On the Value of Critique Partners

Throughout PitchWars, a number of writers expressed interest in a post about critique partners and since I’ve just agreed to collaborate with a new CP (YAY, ME!) this seemed the right time. (A shout-out here to the AMAZING Beth Hull who is not only my PW co-mention but my long-time CP and as fantastic a writer/editor as anyone could work with).

So…you know how certain things bug you? Silly things that shouldn’t, but that really affect you just as much as nails on a chalkboard? That’s how much it bugs me when the CP/Beta reader definition gets murky. I’m not sure WHY this bugs me so much or if it should. It might have something to do with working with other writers early on who wanted to be betas when I wanted to be CPs, or writers who thought I was CPing with them, when I really only had time/interest in beta reading.

So first, let me explain the definition of Critique Partners as I understand it. My new CP, Shawn Barnes, put it very astutely: “Betas offer feedback on a polished MS from the reader's perspective, whereas CPs, in an honest, reciprocal relationship, offer feedback on craft. To use a political metaphor, betas are a focus group and CPs are campaign advisors. CPs utilize skill sets to point out problems and ask questions/make suggestions to get you thinking about how to fix those problems. CPs are troubleshooters and sounding boards for new ideas and early drafts. They're in the trenches with you. To be truly reciprocal, their level of craft must be comparable... They grow together as writers.”

In practice, I find it works like this. My CPs are the ones I send middle of the night “This book has no plot, HELP!” emails. Even if it takes them days to reply, I KNOW that they will. And because they know my manuscript, my characters, and my goals, they’ll probably come back with an email filled with “Well, what if….???”

My CPs are the ones I send stupid questions to: “Does it make sense that my MC would fall in love with someone LIKE THAT? Would they deal with situation X in this way? Does this comment ring true?” And they can answer those questions because they’ll know my characters/book almost as well as I do.

And that’s reciprocal. I’ll have read their manuscripts many times, beginning with those first scrawlings on a bit of napkin and an email that says, “Do you think I could pull a book out of this?”

Eventually, we’ll both have full manuscripts, ones we each have read and notated multiple times.

(NOTE: I strongly suggest finding CPs who are at the same point in their writing as you. That is NOT to say that they need to be at the same point in their careers. Bonus points if your strengths and weaknesses balance each other out. If you’re both good at plot, but weaker in pushing your characters emotionally, that isn’t a great fit long term unless you each have additional CPs).

But we’ll need fresh eyes before we send it to our agents or start to query This is where Beta readers come in. I’ve asked coworkers, other writers, teens I know, and above all, READERS, to beta for me. “What do you think of this? Did it lose your interest? Did it sound true?” Betas read full, often agent-ready, manuscripts and weigh in AS READERS. They read once and hopefully answer a couple of questions if necessary.

When my agent or editor sends me notes, and if everyone has time, my CPs will read again (full or just parts of the work). They’ll probably see the notes and hold me accountable for putting them into practice. At worst, they’ll probably read short scenes. “Am I implementing this note well? Is this conversation still true to character? Do you AGREE with the editor’s comments here?” And this is where having TWO CPs is a great idea because if they disagree, you get to cast the tie-breaking vote. If they agree, you should listen to them!

But, as with everything, do what feels right to you. I know writers who never work with CPs. I know some who have MANY.

So how do you find CPs? That’s the hard thing. I’ve found them on Twitter, through contests, on Maggie Steifvater’s CP board. But the MOST important thing is….try each other out. Exchange pages. But if the combination doesn’t work for either of you, part without hard feeling or even explanation. It’s a huge commitment to invest yourself in someone else’s craft and you both need to be sure of the partnership.

As my new CP so very perfectly said, the hope is to grow as a writer alongside your CPs. It’s a long-term mutually beneficial relationship that is so difficult to find and so precious when it works.