the time) criticism *is* helpful.

  5. I have used a similar technique: selecting about 6 trusted readers and asking them a dozen or so questions similar to yours when they finish reading. Essentially, this is the low budget way of finding a developmental editor to provide feedback on the plot, the characters, the story arc, suspense, the dialogue, etc. Other writers I’ve spoken to have found that a writer’s critique group can be invaluable. I haven’t been that fortunate to find the right one, so the question technique, as you suggest, is the next closest thing. The other person that has helped me is my agent. I was fortunate to land an agent for my fisrt novel. After telling me she loved my manuscript, she identified five or six quibbles, as she put it: questions about the plausability of a particular scene, the depth of 2 or 3 characters I thought were secondary….that type of thing. We writers are so close to our work, we can’t see the forest for the trees, or even the trees for that matter.

  6. I would always recommend getting feedback from a handful of trusted beta readers, in addition to professional editing. Although not everyone is going to have an opinion that will improve our work, the more eyeballs we can have on a story, the more mistakes we’re going to be able to spot and fix.

  7. Thanks for sharing! I’m about to send out my MS to CP’s, and I’m compiling a list of questions and things for them to look out for. This definitely helps.

  8. This is perfect, Katie! I’m just about to send off my ms to my critters who consist of my two dads and a bff, all of whom are extremely brutal and why I love ’em! :-)

    These questions are perfect! Thanks!

  9. I enjoyed the article and especially appreciate the list of questions for “critters.”
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Really good post and lists that I will save (and translate) for the next time I send anything to my critique partners. Guess it’s easier for them too, if they know what they are supposed to look out for or think about while reading, more specifically rather than “just anything that comes to mind.” In general I would like a few more critique partners, but the good ones are hard to find.
    Thanks for posting.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Especially if your readers are not writers (and therefore may not think of stories as a sum of their parts), it’s valuable to guide their opinions into concrete criticisms. Non-writers can be fantastic beta readers, since their reactions are often closer to our actual reading public’s, but they aren’t always going to know how to tell us what we need to fix and what we don’t.

  11. Thanks for the tips! I really have enjoyed reading what you write.
    I’m wondering, though, how to find good “critters”. I write things that my immediate family isn’t particularly interested in. My closer friends aren’t writers. But is asking something like this of my writer-friends too much? Or does it matter if they aren’t writers?

  12. Thanks!! These are GREAT questions. Totally going to use these …. once I actually find a critique partner 😉

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Critique partners are extremely important. Fortunately, there are tons of writers looking to trade beta reads! Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and forums are all great places to start searching.

  13. Great questions! I appreciate you sharing. This will make my next read through so much better.

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  1. […] Once you are in the editing phase, it’s time to look into critique partners.  Here’s an article on how to guide your critique partners so that they give you the most useful […]

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