Tiptoeing Through Sleeping Tigers: Critique Partners

By DeAnn Bell

While reading through articles in the wake of the death of Professor Stephen Hawking, I came across one called “Stephen Hawking: The book that made him a star” written by Dr Simon Mitton. Rather than a history of how Prof Hawking became the physics celebrity I know, the article concentrated on the early drafting of A Brief History of Time. Dr Mitton says that Prof Hawking asked for Mitton’s opinion on early drafts of the book in the 1980’s, stating that Hawking intended for the nonfiction novel to be sold in airports and shop windows just like popular fiction. Mitton recounts: “Then I thumbed the typescript. To my dismay, the text was far too technical for a general reader.”

Recommending a less technical approach, Mitton eventually told Hawking several drafts later that every equation he added to the novel would cut the market for it in half. I sympathized with Dr Mitton heavily at that moment because a critique partner’s job includes pointing out when something in the writing, brilliant as it may be, might keep the text from its intended market. That information is rarely welcomed. Although the feedback was valid and necessary, Mitton admitted that it took Hawking several tries to relay the material without the equations. Crucial to this story is that Mitton was honest in his feedback even though Hawking already had a healthy reputation in the physics field and Hawking brought the piece back to Mitton even though the original feedback wasn’t positive.

The closest simile I can think of for critiquing a new work for a new author is that it’s like tiptoeing through sleeping tigers. You have no idea when well-meant advice might awaken a host of insecurities that turn around and devour your budding relationship and a potentially good story. Before I began to professionally critique writing, I was asked by a published author friend to look over a short story. He already had some success in self-publishing and wanted my thumbs up before he sent his newest piece to market. He told me as a “friend” that what he wanted was an honest opinion on whether or not the story was interesting. Later, I would come to recognize this invitation as a trap. It wasn’t a bad story, but like all early drafts, it was a little paunchy.

The Simulated Conversation went as follows:
“Your story has a good backbone but it doesn’t actually begin until page three,” I said enthusiastically flipping past what some writers call the throat clearing pages of the piece.
“That first part is some of my best writing and it’s important to understanding my character,” he responded tightly.
I read it again just in case I had missed something vital, but unfortunately, it was worse the second time. I tried again, “From what I the first couple of pages are telling your story before you show us the story. It takes the surprise out of the ending.”

I got some grunted comments which I interpreted as agreement. I would not know that this would be the last time we would speak to each other, not just about writing, but ever. I was stunned because I felt that I was genuinely being helpful and for a long time, I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. 

Egos are sensitive, mine included. My regular critique partner, Emma, told me that one of my short stories needed diary dates even though the story itself was about the inability in this world to keep regular track of time. I will admit that the inner diva in me wanted to toss her haughty head up and declare that my partner just didn’t get it. When one of my stories collapses under my reader’s gaze like a flan in a cupboard, my first reaction is always defensive. Having been on the other side of the critique pen more than once, I now recognize that inner diva as a part of my own insecurity.

Now as a writer and a critique partner, I remind myself that all writers from Stephen King to Stephen Hawking needed a critique partner to be successful. After I got over myself, I went back to Emma explained in detail what I had intended for the story to do. Although she’d said it needed dates, we discovered what she meant was that she couldn’t always tell when the time was shifting back and forth in the piece. Rather than needing a re-write, what the piece needed was clearer signposting. Once I understood how the draft was misleading her, I was better able to identify and clarify places where I had made assumptions as the writer. A new critique partnership is a new relationship for both of you and as subject to misunderstandings as any romantic relationship might be. It also inevitably comes with some emotional baggage.

Advice for Writers:

1)      Respect your partner’s time. Don’t send crap. If you know the draft is poorly written then keep it to yourself until it is at least readable. Your partner’s job is to critique a good draft until it’s great, not critique a bad draft until it’s good.

2)      Know what your intentions for the work are. That means roughly knowing your intended audience, what subjects you are addressing in the draft, and what you believe is and isn’t working. This will help you understand where you lost your reader if your feedback comes back negative.

3)      Give your partner time to read and respond. That means sending your work more than a week before your deadline. A rushed critique can be worse for a draft than not having one at all.

4)      Talk to your partner about the feedback in person when possible. Inflections of voice carry poorly in the written word so if your partner is online, arrange a Skype or FaceTime date to talk through the potential changes. This also keeps you from editing parts that are already doing their job.

5)      Prepare yourself. If you are in a bad head space, alert your partner and consider rescheduling your chat. Also question why certain feedback makes you feel defensive or discouraged. Knowing your emotional tigers yourself can help you guide your partner around them.

Advice for New Critiquing Partners:

1)      Ask questions in the draft rather than make statements. For example: Are these events connected? How are they going to get there from here? Are Alan and Allan the same character? What kind of audience is this meant for? This method of feedback helps the writer to see where they lost you. It will also help you to understand where you are making assumptions as a reader.

2)      Be honest with yourself and your partner about how much time you have to critique. Like I said above, a rushed feedback job creates more work for both parties.
3)      Comment on places in the draft that make you react. For example: This made me laugh. I really hate this guy right now. I just want to give her a hug. These types of statements help a writer to recognize your engagement without you having to resort to empty compliments. For the writer, it can also help us recognize where a character misunderstanding starts.

4)      More often than you would imagine, two contemporaneous authors who know nothing about one another can create eerily similar pieces. On the other hand, sometimes a writer is unaware that they are duplicating something they have seen or read. If you spot a situation, character, or setting from another story, let your partner know. Highlighting these similarities can give your partner a chance to make their own character or situation distinct. It can also help them identify overlooked markets and publishers.

5)      Be prepared for resistance. Even the best writer will be a little disappointed that they didn’t hit the mark. When that inner diva rears his haughty head, remember that it is a sign of insecurity rather than superiority and go back to step one. Ask questions. This prevents misunderstandings in feedback but more importantly, helps your writer to understand that this is a delivery problem in the story not a bad story in itself.

6)      Last but not least, look for a partnership. If your partner never has time to look at your work, won’t take the time to talk through their feedback, wants instant feedback, or in other words doesn’t reciprocate and respect your time and effort, they are taking advantage of you. That’s the moment to give your own diva free reign to flounce out of the relationship.


Mitton, Simon,“Stephen Hawking: The book that made him a star”, BBC News: Science and Environment,<http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43404524>[accessed 19/03/2018]


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