Putting the “Critique” in Critique Partner

My then eleven-year-old decided to write a novel. It was four pages long and started when her character woke up. For a four-page novel, the action took far too long to get going, but on the other hand, the ghost appeared on page 1. When I read her novel, you know I told her none of these things. When I read for her, I’m a good finder. I look for what works and I focus on those things. And I say, “Congratulations, you wrote a story!”

If being a critique partner were all about finding nothing but the good, I’d read all the manuscripts. But while finding good is critical (see what I did there?), there are a couple of reasons why being a bad finder is so very important.

The most obvious reason is that you’re tasked with giving your honest opinion. You’ve been entrusted with this document with the explicit understanding that you will critique your partner’s words. You’re not tasked with being a dick about it, but you may be the only person who will honestly tell your friend that you think of cheese every time you read the hero’s name, Boursin. At least before the Amazon reviewers do it. And by God, they will. You are the gate keeper.

The less obvious reason, and the one that brings me here today, is your loyal CP’s sanity. Say you decide not to mention the cheesy name that is interfering with an otherwise delightful read. Say you are afraid you’re the only one who might think that, or that — god forbid — you might hurt your CP’s feelings. These are human reactions to doling out the bad news. Most normal people don’t want to shit on someone else’s parade.

But imagine the scenario where the CP sends an MS out to three readers. Two report back that Boursin is the worst name for a hero imaginable, unless that hero is a cat. Ooh or a mouse! In which case, that could be fairly awesome. Now YOU come along, with all your good intentions and fear of loathing, and YOU say nothing about the name. Or worse, you lie. “Hey, cute name.” Now your CP is left with the dreaded conflicting information, which believe it or not, is worse than universal panning. When everyone hates something, it’s a quick fix. When the results are mixed, it leads to angst, which leads to paralysis. And paralysis is a writer’s mortal enemy. So congratulations, you just killed a writer.

This is not to say you should hesitate to praise that stinky name if you happen to dig it. I mean, to each his own, right? And CPs can duke it out over their varied opinions. It’s to be expected.

Trust your CPs to wear their big kid pants when they send you their words. If they’re serious about writing, they’ve got ’em on.

(And you can still be a good finder — as long as it’s honest.)