Writing is a solitary profession. So solitary, in fact, that it's easy to get lost in the forest of words. If the writer is lucky, very lucky, he or she will have a few critique partners. Some authors never use a critique partner and that's all right. If a writer is going to successfully write without a critique partner, they must be both confident and meticulous. I confess that I'm not that confident. I want someone to read my story or chapter with a critical eye. What could I do better? What words do I use over and over and over?
I once sent a scene off to a partner for a quick read. She wrote back... "lovely scene, so well written I could feel the tension, smell the sweat and tears. The critical necessity to reach their destination in time was clear. I just have one question. Where are they going?"
Well, I knew where they were going! Unfortunately, I didn't tell the reader where they were going--not in the scenes before or after this scene. As a matter of fact, I went back to the chapter before... and no, I never shared that information. I didn't notice the information was missing because I knew the destination.
The difficulty with having a critique partner or two or three is that it's hard to find a fit. By that, I mean that it's hard to find someone that meets several criteria.
a) You must trust their writing skills. Sadly, an individual may be a published author, yet have poor grammar and spelling skills. They might even be like me--a head hopper. I never heard that term until I started sending my work to critique partners.
b) Your critique partner must be comfortable enough with you to actually point out your problems. Unfortunately, our critique partners are often our friends and fellow writers. They hesitate to hurt our feelings or put down our writing. In truth, I want them to say, "Hey Anny, this is waaaay over the top. What the heck are you doing?" I would much rather have a critique partner privately point out those things I need to improve rather than a reviewer underline them in a public forum.
c) Critique partners must be committed to your partnership. Life does happen. Yes, it certainly does. But when it's your turn to critique your partner's work, you just have to be committed enough to do it in a timely fashion. And do it well! Rushing through the job and sending back a note--"Hot, very hot!" isn't a critique. It's especially not a critique when you receive that note three weeks after the critique was due. In three weeks time, I've moved six chapters further in my story. If my partner has detected a flaw that's going to materially affect my story, it's possible that much of that work will have to be discarded.
d)Know the difference between a critiquer and an editor. I once received a critique back where every single typo, grammar mistake, and misspelled word was corrected--in red. That's fine. It seemed a bit time consuming, but I was okay with that. What I was not okay with were the actual changes in my manuscript--some over a paragraph long. A note in the margin would have sufficed. You know, something like, "This is a really awkward or clumsy paragraph. Please rewrite." As for the other corrections, a note would have sufficed for most of them, too. One critiquer I had used to just mark them with a red X. That's sufficient. If you have a suggestion about rewording an awkward sentence--great!
I just want to add a bit about beta readers. I know some people have them. It must be very nice. I've had offers from friends and even relatives. What they don't understand is the time constraint. Once a book is finished, I will most likely submit it within two weeks. Sometimes I don't even have that much time if the piece has a deadline. Being a beta reader does not mean that I just like you so much that you're going to get a free read. It's a job. Your payment for doing the job is the free read. And just as in critiquing, time is everything.
I've been incredibly lucky with my critique partners. Probably they get the short end of the stick with me because I'm just learning. But I do my best. I read their work several times over the week that we have. And I give my honest opinion of those things that could use a tweak or two. That's really the best we can do. Honesty and commitment.