How Many Critique Partners Is Too Many?

Things That Writers Can Learn From Musicians –

This coming month, I’m doing a series on what writers can learn from musicians and vice versa. This is the first test-run of these posts. I’ve spent 10 years immersed in the music industry, done multiple national tours and had the honor of playing with the likes of bands much larger than me (some of which are now on television/radio). Now I write books and pitch agents on these works, with dreams of traditional publication.

(Critique Partners: The Story)

I love learning about things that I had no idea existed.

I’m sure a cross section of my brain would produce quite the electrically charged image during one of these “Eureka” moments.

I like these moments less (though I still very much value them) when they happen publically. Recently, one such moment happened when I was offering a manuscript trade with a twitter friend. She called me out on my lack of knowledge by politely saying “No offense, but don’t you already have critique partners?”

The moment she said this, it dawned on me that the word ‘partner’ implied a small number. So I went to “the google” and asked it questions.

What I found was very enlightening.

Turns out, the average was around 2-5 critique partners, and writers generally hold this select group in very high regard. These are people that a writer knows and trusts, generally people who have critiqued previous works and whose writing the author really values. Makes sense, right? You value someone else’s work, so you should get critiques from them!

I get it, but I’d like to respectfully disagree.

And before you guffaw and annihilate me in the comments, hear me out.

(How Does It Work In Music)

In music, the closest thing one has to a critique partner is a producer.

These are people whose opinions you value, who have an unobstructed and impartial view on your work and who can provide you with unsurpassed advice on how to change your songs to make them better.

I suppose the comparison isn’t exactly one to one.

A producer is more like the LAST critique partner you have. The one who tells you everything you’ve done up to this point is nearly there — and here’s how we’ll put it over the top. Occasionally they perform open-heart surgery on a song, but generally speaking they are working with you because (like a CP) they value what you’ve created so far and see how to land the plane.

So let’s talk about the songwriting process (for me at least).

1) Write song
2) Review with band (they hate it)
3) Rewrite song, go back to #2 (probably 20+ times)

4) (and here’s the difference) Play for live audience of some kind (Notice: Not go to studio)

5) Go back to 3 and 2 until satisfied.
6) Send songs to prospective producer.
7) Hit the studio. Fix final touches with producer.

The point of doing in this order is pretty simple.

Who buys a song? Strangers (and your parents).

And there are a LOT more strangers buying your song (if you did it right) than parents. Having a strangers input at this stage (step 4, not step 7) in the songwriting process is invaluable. This is when your song is being overhauled, chopped to bits, chucked in the trash can, completely ruined and rewritten.

And you do this after your first filter but before your producer because?

Strangers don’t know you. They don’t care about your silly song. And they’re more than happy to rip you to shreds for it when you pry.

This is the moment when you find out what you have.

(What Can A Writer Learn From This?)

In writing, by comparison, you have very few critique partners. These are people whose opinions you value above all else, who have built a rapport with you and whose writing you respect a great deal (as mentioned above). Much like a producer, this advice is invaluable.

So the process (as I understand it) for a writer is this –

1) Write your first draft.
2) Rewrite your draft a few times (same as music)
3) Show to critique partners (as in 2-5 people you know and trust). Repeat 2 as much as needed.

4) (and here’s the strange thing) Send book to agents. (who do not know or trust you).

5) If agented – get professional edit.
6) More editing until you memorized it word for word, creating a (close to) final draft.
7) Send to beta-readers (aka fans who like you who can give you their first impressions when MOST of the editing is already done)

Now, is it just me, or does this seem crazy? If I’m willing to show a 3 minute song to a group of 100 strangers to rip to shreds, why again am I hiding my little manuscript during all the chopping and destroying?

Now I know, you’re going to say “hold on Mr. Brian. How can showing strangers a piece of garbage be helpful? I’m just going to lose fans that I’ve gained.”

My response? You won’t. Not if they’re fans. That’s not how it works. Assuming that steps 1-3 have happened at least a handful of times, your book is going to be 80% there. Sure it may have errors. Sure it may have issues. But isn’t that the point? Isn’t that when you actually want to know if you’ve wasted your time? Isn’t that the time when a stranger’s opinion is the most valuable thing on the planet?

(Giant Disclaimer Time)

I see you there, with your pitchfork and your torch… and you better believe I’ve locked up my castle gates and I’m praying to God you won’t break in… but let me extinguish a little of your fire before the nighttime riots begin.

I believe in the CP system. I think it works. It’s good to have those opinions you know and trust. But consider the first word. Critique. As in critic. As in someone who expects you to stink, or who doesn’t care if you fail.

Now I get it, most good CP’s are harsh. They smell blood and they attack. But let me propose one thing to you all – think of those whom you critique. Do you want them to succeed? Do you respect them? Do you think they’re good writers with little issues that you like to point out? If so, you’re opinion (no matter how harsh) is already at minimum influenced and at maximum totally jaded.

Again – I’m not saying this is bad. A long-time critique partner may very well be harsher than a new one… BUT – by definition they likely know your work. By definition you’ve likely worked with them before and heard their little voice in your head as you made decisions. You’ve eliminated some of their pet peeves. You’ve eradicated words that drive them nuts. You’re going to get at least one or two pats on the back. Live in that world too long, and improvement may actually be synonymous with catering to a CP’s likes and dislikes.

The fact is, unless your CP is a time traveler (and mine are dang near close), their opinion is not that of a first time reader. Their opinion is equal to a reader who read your first book, liked it, and (as a fan) they’re choosing to read a new book. The more books they read, the more their expectation is different than that of a first time reader. No matter how much they rip your manuscript to bits and pieces, they still believe you are capable of creating a worthy book. A first time reader doesn’t share this opinion (not yet).

Let me get to the point.

My point ISNT to get rid of your wonderful CP’s.

My point ISNT that having CP’s who aren’t first time readers have no value.

My point ISNT that your current lot of CP’s is garbage and should be discarded.

My point IS that your current CP’s are not strangers. And more strangers buy your books than CP’s (if you did it right).

I realize this is heresy. And I expect backlash. I’m not looking to rock the boat, just question the shape of it and proposing a different view (from a critical perspective, having no love or hate for the current system).

The way I see it, by the time a book hits first time reader hands, it’s already pretty set in stone. And that’s a lot of time to spend on something before really knowing what you have. Why not include beta readers in the process? Why not include strangers, other writers who write in your genre who are willing to commit hours to a book from an author they’ve never read?

Maybe their advice will be garbage. Maybe you won’t listen to a word of it. Or maybe they’re in some ways better suited to give you honest feedback than a critique partner who trusts you’ll wrap up those 1000 plot lines or that your voice for a character is within the “acceptable range” for your writing — because your character voice always starts slow and finishes strong.

Because I would argue the best critique you ever got from your CP was the first one, when they had no basis for who you were or whether you were any good at this thing called writing, and when they truly had an outside perspective. After all, that’s why you’ve kept them around. They were honest. They struck the heart of the issue. They had a view outside of your own.

So I need a raise of hands, a role call so to speak.

What do you think? Or is everyone preparing the torches? 🙂

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2 thoughts on “How Many Critique Partners Is Too Many?

  1. I’d be happy to do so Diane! 🙂 So glad to hear I’ve intrigued you! I heard nothing but crickets at first and wondered if perhaps I was indeed crazy! 🙂

    DM me on twitter @BrianRSchwarz and i’ll send you my email address! Looking forward to seeing it!

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