Another Magic Formula

Recently, we talked about how critique partners are a magical element in writing success. I know what some of you are thinking: Thanks, Jessica. That’s nice, but I tried working with a critique partner, and it didn’t work out.


I’ve been in your shoes. More than once. Critique partner relationships can explode, implode, or fizzle out for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because the writers aren’t a good fit for each other. Sometimes, it’s because one partner or the other moves, or their lives go in different directions. But often, it’s because they didn’t take the time to set up expectations for the relationship, which leads to unnecessary tension and/or unmet expectations. With that in mind, I’ve put together a set of guidelines that I think are useful in establishing a relationship with a new critique partner (these same rules could just as easily apply to a critique group):

Jessica’s Magic* Formula for Critique Partner Success

  1. Establish a regular (mutually convenient) meeting place and time. Will you meet once a week, or once a month? At a coffee shop, or in your homes? (If you plan to exchange work virtually, establish a schedule—one that all parties can commit to.)
  2. Determine how much work you’ll exchange. Five pages? Twenty? Entire manuscripts?
  3. How will the sharing occur? Some CPs like to meet and read their submissions out loud (or have them read out loud so they can hear how it flows). Others like to exchange work in advance so that they have time to think carefully about their feedback before sharing.
  4. Establish what type of feedback will be offered. Line edits? Big picture thoughts about plot, character development, etc.? Establish how it will be offered. Verbally? In writing? Directly on the manuscript, or as summary? Will it be offered as a compliment sandwich? (The oreo method is my favorite: offer a strength (the cookie), talk about weaknesses (the creamy filling) and wrap up with more about the strengths (the other cookie).
  5. Set expectations. This, to me, is the most important part of establishing a successful long-term relationship. Talk about what your goals are for this relationship. For example, one of my critique partners was very clear up-front about her goals—she let me know that she wasn’t looking for a friendship and didn’t have the time to sit in a coffee shop chatting about the weather. When we met, she wanted to get straight to business. (A friendship has grown over time, but I don’t know that that would have happened if we hadn’t started out with a mutual respect for each other’s time.) Other critique partners I have are at least as much about the camaraderie and support as they are the technical aspects of writing. (There is no one-size-fits-all—find what works for you.) You may also want to work out in advance how to handle cancellations (because at some point, life will get in the way of your meetings).
  6. Finally, I highly recommend establishing a trial period for the relationship. Agree to exchange a set of sample pages and afterward, discuss whether or not to move forward.

So there you have it—my recipe for critique partner success.

*Okay, I’m busted. Once again, there’s nothing very magical about this formula. But it works—I promise. Not always the first time. Maybe not even the second. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually find exactly the right fit, and the real magic will happen.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

jessica vitalis

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at


4 thoughts on “Another Magic Formula

  1. Hi Jessica,
    Thanks for your critique partner formula. It’s solid and sensible advice. I’m wondering if you think it could work if the partners are focused on different genres, say one middle grade, the other picture book. Have you tried that, or know anyone who has? If so, does it work and what makes it work?
    P.S. Good luck with your debut novel and chocolate cravings!

    1. Hi Barb! Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. Personally, I prefer to work with MG or YA authors (I write MG) because I find they have the best understanding of my target audience. I’m hesitant to work with writers who focus exclusively on picture books because the skills sets required to write picture books versus novels are very different (in my opinion). That said, I know a number of (happy and successful) writers who are in critique groups that focus on a wide range of categories–all the way from picture books to adult genres. The success of these relationships probably depends on the skills and needs of the individuals involved. For example, if you write novels but need help with structure, partnering with a picture book writer probably isn’t going to help. However, if you are looking for feedback on the premise or need help learning how to craft sentences that create emotional resonance, a picture book writer might be a great fit. I suspect the key is to figure out what you need in a CP and whether or not you have the skills necessary to compliment each other. I also think it’s important to partner with a number of different writers–over time, you’ll find the ones you really click with and whose feedback really resonates. Best of luck on your search!

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