Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Value of a Writing Critique Partner

By Laura Christianson

A magazine editor called me out of the blue (I love it when they do that!) and assigned me a docu-drama.

Befuddled, I asked, “Uh…what’s a docu-drama?”

She explained that it is a dramatic, first-person, as-told-to story – similar to those “drama in real life” features in Reader’s Digest. “It’s written like fiction, with scenes and dialogue.”

Uh oh. I’m not a fiction writer, but the assignment sounded fun and challenging, so I agreed to tackle it.

I conducted the interview, wrote out the whole story so I could get the big picture, and then started cutting. And cutting. And cutting. After the fourth draft, the story sounded so disjointed I wasn’t even sure it made sense anymore.

Laura Christianson & Jenn DoucetteIt was time to call in the rescue squad. I dashed off an email to my writer friend, Jenn Doucette, asking her to highlight places in the article I could condense and to suggest a headline (I’m headline-challenged; Jenn cranks out perfect headlines like nobody’s business).

A couple of hours later, I received her reply: “I’m on it, girlie.”

An hour after that, she returned my marked-up draft, accompanied by the terse message, “The story seemed way too choppy and disjointed.”

Whoa…she doesn’t mince words!

But I appreciate Jenn’s blunt honesty, because it’s exactly what I needed to hear. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the story was… er… choppy and disjointed. I just needed another writer to confirm it.

During the last five years, I’ve been a member of a writers’ critique group, joined my local writers’ association, and had several writer friends (such as Jenn) who I can call on in emergencies.

These sorts of relationships are invaluable for us writers, for several reasons:
  • Writers tend to be solitary people, scribbling away in dimly lit rooms for hours on end. We need human contact to stay sane. Even if they are other writers.

  • We writers tend to fall in love with our words. We pen (what we assume is) the perfect phrase, and we dread the thought of someone criticizing our words.
But constructive criticism is most often just what we need. I sent my draft to Jenn because we have developed such a deep trust over the years that I knew she’d tell me exactly what I needed to hear, without sugar coating it. And I knew she’d get back to me quickly.

I wasn’t disappointed. While I disagreed with some of the changes she suggested and didn’t incorporate those edits into my next draft, the vast majority of her suggestions were right on target and had me smacking my head, saying, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?!”

Jenn (who is a fiction writer) pointed out gaps in the story’s timeline, places where I’d made choppy transitions, and stilted dialogue (among other things). After her honest critique, I felt much more confident tackling the next revision. All it took was a second pair of eyes.

Do you have a critique partner/group? Tell us about one thing your critique partner has said that has helped you improve your writing.


  1. Only one thing??!! In a recent critique, one of the members of my group pointed out that one of my characters was probably too young to be a lieutenant colonel. I did a quick internet search and realized he couldn't be a lt. colonel at all since that rank doesn't exist in the British Royal Air Force! Now he's a captain in the British Army. Critique partners do more than critique the writing*

    Kindred Heart Writers

  2. Oh, it's so true that partners do more than critique the writing, Johnnie. My critique partners have become some of my best-ever lifelong friends -- we celebrate each baby step in one another's writing journeys.

  3. How do you get one of these critique pardoners? Do you just ask for volunteers? This makes me feel like I'm putting an ad in the personals.

  4. Hey, Russ,

    I love your phrase, "critique pardoners." I realize it's likely a typo, but it makes sense! A good critique partner is truly a "pardoner" at heart.

    I would suggest finding and attending a local writers' association, and inquiring of them whether they help funnel people into critique groups, or whether they can help you get connected with a critique partner.

    There are many online writing groups, as well; that's a good place to find a critique partner. If you're an emerging writer, consider joining the Yahoo Group, The Writers' View II. They don't set up critique partners, but it's a great place to learn with and from other Christian writers.

  5. Thanks for the leads. BTW, a good straight man always feeds his lines as natural as typos.


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