I recently beta-ed for a friend, an excellent writer who is a regular contributor to a gardening magazine. An amateur gardener myself, I find her work fascinating. Most of the time, she writes touching vignettes about the gardening life: those plants that survive no matter what you do to terminate them, the unexpected gardeners like little squirrels who plant things in the oddest places. My gardening friend is a meticulous writer who seldom makes an error, so I often find it difficult to find anything to criticize. The combinations of subject and excellence make my job as critique partner a breeze.
I make a distinction here between the writing group I speak of so often and my critique partner. The gardener reads my work as I go along, as I do hers. She sends a chapter or two for my perusal, and I send her a few chapters for her review. We work in tandem to find those places where a reader of the potential finished product might find a non-sequitur or scratch their heads if a the heroine of the piece seems to do something out of character. We check each other's spelling and grammar. We strike and bold words and phrases that clutter up the story. We ask questions about where one or the other of us are going with a storyline, whether that beautiful descriptive passage really advances our plot.
What are we really? We're waxers. Before anything can have that final buffing, that application of craft that makes it shine, it has to be waxed. While waxing, we remove blemishes or nicks that might mar the final shine, the polish that comes when the writing group gets their hands on it.
My crit partner belongs to a writing group not unlike The Dawg Pack. Her group meets locally, occasionally having the luxury of holding readings for the public. My group meets, but over the internet connection. My friend knows what members of her group look like and sound like. Which is better? The virtual group or the group who's physically present? There is no 'better' in this case.
The trick to receiving constructive criticism, whether face to face or through virtual contact, is simply this: be willing to reconstruct your product based on the input of others. Just like me, my crit partner quivers in fear when she gives the copies of her pieces to her writing group so they can mull them over. She waits to hear what the next meeting will bring, whether she gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Her anxious nail-biting is no different than my own. However, when members of the group offer their criticism, we both take it on the chin. Sometimes, we find things to smile about, but sometimes, the group leaves us with our eyes firmly pointed toward the floor or our noses bleeding from the battering. Either way, we go home, hit the keyboard, and work, honing the product based on criticism.
Every writer needs a crit partner. I found mine on Absolute Write, an internet community of writers. My friend found her writing group connected to a book club she felt the urge to join. Like any group with a common interest, writers tend to find each other. BUT (notice that's a big but) the important thing when claiming a crit partner is to find someone who's willing to give constructive criticism, someone who's not afraid to say, "Hey, I don't think that works." A crit partner isn't Cousin Millie who raves about your work or that friend who's too kind to tell you that 'in tact' is really 'intact.' Test a would-be partner. Don't rest in a nest of laurels created by flattery. Flattery won't make you grow. As my gardening friend says, crit partners water your roots.