Wednesday 20 July 2016

Iron sharpens Iron

by Jeanette O'Hagan

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. Proverbs 27:17 (NLT)
Writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit - the reclusive artist scribbling away in the attic as words are distilled and preserved for future generations. And it's true that writers do spend a lot of time alone. Yet, if it takes a village to raise a child, there is also a sense in which it also takes a literary village to birth a book.  From reading the greats, to teachers, mentors, critique partners, beta-readers, editors, agents, publishers, formatters, cover artists, publicists, distributors, booksellers and readers.

Over the last several weeks, I've been reminded of the important role of critique partners - or friendly critics - those valuable fellow writers who give us pertinent and honest feedback on our work. (Similar but different from Beta-readers and editors).

I've recently appreciated finding a group of fantasy and sci-fi writers who understand what I'm writing and invaluable feedback through the critique sessions plus a novel swap (with some great pointers on siege warfare). And I've also appreciated the time taken by a friend in a poetry group I belong to, whose feedback helped me refine a suite of poems I submitted to a competition on Monday. Such input is priceless.

To be honest though, getting honest feedback can sometimes be a painful process. In some cases, it's taken me months to recover :), but better to hear it now, than after submission or publication. And while, sometimes such harsh criticism has been warranted, that isn't always the case. It's good to hear more than one voice - though the sweetest voices are not always the most accurate.

A good critique partner:

  • Is available
  • Provides a fresh set of eyes - we see what we think is there and often don't see the plot holes or inaccuracies; I've found that each critiquer will pick up different things. One might be best on grammatical issues, another on the use of rhetorical devices or factual issues, while a third might pick up structural or genre related issues.
  • Is honest and brave enough to tell you when something isn't working (for them).
  • Is specific - not just 'this is a load of rubbish' but given specific examples of what jars them. 
  • Will also say what works for them - it's as valuable to know what is working as what isn't (and a little bit of praise keeps one going).
  • Is respectful - they don't imply you, the writer, are an idiot or hopeless.
  • Have some knowledge of the craft, of your genre and/or target audience - or at least you are aware where their area of strength is.
  • Balances the negative with the positive.
  • Understands were you are on the journey - when we are just beginning we probably needs more encouragement (so we don't give up in despair) than a more experienced writer. 
  • Is descriptive rather than prescriptive - they explain what they liked and disliked, but they understand that you are the writer of the work. 
Being a critique partner is usually a mutual relationship - with each partner taking turns between being the critiquer or being critiqued. 

A good recipient of a critique
  • Appreciates the value of receiving a critique - someone has taken time to read and respond to your work. Never take that for granted.
  • Accepts the critique graciously, even if it's negative.
  • Allows time to consider carefully the points that have been raised. Sometimes what seemed ridiculous when you first hear it, may actually make a lot of sense - with time.
  • Listens without arguing back - even when you don't like what you hear. If the critiquer notices something, they may not be right about the solution, or even about the problem - but it is often a good indication that you need to look at whether you are communicating clearly at that point.
  • Understands that you as the writer, has the final say - it is your work and vision. You will need to develop the wisdom to know when to change things and when to hold on and follow your creative intuitions.
  • Is happy to return the favour (gives as well as receives).
Where ever you are on the writing journey, good critique partners are treasures to be appreciated. 

Where do you find critique partners? This is not always easy - but many writing groups have some form of critiquing (whether online or face to face). Also, meeting other writers online, at conferences or workshops or writing courses may be ways of meeting potential critique partners with interests in similar genre or areas. Omega Writers, for instance, has sub-groups for creative non-fiction, children and young adult, Science-Fiction and Fantasy and Screen-Writers.  

What experiences have you had with critique partners and what tips would you like to share about what makes or breaks a critique partnership.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of tratong at

Jeanette O’Hagan enjoys writing fiction, poetry, blogging and editing. She is writing her Akrad’s Legacy Series—a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements. Her short stories and poems are published in a number of anthologies including Glimpses of LightAnother Time Another Place and Like a Girl. She is excited about launch of Heart of the Mountain on the 30th of this July, 2016 - and the upcoming Omega Writers Brisbane Book Fair.

Jeanette has practised medicine, studied communication, history, theology and, more recently, a Master’s in writing. She loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends, pondering the meaning of life and communicating God’s great love. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

You can find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or on Amazon or on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .


  1. Critiquing is great but not always easy to give or receive. :-)

  2. Thank you for this excellent (and timely) post, Jeanette.

    I'm fairly good at spotting the minor issues with my writing--a missing quotation mark or using the wrong word. It's the bigger picture issues which are harder to identify. After all, I know what I mean!

    As I work through my Camp Nano manuscript, I'm finding more and more instances where I want to get a second opinion on whether a plot point is working, or whether my characters are realistic. That, for me, is where a good critique partner will be invaluable.

    The challenge is finding the right critique partner or partners. People who I can help, who can also help me. Fun times ahead!

    1. Thanks Iola :) And yes, getting the second pair of eyes is invaluable. I agree, finding a critique partner isn't always easy, though doing a critique swap with someone who writes in your genre can work well. All the best with your novel - looking forward to seeing to reading it :)

  3. Hi Jo-Anne - as both you and Lynne have noted, it can be an emotional roller-coaster :) But I've learnt so much from honest and constructive critiques - they're like gold. And I'd rather get a reaction one way or the other than a bland disinterest. And I guess, if some is giving you a mixture of positive and negative - you can be sure the positive one's are honest.

  4. Excellent post Jeanette. A blessing indeed if a writer finds the right critique partners.


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