Monday, August 28, 2017

Why Writers Need Critique Partners


On September 4th, 2016, I had decided to use my knowledge gained from about sixteen years of writing in order to stabilize my income. I started freelancing as an editor and critique partner on Fiverr and Upwork.

For the most part, I love this job, because it basically pays me to read. A lot. 

But there's a flip-side: I sometimes have to deal with a lot of writing by people learning the craft. Don't get me wrong. I love helping people. But the truth is that often, an editorial letter and comments written into the margins of a manuscript just aren't enough to explain exactly what I mean. 

The biggest reason for this is the huge disconnect in experience between me and my client. At the moment, probably close to two thirds of my clients for content edits are first-time writers. They paid for me to tell them how to improve their stories. 

But when it comes to things that I take for granted, they never even thought about it. Within this blogging community, we've formed a sort of short-hand. When someone's offering to exchange critiques with me, I know it's okay for us to use that short-hand, because we do share a common background when it comes to how and where we find our knowledge.

So in a lot of ways, the bloggosphere forms a sort of hive-mind. Although the transmission of information isn't perfect, I usually know, when I picked another blogger's work up to critique, more or less what the level is that I'm batting for. So when I say, "Your opening isn't really hooking me," I'm pretty dang sure the writer I'm critiquing either knows what I mean, or knows where to find the information they need to correct this issue. 

My belief that this is so is further reinforced by the general level of writing I've critiqued over the last seven years. You can see when someone has a concept of what's going on. 

I believe there are certain fundamentals to the plot and development of fiction (regardless of genre). And most of the time, people in my network get the majority of those fundamentals right. In this way, then, content editing is more about catching where the writer slipped than anything else. I think it's because we are a network that shares what we learned and often I would critique someone, who critiques someone else, who critiques someone else, etc. Because a large amount of us are connected in multiple degrees (I have 20 people or more in my network who are also in your network), it means that the information I share gets refined and then applied to my work again when one of you reads for me. And just so, if I learn something new because of something one of my critique partners (CPs) picked up, I can take that information, refine it, and apply it to that CP's work, and also the work of all my other CPs. 

And so, overall, the quality of our output increases. 

But when I'm freelancing, all those assumptions go out the window. I can't say "This opening isn't a good hook," because the writer has no idea what a hook is. 

And often, none of the fundamentals are there. 

Without any of the fundamentals in place, it's almost impossible to improve the writing without rewriting the whole thing first. And no matter how nicely I try to put it, that's an incredibly demoralizing thing for a new writer to find out.

I'm talking about things like character arcs. I'm talking about motivation. I'm talking about internal logic. I'm talking about obedience to the set-up. I'm talking about having the set-up be in the writing, in a way that's palpable to the reader. I'm talking about not having certain plot points in the writing because it's "done" in the genre, but have that be at the cost of believability. I'm talking about the ways to create tension and to keep the pacing at a reasonable clip. 

These things rarely come naturally to writers. They're learned by trial and error. And honestly, I don't think learning all that by paying an editor is the best way to do that. 

So my suggestion: Don't give up on writing. On the contrary, write more. Practice. But improve on your craft by learning from other writers. Get critique partners and learn both from the critiques you get and the ones you give. Read up to understand why your CPs are suggesting certain things. Learn.

That way, your developmental editor is there to help you perfect what you wrote and revised, instead of finding gaping holes that will make you want to write off your skill as a writer entirely. 

Also, it's easier for a content editor to write a thousand-word outline of why this one thing needs work. Not so much when all of your fundamentals are missing. It's simply too much knowledge for someone to impart in one go, and it's also too much for you, with your small amount of experience, to understand.

All of us had to start somewhere. But those of us who are here after ten years or more crawled before we ran. 

And if you're a new writer paying for an editor without having critique partners look at your writing first, you basically tried to skip to riding a unicycle. 

Do you have critique partners? If so, how did you find them? Any tips for finding and being an awesome critique partner?

32 comments:

  1. Since I'm doing more freelancing editing+critiquing, I am noticing this , too. You never know what you'll get or what their skill level will be. As you said, usually it's first time writers. I always suggest that a book be looked at by at least 2-3 critique partners/beta readers before they submit an editing inquiry. I can see the difference, and that's because critiques are so important. And so is the writer willing to listen to those critiques and make changes as necessary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah I know what you mean. CPs don't help if the writer refuses to listen.

      Delete
  2. Your clients may not know what a critique partner or beta reader is, especially if they're not involved in blogging. I didn't before I started my blog. The good thing about CPs is, being writers themselves (editors are not always), they are likely to have a feel for what works, developed in the ways you describe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah I guess that's the service I do offer, coming at my edits from a writing perspective.

      But you're right, most non-bloggers probably don't know what CPs are. And even if they do, they're too scared to exchange manuscripts.

      Delete
  3. I don't have any critique partners yet because I refuse to send out my book before I fix everything that *I* know is wrong with it. It would just be pointless, I think. Although I do wish sometimes I had someone to talk things over with when I'm struggling.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some people think one should just send the manuscript to CPs as soon as it's written.

      I tried that, but I just... can't.

      One the one hand, I feel sorry for my CPs.

      On the other, it annoys me when the CPs inadvertently focus on things I knew about. When I let someone else read, I'm looking for the holes I didn't see on my own.

      Delete
  4. I hate to read what I wrote years ago. With 33 novels in AZ, I really should work harder at updating the old novels.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hahaha I worry that it will happen to me one day.

      Lemme know if you need an editor. ;-)

      Delete
  5. I noticed the same thing too. A few years ago, I did some freelance editing for a small publisher. Most of the manuscripts that came to me were first drafts. Not even content-wise, but the mechanics of writing were lame. After a while, I gave up and stopped accepting new manuscripts. They didn't pay me enough to struggle with such weak texts. It felt like a young writer would finish a story and rush to send it to the publisher in the belief that the publisher's editor would fix all her mistakes. It was almost painful sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes!

      I've received raw rough drafts with the order to "proofread" the book into a best seller. >_<

      Delete
  6. Great post. As an editor, I know exactly what you mean.

    Love,
    Janie

    ReplyDelete
  7. What an excellent post! I have a co-author and then other authors/bloggers that have helped me with my manuscripts before I have sent them editors. Definitely helpful!

    I also agree that the more we write- the better we get. :)
    ~Jess

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks!

      Sometimes, there's also a cost advantage to sending a clean manuscript to editors. At least, my former publishing house editor (who freelances now) bases her cost estimate on the work you send in.

      So the cleaner it is, the less expensive her services.

      Delete
  8. I have critique partners on Critique Circle, which I can recommend highly.

    I think the main trick to success in critiquing relationships is to be prepared to be honest but kind - the aim is to help the other writer - and to put the work in. I sometimes see CC members wondering why they get so few critiques, and the simple answer is they're putting just the minimal effort in to let them post their work.

    As for being on the receiving end of critiques and getting the best out of them - I wrote a whole book about that :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have to admit, I've never heard of Critique Circle.

      Also, kindness is important, although I have a tendency to equate "kindness" with being useful. I've seen so many people on Wattpad who are "helping," but whether it's to make themselves look smart of because they themselves are utterly clueless, they would leave scathing remarks like: "Your characters are all one-dimensional." "This is such a cliche."

      Stuff like that might SEEM impressive to people who don't "get" writing yet, so it gets handed out as advice like smarties.

      But the reality is that it only proves that the unkind person didn't put the time and thought into thinking about why specifically, a character is reading as being one-dimensional, or to realize that a story reads as cliche because the writer is NEW TO WRITING.

      Delete
  9. An excellent post with great advice on why a critique done is absolutely necessary before engaging an editor.

    Thank you Misha!

    ReplyDelete
  10. We can't learn in a vacuum. When I get submissions from writers who state they have no critique partners and they have little online presence, I know their writing will lack.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amen to that.

      I don't know how the writers of old managed it. :-/

      Delete
  11. Hi Misha - I've learnt loads just being a blogger, let alone writing ... but I'd be humble if I actually had a book to send out to CPs ...

    Interesting to read your post and the comments - cheers Hilary

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah when I send a book out, I'm usually on needles and pins while waiting for it to come back. :-D

      Delete
  12. Thanks for this post, Misha. As a beginning writer, this is really good advice for me to take on board and a good reminder about how much I don't know and need to learn about the craft of writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad to help in some small way. :-)

      Delete
  13. It always surprises me a little when new writers don't want to take time to educate themselves about the craft. You're right, we all have to start somewhere! And we should never stop learning, right? Have a great week! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think the problem is that people don't look at writing as an art. So they don't take it as seriously as they could/should in the beginning.

      Delete
  14. When I first started writing I paid an editor. And I have to agree with you; I learned more from my CPs than from the paid professionals. Because, as you say, I did not really really know the ropes, even though I had read a book or two on writing.

    It is easier to learn from those that are on our sames writing level, or only a rung above.

    Now, I can benefit from a paid professional. I've developed my style, know the tropes, understand the language. I'm not as sensitive as I was as a newbie, and expect my critiques to be more abrupt and expectant.

    Sometimes, its hard for me to crit for a new author. But, its good for me to remember how far I've come, and how much help I've had along the way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you here. Someone close to your own level might know as little as you, but at the same time, they know something different from you, and so you teach each other something if you exchange critiques. :-)

      Delete
  15. This is a great post! I know exactly what you mean. I haven't opened myself up to a lot of critiquing outside our blogosphere or the Compuserve Books and Writers Community, but sometimes I'll get friends of friends asking me to look at something and... I just don't know what to tell them. Often the best I can do is over vague praise and suggest that they start hanging out on the Community!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hehehehe I warn them outright that I'm going to tear their book apart. Then if they insist, I can say I did warn them. ;-)

      Delete
  16. I agree totally, Misha (never realised you offered these surfaces! Feel bad about asking you t beta read my story now *cringe). In my freelancer work I've come across all sorts! But I remember how it's taken years of learning from craft books and our incredible writer network for me to improve. I have found, at times, it's best to make suggestions and point the client to a few helpful text books/writer blogs and wish them well. Otherwise it becomes a ghostwriting job; much more expensive and they don't learn a thing. Of course, some refuse to believe they're not already at the required level to send their MS to publishers and unfortunately, their delusion will reveal itself in a rejection email.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No worries on the beta read. I know you'll return the favor eventually. ;-)

      I also try to point people to the right information, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to ghost write.

      Delete

Thanks for commenting! I love to read what you think.

Feel free to ignore the check-box saying "Prove you're not a robot." My word verification is off, but I moderate comments to posts older than two weeks.