There comes a time in every aspiring professional writer’s life when they need to find someone to read and critique their work. I am, in general, a big believer in doing the work yourself, by which I mean the writing, the research, the revising, the proofreading, etc. It’s your book, your idea, your vision, and you are the person who will bring it to life. However, at the end of the day, you are only human. Human beings make mistakes. Typos. Dropped words. Writers also have a way of believing they’ve said exactly what they meant, because they know what they meant to say, only to discover at some later date that the person reading what they’ve written doesn’t know what they meant at all. Somewhere between the writer’s brain and the page, the message was lost.
As a writer, you are your first reader, your first audience. You should, of course, write what pleases you. But, you are not the intended audience. Those readers out there in the world, those are the people you are ultimately writing for, and so it makes sense to have one on hand who will tell you if you’ve hit all your marks, if the story makes sense and all the pieces hang together, before you loose it on the world at large.
A critique partner can be another writer or just a good reader. But the chances are that they should not be a) your mother, b) your spouse, or c) your best friend. Generally, those people are a little bit too close to you to be brutally honest when it comes to your writing. More than likely, they will tell you that you are wonderful and perfect and the answer to all the publishing world’s problems. They might point out a misspelled word here and there, or wish for a happier ending, but overall, they will not give you useful, honest criticism. There are always exceptions, of course, but be honest with yourself in your assessment. You can always let Mom read your manuscript when you need a mental hug.
Where should you look for a critique partner? Writing classes, writers’ groups, online writing organizations, colleges and universities where writing classes are taught, bookstores, the library… Pretty much anywhere that readers and/or writers spend time. Friends might know other people interested in books and writing and craft, so let them know you’re looking for a reader.
You will probably have to try out a few people before you find someone whose skills and style are a good match to your own. If they are also a writer, you might want to reciprocate critiquing duties, but that’s not necessary. Plenty of people will read and critique for you simply for the pleasure of getting that first look at your work. But whatever else they do, they should be willing to tell you truthfully, in a straightforward if polite manner, what in your story is and isn’t working, and they should do so without telling you precisely how to fix it.
That last part is important, so I want to break it out a bit. I am not saying your critique partner should never make a suggestion. And certainly, when it comes to copy-editing-type critiques, of course they can correct your spelling or grammar errors. But the plot and the story are your own. Your critique partner can tell you if something isn’t believable, if you fail to answer questions that you’ve set up, if you’ve gone off on a boring tangent. By all means, listen to their thoughts on character motivation, consider their ideas about where you might need more tension or some comic relief. But your critique partner should not try to rewrite you; they have to remember that it’s not their book. You might be comfortable brainstorming with them, or bouncing your own ideas off of them, but beware of anyone who starts feeding you entire strings of story points and encouraging you to use them. If you refuse, it could strain your relationship. If you actually use them, you start veering into co-authorship and that can cause other problems if it’s not your intended path.
Another thing to keep in mind is that not all people have equal skills in all areas, and so you might consider having several critique partners instead of just one. Perhaps one of your writing friends has a fabulous ear for dialogue and another an excellent grasp of pacing and structure. Both could give you their thoughts, allowing you to benefit from a well-rounded critique overall. The danger here is if your critique partners provide you with conflicting advice. At the end of the day, this is no different than receiving multiple sets of feedback in a writing workshop. You need to be able to sift through everyone’s opinions and determine for yourself what works best for the project. This can take practice, but it’s an important skill to develop, since one day those recommended changes will be coming from an editor. Even at that level, you have the option of disagreeing with something you feel will take away from your book instead of making it stronger.
Finally, keep in mind that you may not have the same critique partner forever, or even for more than one or two projects. People’s lives change, get busier, and they move on. Or you may write something that’s in a genre your critique partner does not read, and find yourself searching for someone new just on that one book. Be open to meeting new critique partners even if you’re happily ensconced with your current reader; you never know when you might need to call on another set of eyes to help you make your book the best that it can be.