Finding and building one’s writing community may not seem like an aspect of craft at first glance, but I would argue that building a strong community is an essential component of becoming a stronger writer. So to me it is an essential element of craft.
It’s not only that good critique partners can help us improve our manuscripts. The emotional support and engagement with a great critique network can also help us stay the course through the ups and downs of publishing. Learning to weather rejection, overcome self-doubt, and keep writing is a huge part of the struggle.
So I want to talk about how to build a strong writing community, how to use and contribute to that community most effectively, and how self-promotion can grow organically out of genuine relationships, which can feel a lot less icky than some more conventional methods of promo.
Where is this community?
The writing community can feel like a very big, impersonal place when you’re new. (Even if you’ve been around for a while.) Each realm of social media has its own norms and etiquette, and even if you go for an old-school message board, Absolute Write has 78 sub-forums!
The trick is to find your niche. You’re not looking to connect with absolutely everyone involved in publishing. You’re looking to connect with people who write MG sci-fi, or YA contemporary, or adult romance, etc. Depending on what stage you’re at, you’re looking to connect with people who are querying, or on sub, or already on their publishing journeys.
This isn’t to say you can’t follow and engage with people at different stages, or who write different things. But when you’re trying to find your way in, it’s easiest to begin if you narrow the field a bit.
So how does one go about finding their little corner of the internet? Or even (gasp!) in-person critique groups? How do you know who you can trust with your book baby? Will it ever feel less overwhelming?
I’m not going to lie to you—it will require putting yourself out there. But the online writing community is so awesome and extensive that it is completely possible to build that community in your pajamas.
Introverts unite! Separately, in our own homes!
How to find CP’s
Like most aspects of the writing journey, there’s no one clear road map to finding great critique partners. There are a variety of different approaches, and some will work for you and some won’t. There’s trial and error involved, but even the connections that don’t end up being fruitful will teach you something.
Here are a few of the paths you can take to finding critique partners:
• Contests like Pitch Wars. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with Pitch Wars. I have mentored for five years, and the thing that keeps me coming back is the community. Even those who don’t get selected for mentoring have access to the community, and many valuable critique partnerships grow out of that. So if you’re a Pitch Wars hopeful, jump into the hashtag. It’s okay if you have no Twitter followers. A lot of people build their Twitter following—and community—through Pitch Wars. Throughout the process leading up to submissions, hopefuls and mentors will do writing sprints—join them. Or people will ask for someone to look at their query—volunteer! Just generally engage. You’ll find you connect with some people more than others—just like life! But you already know you have one super important thing in common—your love of writing and desire to pursue publication.
• Critique partner match-ups. I met one of my long-term critique partners on a match-up Maggie Stievfater hosted on her blog. Blogs used to be the most common venue for CP match-ups. As blogs seem to be fading a bit, I’ve seen more CP match-ups happening through Twitter hashtags. Though this information may have an expiration date, follow @Megan_Lally and #CPmatch, as well as @TracieLMartin1 and @CPMatchmaking. Megan hosts regular CP match-ups throughout the year, while Tracie keeps a running match-up going. And even if these two are no longer sources of match-ups when you read this, others will come in to fill the void.
• Twitter. You don’t need a specific hashtag to find a CP on Twitter. Engage with the community. Participate in discussions, boost books you love, respond to silly polls. It’s not going to happen overnight. But engage with the community and build relationships. You will find people whose personalities and/or writing styles resonate with you. And then you might reach out to see if they’re looking for critique partners. (More on that in a moment.)
• Other social media. Message boards, the pre-cursor to what we now know as social media, seem less well-traveled than they used to, but they still exist. The Absolute Write Water Cooler has a massive message board for everyone from picture books through adult. SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, has an active kid lit message board, also known as the Blueboard. When the WriteOnCon online writing conference is being held, they have an active message board. NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, also offers lots of opportunity to connect with other writers. Facebook groups are another source for support and connection, which can be more focused than a sprawling message board or all of Twitter. For example, there are always FB groups for Pitch Wars hopefuls each year.
• SCBWI, or other writing organizations. For kid lit authors, SCBWI is a wonderful organization for connecting with your local community. Many regional branches have critique groups or offer workshops, etc. Some larger cities will have local writing organizations that offer classes and critique groups. If you live somewhere more rural, your local library might be a place to put up a notice that you’re looking to connect with other local writers.
• For authors of adult books, the organizations tend to be more genre-specific. Some examples include: Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Romance Writers Association, Historical Novel Society, Horror Writers Association, International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America.
How to approach a potential CP
So you’ve found someone on Twitter or a message board or a local writing group who you think just might be a good fit for your work. How to approach them? First of all, remember that if you’re a little socially awkward, welcome to the club. It’s practically a requirement for writers. You are very unlikely to be judged for it.
Just be aware that finding a critique partner is really like finding any friend or work partner. Some people you’ll click with and some you won’t. Some you’ll adore personally, but you won’t be a great fit for each other’s work. Those people can be in the separate category of writing friend—people who you rely on for support in the ups and downs, but not necessarily for critique on your work. Writing friends are important too!
And some CPs will provide excellent feedback on your work without becoming your best friend. Some relationships are more professional, and those are valuable too.
If you’ve been connected through some sort of CP match-up, you may get straight down to the business of exchanging pages. But when you identify a potential CP in a less formal context – through a Twitter hashtag, or on a message board, etc. – I would not suggest opening with, “Are you interested in exchanging work?” Focus on connecting with them as a person first.
One of my longest-term CPs had a blog I admired. I also thought we might have other things in common, since she had a couple of small kids and was writing middle grade. I sent her a message saying hi and thanking her for her work on her blog. She responded, we went back and forth becoming friendly, and then it was natural when one of us suggested exchanging some work.
And at that point, it wouldn’t have mattered if her answer had been no. I mean, sure, it might have stung a bit. But we had developed an actual friendship—and that was the goal. I wasn’t grooming her for critique partnership. I was getting to know someone who interested me. We clicked, and the critique partnership developed naturally.
If you’re approaching someone you’ve been building a relationship with for a while, then it makes more sense to go ahead and say, “Hey, I was wondering if you’d be interested in swapping pages some time?”
Always offer an exchange. Don’t just ask someone to read your work and give you feedback. Even if they don’t have something to swap at the time, the offer of exchange is polite, and they can take you up on it later.
How to be a good CP
• Remember that you get out of it what you put into it! Critique partnerships are an investment of your time and energy. But good ones are worth their weight in gold. Because that other person will be investing their time and energy in your work, too. You’ll both grow in the long run.
• Start with an exchange of a few chapters, not a whole manuscript. Make sure you feel like a good match, and be honest with each other if you don’t. You want to connect with the other person’s writing AND their critique style.
• Be honest about what you’re looking for in a critique. If you only want big picture feedback, not line edits, tell the person. If you specifically want to know what they think about the pacing, or need help untangling a specific plot issue, let them know. That’s how you’ll both get and give the most useful feedback.
• Don’t make it only about the critique. CPs are also about support along the writing journey. Share where you’re at—frustrations and joys and everything in between. If it feels right, share your non-writing lives, too. Some critique partnerships might be all business, but the most fruitful ones for me are the ones where we’re invested in each other’s lives, not just each other’s writing.
• Discuss a time table. One person might think a week is a reasonable turn around time, while the other person thinks a month is reasonable. Better to be clear up front about what you can do and what you’re expecting. There’s so much open-ended waiting in publishing; it’s nice if critique partners can be relied upon to return your manuscript in a time frame you both agree on.
• Don’t rely on only one critique partner. It’s possible you’ll find the one writer soul mate who meets all your needs, but it’s far likelier that you’ll develop a network of critique partners over time. This is useful for a couple reasons. One is that people have different strengths—one CP might be your go-to for untangling plot, while another is best with character, while another is a whiz with line edits. It’s also useful because people have different schedules and having a network of CPs means you’re more likely to find someone who has time to read when you need them.
How to give feedback well
Ask the other person what they hope to get out of the critique, and try to give it to them. If they don’t want line edits, don’t give them line edits, even if you have a passionate devotion to the Oxford comma. I get it! But you want to give them what they are asking for.
Be honest, but not brutal. It can help to ask the other person on a scale of 1 – 10 how brutal they like their feedback, but not everyone is their best gauge of what they can take, especially if they’re new to receiving critique.
A compliment sandwich is always a good idea – start with strengths, give notes on what can be improved in the middle, and end with strengths/compliments/favorite elements of the work.
Be mindful that someone else is waiting on your critique. If it is taking you longer than you expected, drop them a note so they can adjust their expectations.
How to receive feedback well
Always thank someone for a critique as soon as you receive it, before you’ve even read it. Even if you end up hating their notes, they deserve thanks for their time.
Then, give the critique time to simmer before you decide whether or not you want to revise. You might have a knee-jerk reaction to a critique and feel like the person just wasn’t the right reader for what you were trying to do. That might be the case. But it’s also extremely common to hate a critique, then after giving oneself time to reflect on it, all sorts of pieces click into place and it ends up being really useful feedback. So let it sit before you decide anything.
Whatever you decide, don’t feel the need to explain (or worse, defend) your manuscript in response to the CP’s feedback—just know that their questions mean there’s something to consider there.
You don’t need to respond at all, beyond a polite thank you. If you have questions or would like to clarify what they meant in their critique, or if you would like to brainstorm with them about suggestions they made, ask if they’re available to do that. (Or, often people will end a critique with something like, “Let me know if you have questions!” And then you’re all clear!)
Weighing conflicting feedback
Sometimes you might get conflicting feedback from multiple readers. While weighing out conflicting feedback can be tricky, it really is useful to have more than one critique partner. So much of writing novels is subjective. One critique partner might say something isn’t working, but just because it’s their opinion doesn’t mean you have to change it. If more than one person tells you something is an issue, though, there is very likely something to it.
When you’ve got people telling you two different things, that’s when it gets tricky. (But it’s also good practice for when you’ll have agents and editors telling you two different things about a manuscript.) One person hates the love interest, but loves the action scenes. One person thinks the love interest is the swooniest love interest ever to swoon, while hating the action scenes with a fiery passion. Who’s right?
Well, a third reader can come in handy here. But sometimes they’ll give you yet another conflicting perspective! So the main thing is to remember that this is your story and you need to trust your gut. You absolutely need outside critique and can learn so much from the perspective of someone who isn’t as close to the story as you are. But ultimately it’s your story. If it’s published, it will be your name on the cover. You make the call for what feels right.
Finally, I’d encourage you to focus your community building on relationships. These aren’t connections to use to get ahead. These are people you will likely know and encounter for many years to come, if you stick with your pursuit of publication. The publishing world seems huge when you’re first dipping your feet in. But really, like any industry, it’s not that big. The people whose queries you critique will end up sitting on panels with you years down the road.
Sometimes you’ll see them sitting on panels while you’re still querying. That’s really hard. But the flip side of that is you will have more experienced people to guide you when it’s your turn.
When you’re truly building relationships with people, your support in the community will grow organically. The joy your writing community will express when you announce your agent, your book deal, your book release will be more rewarding than I can describe. And you will have countless opportunities to celebrate the successes of the writers in the community you’ve built.
Joy McCullough’s debut young adult novel Blood Water Paint earned honors such as the National Book Award longlist, finalist for the ALA Morris Award, a Publishers Weekly Flying Start and four starred reviews. Her debut middle grade novel, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is forthcoming in 2020.
She writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She studied theater at Northwestern University, fell in love with her husband atop a Guatemalan volcano, and now spends her days surrounded by books and kids and chocolate.