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The Power and Value of Critique Partners

I think there’s a common vision of the writer as a loner. Supposedly we all sit alone in our small dim rooms, hunched over the blue glow of our laptops, muttering to ourselves as we try to work out the perfect sequence of words. (I may or may not be doing that right now, haha.) Or even in a crowded coffee shop, we toil in a different sort of solitude, headphones on, coffees going cold, immersed in our own imaginary worlds, oblivious to the real one tizzying on around us.

And of course, there’s some truth to those images. But I also think — I hope — that we here at Writer Unboxed know the other truth. The truth of community.

When I graduated college, I lost the built-in community of my creative writing program. No more professors to mentor me, no more classmates to exchange work with. For a while, I tried to get by on my own, relying on reading to instruct me, and author events to inspire. But it quickly became apparent to me that I needed something more. I needed to be in a group of my peers, people who would see and understand me, who knew my dreams because they dreamed them too.

I considered an MFA (and still sometimes do) but the timing and cost weren’t in my favor, so I joined a small group of local writers instead. Most were hobbyists, and that was fine. But then, over time, the group ballooned into something large and unwieldy. So I approached the people with whom I felt the strongest connection and asked if they wanted to break off. I thank my lucky stars every day that they said yes.

For almost 10 years now, Sarah Wedgbrow, Stephanie Mooney, and Ingrid Palmer have been my critique partners. Somewhere along the way, they also became some of my closest friends. When we all lived in the same city, we would meet every week at Barnes & Noble and mark up printed pages with comments and questions. Now we use Google Hangouts to span 3 time zones and 4,600 miles, emailing each other files to read and discuss.

I can say without a doubt that I would not be the writer (or the person) I am today without these women. We each bring our own strengths to the group, and then we use those strengths to build each other up. Sarah is a master of character, with impeccable story instincts. Stephanie’s imagination never fails to dazzle and delight me. Ingrid could rewrite the phone book into poetry.

Critique partners have a tough job. They have to balance feedback with cheerleading. They have to maintain their own voices and perspective while also helping you to best express yours. They work for free, somehow making time for your pages despite their own busy lives, and their own hungry manuscripts. Of course you’re doing the same for them — and that’s what makes this such a special bond. All of the blood, tears, sweat, and heart are shared.

And thus, so are the successes.

Last Tuesday was the launch of Ingrid’s debut novel, ALL OUT OF PRETTY. (You can read more about the book here.) In a way, I’ve read her story a dozen times, but even witnessing the transformation of those rough, fractured pieces into one smooth, compelling narrative did not prepare me for actually holding her book in my own two hands. Her name on the cover. The embossing on the spine. Her words beautifully typeset inside. Her dream come true, and with it, part of mine too.

In AUTHOR IN PROGRESS, the anthology of insights and advice produced by our very own Writer Unboxed team, I contributed an essay about envy. How to get rid of it, or at the very least, reframe it into something more useful. I believe and live by the words in that essay, but still I worried that I might feel a little jealous of Ingrid when her day finally came.

Happily, I felt nothing but joy and pride.

Actually, that’s not true. I also felt even more certain that I could reach this momentous milestone myself. Because I’ve been working alongside Ingrid for years. I know what it takes — the hard work, the patience, the persistence — and now I’ve seen firsthand what it looks like to get to the top of that peak.

You’ve heard the mountain metaphors, right? Writing is climbing, and a career in publishing means doing it over and over again. Well, one thing that seems to get overlooked a lot is that most people climb mountains in teams. I’m so glad to have found mine.

Do you have critique partners, or another type of writing community? How do you think it has helped you as a writer? What have you given back?

About Kristan Hoffman

Originally from Houston, TX, Kristan Hoffman studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University and attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Now she lives with her family in Cincinnati, OH, where she writes both fiction and nonfiction with a focus on feminist, multicultural stories. Her shorter work has appeared in Sugar Mule, the Citron Review, and Switchback, among others. She is currently at work on a Young Adult novel, and is represented by Tina Dubois of ICM.For more, please visit her website.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.