Thursday, May 28, 2015

Should You Let Your Critique Partners Know the Whole Story?

During the past couple of months, several members of my online critique group have decided to go back and rethink their stories. And as part of that rethinking, they’ve submitted their revised story outlines to the group for feedback. This strategy makes sense, since it’s always better to catch fatal flaws in a story before a writer dives too deeply into their manuscript.

I know some of you out there are pantsers who disdain outlines, but I find them a good way of keeping my stories from falling off the rails. Outlines don’t have to be super specific—just enough to remind you where you’re going. I  consider myself a heavy plotter, but experience has taught me my best ideas don’t occur to me until I write, which means I’m constantly going back and revising the outline—even when I'm nearing the final chapters! Whatever works, I suppose.

As far as my crit group is concerned, I’ve resisted the urge to submit any sort of outline. For one thing, my outline is in a continual state of flux, so there’s not much point in having others review it. But more importantly, I prefer my critique partners to read my chapters without any clue about what’s going to happen next. I don’t want their knowledge of the story to color their opinions. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from critiques of my early chapters, it’s that when I do a poor job of leading the reader through the story, my critique partners tend to arrive at all sorts of erroneous (and often surprising) conclusions as to what really happened in the scene—conclusions that may not have occurred to them had they already known where the story was heading. In other words, if I'd given them knowledge a first time reader wouldn’t have access to, then I might have missed learning of these problems.

I want—no, I need—my critique partners to work under the same conditions that a first time reader would.

What about you? Do you let your crit partners know where the story is going ahead of time, or do you keep them in the dark as much as possible?



  1. There are a couple of people I talk issues out with that are in my local critique group, but for the most part, I try not to tell others what's coming, unless the story is completely written and they point out some major flaws with the early chapters. Then I might bring up questions I have.

    I find getting "uninformed" feedback is harder. If some has read Thanmir War, they might already know concepts if I submit a Cera Chronicle, so I lose that fresh perspective that you noted is so valuable. Since most of my stories relate, that gets tough. Ideally, everyone would go in reading with a clean slate.

  2. I think it's best if they don't know where the story is going. Although I do have one critique partner who helps with my outline. The others see the story fresh though.

  3. Keep 'em in the dark! It's the best way to find the gaping plot holes :)

  4. Well, I'm a member of a writing group. There are eight of us, and this is how we generally do it: A couple of us will be reading-as-you-go with no knowledge of what's coming. One (sometimes two) of us will be the writer's "bouncer," who knows the whole story as told by the writer to them so that person can flag issues via foreknowledge. One or two people might not look at it until it's a complete draft. Those are the "fresh eyes." And one might not even see it until it's been reworked into a second or third draft so as to be even fresher, more unbiased eyes. Yes, it's a complicated system, but it works because it covers every stage of story development in a different way. Plus, it fits in with various people's reading schedules. Those who have more time get the weekly stuff, those who don't get the big, final chunk.

  5. I can see logic for either direction, Ken. Since my critique group never gets continuity in my story--reading it over several years (as I'm folded into everyone else's submittals), there's no way for them to gauge things like pacing, much less be the average reader who I hope would not take several years to read). I'm curious at other response.

  6. I wouldn't let my critique partners know anything spoilery about my stories, unless I need their help with plotting or a specific issue. I want them to be able to read it like a first time reader because they won't have that spoilery bias. If a specific partner can help me with something, then okay. Otherwise, you won't get a proper idea of how people will react to your story when they don't know it ahead of time.

  7. It depends on the situation and the story. Most of the time, my CPs do not know where the story is going, so I get a true reaction from them. However, if I'm having trouble moving forward past a certain plot point, I might seek help from them, revealing where I want to take the story and asking them to help me brainstorm how to get there.

    Also, I've spent the last couple years working (almost) exclusively on a series -- and the arc of the series is as important as the arc in each book. For my most recent WIP, I did write up an outline before starting to write -- up to the point where I got stuck -- and gave it to my CPs for advice. In the end, nothing helped except to write the draft and figure it out on my own. I found that, even though my CPs had seen the proposed outline, they were still surprised by the events in the book, even though I told them in advance they were going to happen.

    Lesson? As CPs, we read so much stuff that changes and evolves, we still get surprised even when we vaguely remember we were told this was going to happen ...