what if you've chosen the wrong critique partner

When You’ve Chosen the Wrong Critique Partner

If you have a critique partner, you’re a lucky son of a gun. Every writer should be so lucky. Seriously. Because some writers aren’t. We all need the objectivity of an outside source who’s willing to dedicate the many hours necessary to read our hot-out-of-the-oven novels and offer some constructive criticism.

If you’ve found such a wonderful person, you need to be willing to swallow your pride, put your ego in your back pocket, and listen up when that person tells you something in your story just isn’t working. Whether he’s tweaking your prose, struggling to identify with a character, or bored to death with your fight scenes—those are all things a writer can’t afford to brush off.

Or are they?

When it comes to crit partners, the thing we all have to keep in mind is they’re not always right.

Gasp!

Not all critique partners are created equal, and even those who are literary geniuses in their own right won’t be justified in every little suggestion they make about your stories.

So how do you know when to listen to your critique partner—and when not to? Often, denial and defensiveness are going to be your first reactions to a critter’s criticism. Is that your gut instinct talking? Or just your self-preservation? And if you dare to reject a critter’s advice, is the guilt you’re feeling an indication that your pride is blinding you and leaving your story worse for the wear?

Unfortunately, there aren’t any hard and fast answers to these questions. But here’s a good rule of thumb: My policy when it comes to critique partners (and editors, for that matter) has always been: Two people have to agree.

In other words, if I see the critter’s point, he and I together equal two people agreeing—and I start correcting my manuscript. But if I don’t instantly (or eventually) agree, then I don’t hold myself accountable to his opinion. Even still, however, I keep their advice in the back of mind. If another critique partner, down the line, should voice the same criticism, that’s two people agreeing—and I know I had better take a second look at the issue.

At the end of the day, the only person who can make decisions for your story is you. Your decisions may be right, or they may be wrong. But they have to be based on what you honestly feel is right for your story, and not on the input of others, no matter how helpful, well-meaning, or educated they may be. If you’re fortunate enough to have a critique partner, listen to him. But listen to yourself as well.

Tell me your opinion: How do you decide when to listen to your critique partner–and when not to?

What if You've Chosen the Wrong Critique Partner

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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. I have two beta readers for my newest novel “Jimmy My Hero” and one of my readers is great. She picks out everything that’s wrong and I’ll check her critique and 99% of the time she is correct and I follow her advise. One piece of advice that she gave me was about the book cover. “It was all wrong,” she frowned. Not thinking, I gave another person a copy of a chapter she helped me with along with the photo of the cover. I asked her about the cover and she said it was good photo and nothing wrong with it. She works with animals and I figured if anyone knew about how a dog should look it would be her. “The photo is fine,” she said. I walked away pushing my fist into the air, “YES!!”
    Beta Reader #2 basically gets the updated copy to read and she very happy and excited when she gets to read it. She has, however, pointed out possible errors and we talk about it and we work it out, and she’s satisfied with my upgrades.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s important to know what each of our readers is able to give us. Some people don’t have the technical chops to offer nitty-gritty technical advice (even if they may think they do), but they can still offer excellent insights into the workings of the story.

  2. I tend to ignore advice even with more than 2 same opinions if I have a specific reason why I did something, especially if they’re not seeing the big picture.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always worth reconsidering our approach (if not our reasoning) if more than one beta reader is bringing up the same concern. Even if our reasons are sound, they may not be getting the point simply because there’s some flaw in the way we’re executing it.

      • Yeah, I ran out of time to fully explain that one. 😉 (My son’s therapy appointment ended a little early!) Sometimes what happens is that I leave something dangling that I intend to or did wrap up at a later time, and the critter just doesn’t get what I’m doing. Other times, I am a little vague, and have to go back and support what I’m doing (a sentence or a paragraph usually does the trick.) I didn’t mean to say I completely disregard what they say, but I vehemently disagree for my own reasons. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, good point about disregarding early questions that the book itself ends up answering. When I critique, I will sometimes raise questions early on about elements that are fine in themselves, but which I want to make sure the author then resolves appropriately later on.

  3. Thank you! Highly reassuring. I’m fortunate to have a couple people reading my current WIP. I think it can be helpful to have several people (with different reading backgrounds) critiquing your work as someone might have a problem where someone else is just fine. My initial reaction (when they offer a critique) tends to be a denial, but I try not to immediately defend myself and instead sit on it for a while. More often than not, after I’ve cooled a little, I see they’re right or I am at least able to really think through and reinforce why I’m not choosing to go with their suggestion.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We have to find a balance between realizing that we don’t always know what’s best for our story – and realizing that critters aren’t omniscient either. Everything needs to be weighed as objectively and unemotionally as possible. And that’s tough!

  4. Jeriann Fisher says:

    My first & best alpha reader is my husband & finding a man willing to read paranormal romance is a find. I’ve trained him to provide constructive feedback — don’t tell me when something’s wrong without backing it up & making a suggestion to improve what’s wrong. He has great instincts.

    On the other hand I have another person who I asked to read the same ms. & her hyper-critique & focus on minutiae was more than what I was looking for & ultimately not helpful because she couldn’t tell me what to do to fix it. And she had not really read the story.

    I’ve learned since then to give my critique partners very specific instructions: I. E. “Look for these things – xxxxx & these yyy. Unless you laugh out loud because I have something really wrong I am not redesigning costumes or sets & if you don’t like some plot element I need to know why & what you’d like different.”

  5. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Critiquing is really an art form unto itself (which is why we pay professional editors big bucks!). Crit partners need our guidance if they’re to be as effective as possible. I generally rely on a list of specific questions to help me guide my critique partners in giving me detailed opinions.

  6. I am not so fortunate (if that’s the word) as to have beta readers, so I have just contracted with a freelance editor to serve that function, and more. Understandably, I am nervous about what this professional gun-for-hire will have to say about my work. But what I will be looking for is the quality of her reasoning, both for what she likes, as well as what she thinks is flawed. The quality of her own writing, and the precision with which she makes her case will determine for me whether I’ve gotten something useful for her fee.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A good editor is invaluable. I feel extremely thankful for mine (Cathi-Lyn Dyck). Anytime, you end up with not just a better manuscript, but a better understanding of how to write the next one, you know you’ve found a good editor.

      • Katie–
        The point you make at the end of your reply to my comment deserves to be emphasized: a critique that is useful beyond the work in question has special value. If what I learn from my reader is applicable only to one title, it’s far less useful. I will keep that in mind–and make a note about the editor you use–in case the one I’ve hired is less than satisfactory. Thanks!

  7. When I first became a writer I suffered from paralysis by too much analysis: I’d trade off with too many people and then try to respond to all their criticisms even if I wasn’t convinced by them. Since then I’ve taken a similar approach to yours – if two people independently question some aspect of my script/story then I should listen even if I don’t see it as a problem. After all, the whole point of getting feedback is to see if you are off-base. You’ve taken it a logical step further by saying if you agree with the critique then that also counts as two people in agreement.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have about a dozen people who read my pre-publication drafts. That works for me. But less is generally more when it comes to crit partners. Too many cooks *do* spoil the broth. Optimally, two or three partners – if they’re knowledgeable – will be plenty.

      • I have my beta that sticks with me through all drafts, alpha, content, copy, and proof, but then I hand it off to one more beta as good as the first for a cold read to catch the rest. My final beta varies on the writing style. I’ve got one who just doesn’t do poetic stuff. She doesn’t get poetry.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s awesome to have a critter who can stick with you through all the revisions, but that cold read is hugely important too. By the time we’re finished rewriting a book, sometimes our initial critter can be almost as unobjective about it as we are.

  8. Great advice. Even the fact that something caught their attention and caused them to make a comment makes me think something isn’t quite right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes problems can just be a matter of someone misreading something or not being “with it” on that particularly day. But, you’re right: it’s always worth looking twice at *anything* someone brings up.

  9. Great advice Kim!

  10. I am working with my CP as I write this. I am very, very lucky to have him. I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your CP and if possible, get to know each other on a personal level. That makes it much easier when it comes to actual critique and new ideas and ideas you don’t like, etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Although there’s such a thing as critique partner’s being *too* close (family members don’t always make for good critters, since they can be almost as close to your work as you are), most critique partners will work all the better for having a better understanding of the author as a person.

  11. Thank you for this post. I’ve used a similar strategy in judging critique partners or even general reviews, though I never defined it like you did here. And while I fully understand that you’re not looking to make it a hard and fast rule, just the clarification you gave it helped me to better understand my own disagreements with critics. Thanks!

    • Yes, there’s always an exception to every rule – and certainly to this one. There will inevitably be instances in which I’ll reject a suggestion, even from multiple sources, for whatever reason.

  12. I actually do have an advantage. My wife is an English teacher 🙂

  13. I ended up with nine readers on the main beta-reading phase for my recent novel. What I found fascinating was that they all looked at it from different perspectives, and found very different things to say about it.

    In particular, when it came to detailed comments (about a single sentence, for example), there was almost no overlap between the different readers – they all found different points to make. My inference from this is that I probably needed more readers, as there was a good chance that there were issues that none of them picked up.

    Another way of looking at this, though, is that a beta reader or critique partner is not the same as a copy editor, and shouldn’t be used as a substitute for one: the beta reader is not under a contractual obligation to look carefully at every single word, and there is a good chance they will glide over some issues.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As I mentioned in a previous comment, there is definitely such a thing as too many cooks spoiling the broth. If we have too many conflicting opinions pulling us in different directions, we’re only going to end up confused and frustrated. But, with that caveat in mind, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying here. Every reader brings a unique perspective, and when we consider that our book will (optimally) be read by thousands of different people, the more opinions we can get pre-publication, the more likely we are to satisfy more of those readers.

  14. I go with my gut. I have had critiques that I’ve agreed and disagreed with. But I never told anyone that their critiques are nonsense. I always thank them and say I’ll take another look with their comments in mind. Sometimes I make changes, sometimes I don’t. Because, like you said, it’s my story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is an essential point. Even if we disagree with or disregard an critter’s opinion, what we can’t disregard is the fact that they dedicated a significant chunk of their time to reading our work. They deserve our respect and our thanks – and never our complaints. The only time we should question a critter’s comments is if we’re unsure what they meant.

  15. I compare all critique to what I want out of the story. If it helps me reach the story I want, I address it, even if I choose a different solution. If it doesn’t, I reject it.

    I consider comments on a story that I don’t know what I want to be alpha comments rather than beta. I use the reader response to figure out what the story is already doing and what I want it to do instead.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good approach. Before we ever send a manuscript out for critique, it’s important for us to understand our vision for a story, so that we can measure crits against that vision. If we go in without knowing what we want a story to be, then we run the risk of being swayed by criticisms that take our stories in directions we don’t want them go.

      • I think it took me a million words of writing to figure out my own vision. Until I did, I never could differentiate between good vs. unhelpful criticism. After I knew my own vision, it was easy.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think some people just come by an understanding of vision naturally. But for some it can be one of the most difficult things to learn about all of writing.

  16. Steve Moran says:

    Same as you. I want to make my story better so I have an open mind to suggested improvements. If I agree with my (valued) crit partner, then I make the change. If I don’t agree … then I don’t. Simples. Works out at about 50% each way, ie: I make about half the changes she suggests.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nobody’s right 100% of the time – including us. We’re always striving for a balance, in analyzing critiques as in all else.

  17. Useful thoughts and insights – especially, too, from readers in the comments.

    I think it’s important to also remember that not all beta readers a created equal – so it might not be a matter of simply gaining two opinions, because that’s still a very small sample. (Though I can see how it would be a useful general rule.) It’s also important to take into consideration the reader’s skills and ability to offer additional insight – factors that might give one reader’s opinion more weight than another’s.

    I totally agree with Barry and K.M.’s comments – a professional critiquer worth her salt will be able to impart advice that can be applied to all a person’s writing, not just an individual manuscript. That way, you get excellent value.

    I’m a professional book critiquer, and that’s certainly the kind of thing that steers my critiques. Not only do I back up my comments with concrete examples from the manuscript and a detailed explanation of craft theory, but much of the critique can be applied to future work.

    However, yes – when it comes down to it, the author should be in sole control of their creative vision and must make careful judgements on what to change.

  18. I’m blessed to have a fabulous CP with awesome editing ability, who has become a close friend in the process. We understand each other, what our vision for our writing is, and because we’ve usually brainstormed the story and characters together from Day 1, we know what they’re trying to do with this particular story.

    Unless there’s something I’m stuck on, I only send her chapters to review after I’ve edited and revised them myself a couple of times, and worked through my paid editor’s suggestions too. Her time is too valuable to waste on stuff I should be able to fix myself!

    Just like with my paid editor, I don’t necessarily make the changes she suggests, but if either of them flag up a problem with a sentence or a section I know I need to pay attention and see how I can make it better. I know not to take it as personal criticism!

    When I was fairly new to writing, I did have some less helpful experiences. One early critique I cried over because two critters made totally opposing statements and I had no idea where to go with the piece after that. And there was the writing class crit group full of people who appeared to believe ‘critique’ meant ‘rip the other person’s writing to shreds to feel better about my own’.

    As a newbie, even good, well-delivered critiques are probably always painful and hard to take. Early stories feel so much more like our precious perfect babies! Learning how to use critique of any sort as a valuable tool is such a huge part of the writing journey.

    Whether it’s a CP’s comments or a review after the book is published, there’s no escaping reader opinion!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing beats having a critique partner or editor whom you trust. If you trust they have your best interests at heart and they have the knowledge to help you achieve your vision for your story, then the relationship can be nothing but positive.

  19. I’m working with CP’s for the first time and getting a lot of conflicting advice. Person A says X is a trope, person B says they love X. Person C says move Y person C says Y was awesome. I’m looking for things more than one person points out, but it hasn’t happened yet, with 5 CP’s. Could you offer any advice on that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As I mention in this post, my rule of thumb is: Two people have to agree.

      So, do you agree with any of your critique partners’ suggestions? If you do, make the changes. If not, ignore them until you get a verifying second opinion on the same thing from another person.

  20. Jennifer Carlson says:

    I have an opportunity not every writer gets: 30 critiques of 10 to 20 pages of my manuscript, as well as a critique from the professor, who’s an accomplished author.
    The first round of critiques I got were disheartening. Crushed my hope of going back. But I read into their comments more, and rewrote the entire plot. My first ten pages had been rewritten, and they are now 13 entirely new pages, with some characters removed, some added, and a protagonist who feels more believable.
    My main issue is this is for a grade; It’s a 5 credit course. I can’t afford to fail. But the professor’s grade on my manuscript is based solely on if he likes it, not how much I’ve improved. This is making me panic, because it’s too late to drop the class.

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