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Leveling Up as a Writer with Peer Critique

Not all practice makes perfect. A writer who works in isolation will not improve significantly over time. Leveling up requires stepping outside of your comfort zone. Here's how your can do that through peer critique of your work.
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One of my favorite things about writing is that it’s a craft as well as an art. As writers, we can continue improving our basic skill set. In the days of modern publishing, it’s one of the few aspects of our career that we can control. Setting aside time to write. Putting in the effort. Trying new things.

However, having spent around 10 years in this writing game, I can tell you that not all practice makes perfect. A writer who works in isolation will not improve significantly over time. Leveling up requires stepping outside of your comfort zone. Today, I’m going to discuss how to do that via peer critique of your work.

I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, but didn’t seriously consider writing until my late twenties. I finally bit the bullet by signing up for an “Introduction to Fiction Writing” night class. At the time, I’d been blogging for a few years and had authored a number of nonfiction articles. I figured that adapting those skills to fiction would be easy.

Nope. I was pretty bad at it. That became clear after I wrote my first story and submitted it to be workshopped by the class. My classmates were kind about it, but their feedback showed me that I had a long way to go.

Writer’s Workshop: A Format for Group Critique

In case you haven’t participated in a writer’s workshop, this is how it usually works: When it’s your turn to get a critique, you give a copy of your story to everyone else in the group. They read it before the next meeting. When the group meets, they have a discussion about the story including what they liked, what they didn’t understand, and what might need to be improved. During this time, the author listens but does not respond. After everyone has had a turn to talk, the author thanks them for their critique and may (briefly) respond to the comments.

One nice feature of this format is that it fosters an interactive discussion among those giving critique, without the possibility of the author jumping in to make it confrontational. Another advantage of group critique is that it provides several unique perspectives on the same story. Some of them might focus on the character development, others on plot, and still others on dialogue or setting.

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As you get to know the other members of the group, you’ll begin to recognize the things they want from a story. For example, one of my classmates had some script (television) writing experience, so he always liked to see a plot twist. Another student paid the most attention to vivid sensory detail. It made me think about putting these things into any story I would submit for critique. Through that class and another one I took the next semester, I got better at writing. So did the other students, which was a joy to see. The peer critique played a vital part in that. If you can take a writing class or join a critique group, you’re bound to level up as a writer.

One consistent piece of feedback I received about my submissions was that they felt like part of a larger story. I took this to mean that I should try writing novel-length work. It would give me the space to develop a fantasy world and tell more intricate stories. The problem was that a novel is too long to submit to a writer’s workshop. To get feedback, for something that long, I’d have to find another way.

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Critique Partners for Longer Works

Fast forward a few years, and I’d written a few different novels. The third of these was about a Las Vegas magician who goes on a quest into a secret medieval world where magic is real. I’d sent out some queries and managed to land an agent. We worked on some revisions, and then the manuscript went out to some editors. Unfortunately, they turned it down, and said that the book still needed some work. My agent suggested that I either hire a freelance editor or find some hard-nosed critique partners to help improve the manuscript.

So I asked a few writer friends of mine (including one from that fiction class) if they’d read my work and provide detailed critiques. They generously agreed, and over the next couple of months, I used their feedback to overhaul my work. In return, I offered to return the favor—to read a manuscript of theirs and provide a critique. After I did so, they critiqued another manuscript of mine, and so it went.

Critique partnerships are essential for novelists, especially those who haven’t broken in. The truth is that most writers are too close to their work to see all of its flaws. A critique partner’s job is to provide constructive criticism of the entire manuscript. This is usually accomplished via e-mail, though it can also be done by phone or even in person.

Because a novel is a longer work, the critique is necessarily longer, too. Most of my critique partners and I exchange two items: an “edit letter” with high-level comments about the character, plot, and other elements, and a copy of the manuscript with inline comments/suggestions marked (using Word’s “Track Changes” feature).

NB: This is usually the format in which you’ll receive your edit letter from a publisher, so it’s worth becoming familiar with it.

Handling Critiques

Importantly, you need not agree with all of the feedback that a critique partner provides. After all, he or she is probably an author at a similar career stage, and may not have the same vision for your book. Even so, if more than one critique partner raises a particular concern, you should probably give it strong consideration.

It’s hard to express in words how beneficial a good critique partnership can be to individual manuscripts, and to an author’s work as a whole. Critique partners are how most novelists level up. I’m blessed with multiple critique partners, and they each have different strengths. We’ve been working together for years, and their critiques have had profound influences on my books. Most up-and-coming authors operate the same way. That relationship can often make the difference between a book that lands an agent and a book that lands a publishing deal.

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That’s true in my case. Remember how I worked with a few critique partners to overhaul my book? It went on submission soon after that, and was picked up by Harper Voyager (an imprint of HarperCollins). The Rogue Retrieval, my debut novel, was published in 2016 as the first in a three-book series about a Vegas magician in a medieval world. The third and final volume, The World Awakening, comes out in paperback this month.

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How to Find Critique Partners

Maybe you’re sold on the idea of a critique partners, but don’t know where to find one. It’s easier than it sounds, especially if you engage the writing community as an active member. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are wonderful places to meet fellow authors. So are conventions, writing conferences, and local writers guilds. There are also regular contests, like Pitch Wars, that pair aspiring writers with more established ones who help improve their manuscript.

Once you find someone who might make a critique partner, you ask if they’d be willing to read for you sometime. Don’t be offended if they decline—some writers aren’t ready to take that step, while others might already have several good CPs. If someone reads for you, generally speaking, you should return the favor before asking him or her to read another manuscript. There are exceptions to this, since not everyone writes at the same speed.

If it ends up being a one-shot deal, that’s just fine—nothing ventured, nothing gained. But if it evolves into a critique partnership, you’ve taken a big step toward leveling up as a writer.

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