First let me say that I have been most fortunate. I have been blessed by my critique partners and groups. Not all worked as well as others though, so I thought I'd put together a little "how to" about some of the things that have worked for me.
1. Where to find a partner or group ~ If you're a romance author, the obvious place to begin your search is your local or online RWA chapter. Ask if there is an established group? If not, ask if anyone is interested in joining you because you're going to start one. If there is no RWA, ask at your local library. They'll know if there are other writers in the area. Ideally, you want to trust your work to someone who at least reads romance. One group I met with in a library had authors from several different genres. While their imput was interesting, it was not always given with romance distinctives in mind.
2. Commit to meeting regularly. I recommend weekly. Everyone can write 10 pages in a week and knowing you need to bring something to critique can light a fire under you. Set a limit on the amount of material you'll bring (unless someone is under a deadline and needs more help in an emergency situation!)Decide on a venue. I personally prefer meeting in homes. It allows for snacks and coffee (and the occasional adult beverage!) But libraries let groups use their conference rooms and I've heard of groups meeting in coffee shops. (I personally wouldn't feel comfortable reading my work aloud in one, but maybe those groups don't read aloud.) If you critique online or over the phone, have a set time blocked out for it.
3. Check your ego at the door. Don't be defensive when someone suggests a change. I've been in groups where the author argued with every suggestion. It was as if he came down the mountain with the words carved in stone. Ridiculous. Everyone's work has room for improvement. Come to critique with a teachable heart.
It's your story. You control what changes you ultimately decide to make. But if you get the same reaction from more than one source, listen carefully. This is your opportunity to improve your work and make it more marketable.
By the same token, don't be upset if someone doesn't make the change you suggest. You're just offering your opinion (unless it's grammatical or spelling, of course.) Don't nag. That's what mothers are for.
4. Read your work out loud. I do this by myself too. When I hear the words, echoes leap out at me. Awkward sentences are hard to read aloud. Sometimes, I fix them as I read them, adding and deleting words as I meant the sentence to be, and don't realize I've deviated from the written version till my critique partner points it out to me. If I have to take a breath to finish the sentence, it's too dang long and I need to break it up. While you're reading, your critique partner should have a copy of the work in front of them which they'll be marking up. Don't worry about what they're marking as you read. They'll tell you when it's time for feedback.
5. Don't rewrite someone else's work to conform to YOUR voice. Your job as a critique partner is to help your friend write the best THEY can. (Yes, your critique partner is your friend or will soon be one. You can't share something as personal as your raw writing without developing a friendship.) Help by pointing out strengths as well as weakness. Everyone's style is their own. Respect it. And respect your friend enough to give your honest, yet tactful, opinion.
Anyone can rip something to shreads. Your job as a critique partner is to give constructive suggestions for making the work better. Avoid qualitative statements. Say "This isn't working for me here" instead of "This stinks."
If you find yourself in a situation where the person you're working with seems intent on only negatives, run, do not walk, away. The world will beat you down enough without subjecting yourself to it willingly. Critique partners need to make a pact to be respectful, honest and constructive. There will be times when we need to say there are flaws in the work that need changing, but that's what critique is for--to improve our work. Not to grind it in the dust.
6. Tone it up. Look for ways to help your partner tighten their prose. Are there too many clauses, adverbs, too much passive sentence structure? How can narrative be reduced to fighting trim and dialogue punched up? Is the pace appropriate? Is there too much description and not enough action? POV problems? Sometimes a writer head-hops without realizing it. Does the scene make sense? Are the motivations clear? My e-critique buddy Darcy Carson always tells me, "I can't smell this scene!" as a reminder that I need to engage all the reader's senses.
7. Learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others. Go to school on your critique partners' work. If someone else uses passive verbs, it's a reminder to me not to repeat the error. If someone brilliantly turns a noun into a verb, or encapsulates character in a neat little bundle, it encourages me to push myself, to try harder with my writing. I learned more about how to write in a few months from my critique group in Seattle than I had in a couple years of flailing away on my own. (I still miss them all soooo much!)
And lastly, be gentle and generous. Your critique partner is trusting you with something very personal, their writing. A manuscript is precious to its creator. Don't bring out the machete on the first week. As you work together, you'll learn how far you can go in your critique. Eventually, you can be as pitiless as you have to in order to help each other.
I shudder when an unpubbed author asks me for a critique. Do I give them the same treatment I'd give Ashlyn Chase, my current critique partner? She and I can whack away at each other's work and be thankful for each stripe. Or do I show them a few fixes they can apply throughout their work that will improve it? I usually opt for the latter because I don't know how much they can take. Writing is a journey and we're all finding our way. I don't want to discourage anyone from continueing along their path.
Try to give more than you receive. If that means your partner gets more pages reviewed than you this week, that's ok. Your time will come. If you give more praise than you receive, roll with it. Get excited about your partner's successes. Yours will come.
The Good Book says "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Substitute "writer" for "man" and this verse encapsulates what it means to be part of a critique group. As we help another, we are helped.
If you're willing to have your work critiqued online, I'd like to offer to do one on my blog as an illustration of how I critique. Leave a comment and indicate you'd like to be in the drawing for a two page critique to be posted next week, if you don't mind taking your bath in public. Be sure to leave a way to reach you in case your name is drawn (Machete sheathed, I promise.)
If I don't get any takers, I'll pull out my first manuscript, shoo away the dust bunnies and expose my flaws to the world. And how I'd fix them now.
Maybe I should do that anyway. If you're a reader, you can leave a comment and vote for whether or not you'd like to see me take the machete to my own stuff. ;-)