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11/12/2014 09:03 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

How To Avoid The Writing Critique From Hell

You’ve been burning the midnight oil, feverishly writing and rewriting. You’ve carefully weighed every word of your latest work until you’re satisfied you’ve created a literary gem. Or have you? You might start to wonder -- maybe, instead of a diamond, you’ve just created a big lump of... coal. When you spend so much time reviewing your own writing, it can be hard to judge your own work objectively.

What you need is a good critique partner (aka beta reader), someone who can give you a fair, unbiased opinion of your writing and useful advice. What you don’t need is someone on a power trip whose demeaning, unconstructive criticism is only meant to hurt, not help.

Here’s how to make sure you don’t fall victim to the critique partner from hell:

Choose wisely. Your critique partner should be qualified to offer feedback on writing and publishing. Choose an author whose work you respect. Consider asking a writer who has experience with sending submissions and the vicissitudes of the publishing industry, as well as knowledge about your genre.

Try to find a reader who is also willing to point out what’s good about your writing, as opposed to someone who only focuses on the negative.

Accept that honesty is the best policy. You want the person critiquing your work to be honest about the quality of your writing. Yes, even brutally honest. That’s how you become a better writer. Your mom or your best friend may gush about how great your writing is, but unrealistic, favorable reviews won’t help when you send your work out into the cold, harsh publishing world.

But providing honest feedback doesn’t mean the reader offering the critique gets to be a snarky bully! Comments made simply to demean or belittle you or your work aren’t helpful. Stay away from any critique partner whose big head comes with an equally big, disagreeable mouth.

Define boundaries. Be clear about what you expect from your critique partner. Are you looking for a simple line edit? Do you want more content-based feedback? And is there a deadline you need to meet? You both need to be on the same theoretical page.

And don’t forget that your beta reader will have some expectations too. Know up front how and when you’ll be expected to reciprocate.

Decide whether to meet in person or online. Both options have their benefits. Communicating online offers more scheduling flexibility—you can’t beat the convenience of emailing your work at 1:00 a.m. while you’re sitting at home in your T-shirt and sweatpants.

Interacting online also gives your beta reader an opportunity to carefully word his or her comments and lets you take some time to process any criticisms before you respond. It’s a great way to ensure that your conversations don’t become overheated and devolve into insult slinging.

However, meeting in person also has merits. Since writing is often a solitary pursuit, exchanging ideas face-to-face can offer a nice change of pace and lead to more productive results.

Agree to disagree. Your critique partner recommends eliminating a pivotal character? Or advises that your poetry would read better without any punctuation? Before you discard all your hard work and make every suggested change—stop. Give the critique your full consideration, but remember: You don’t have to implement every single alteration proposed by your advisor. Make only the changes you truly feel will strengthen your work.

By carefully considering the person behind the critique, you’ll choose a partner who will offer unbiased advice and genuine encouragement, and ultimately improve your writing skills.

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