Now, it's been said a zillion times, you need to find a critique partner. For some, this is relatively easy, they just ask someone and boom, they have a partner. For others, not so much. There's a level of trust that must be examined when offering up your work to another person. Finding a good partner is like searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack.
I've been lucky. All I had to do was ask. My first few partners and I didn't work out, not that I didn't love them and what they showed me with their advice and suggestions, it's just that we ended up writing in different genres and not knowing the YA or science fiction or paranormal genre, it was better to part ways, than to try and suffer through reading and critiquing what I didn't understand and frustrating them. Just the same as they didn't understand my Regency romances.
So if you're going to look, I'd suggest finding someone in your own genre. Beta readers, on the other hand, are a different story. I specifically ask people who do not write in my genre to read my books. Their feedback is priceless, because if they like what I've written, then I know the people who DO read my genre, will like it too. However, I'm not going to send my Regency off to a writer of horror. I mean, what's the point, unless they express an interest in it. I stick to other genre romance writers, or women's fiction writers.
Back to trust. Handing your work off to someone else, is (to me) like handing my child to a complete stranger. Will they take care of her? Will they reprimand her? Will they feed her? Keep her from danger? Or will they just let her play in traffic willy-nilly, and not offer her anything more than a couple of crackers and a glass of water?
In sending off a complete manuscript for inspection and critique to another, you first must decide what you are after in the critique. Some people only want grammar checks, some to find plot holes, others want character assessments, and still others want the whole shebang. I have two partners now, one mainly for grammar and plot holes, the other for general assessment of the characters and complete storyline. Of course, both are free to inform me of anything that doesn't work, and they do, so it's a bonus for me.
That being said, when I offer a critique (to my partners or anyone else) the first thing I say, is that what I've critiqued are only SUGGESTIONS. I'm no expert, as I've stated, however, I'm also not stupid and generally know what works and what doesn't in a book. Therefore, if something isn't working, I'm going to tell them so, and the reason why. You can't just say, "Oh this doesn't work" and leave it at that, you have to tell them why, IN YOUR OPINION, you don't think it does. And then I offer up a suggestion or idea of what to do to make it work. It is then up to them to decide if they want to use it or not.
(Both my partners and I respect and trust each other enormously, so when Partner B decided one of my scenes made my MC look like a despot, she suggested I rewrite it and offered up an idea. Now mind you, the book, in my eyes, was done. However, after discussing it with Partner A, and she agreed with B, I rewrote the scene, which both B and A loved, and the MC came off as cute rather than awful. You have to learn to take the criticism that comes and decide what to do with it. If I wanted to keep my MC looking like a despot, I would have ignored her suggestion. But I thought her opinion had merit and so changed it. And that's not to say she wanted me to change other things, which I did not.)
Another area you need to look at when finding a crit partner is their level of expertise. When I first started writing, my partners and I were at the same level -- newbies. So we all learned how to do it together. And I learned a lot. Not only from them, but from following the blogs, reading craft books, and just plain writing. Practice makes perfect. And just because I'm published now, doesn't make me an expert in the art of critique. I still have tons to learn and that's what my partners are for. To show me the error of my ways with words. Both are brilliant writers, and have a clear distinct voice that I am insanely jealous of. One has written and finished five books and is under contract with a small publisher, the other has just finished her first novel, however has a long list of credits writing for magazines and newspapers as well as e-zines.
Now, I generally don't send them my book as I'm working on it. I wait until I'm completely finished and have gone through the ms. with my own fine tooth comb at least three times. Why? Because I feel that in order to do a thorough critique, they need to see the whole story together. If I send them chapter by chapter, it bogs down my writing process with editing and rewriting. And if I write something in Chapter 6, and then decide it needs to be changed when I get to Chapter 27, if they remember it, then they'll wonder where it is and question it, which leads to a round of emails and takes away from my writing. If I send them chapter by chapter, we're also both sick of looking at it and that's no fun for them when it comes to reading the final manuscript. They've already read it, so the reading becomes more like skimming, and who wants that from a critique?
That's not to say, that I don't send them a chapter or a scene just for review. If I know that something's not working and I need help with it, I'll send them just the bit I'm having trouble with. Usually their insights lend me an idea I wouldn't have come up with on my own.
And I never send a first draft. EVER. When the book is finished, I go over it with another comb, line edits, revisions, rewrites, grammar, punctuation, etc. I remove all the green and red squigglies and format the document as if I were getting ready to upload it. I want their reading experience to be free of encumbrances so they will enjoy it, and also, with a clean manuscript, errors are easier to find. The way I'm writing now, I write and revise and edit as I go along so by the time I'm finished, it's pretty much in 5th or 6th draft form. I only need to go over it once or twice before I send it off. Less painful than trying to restructure, or revise the whole thing. Which takes time I don't have. And in sending off a clean ms. it allows you to look professional. You wouldn't send a first draft to an agent or a publisher would you? Why do it to your crit partner.
And lastly, there needs to be praise. You can't just give a critique and tell the person just the mistakes they've made. You need to sprinkle in some good in there as well. I mean, if all you say is bad, then the writer will think their book sucks. And you know it doesn't, otherwise you wouldn't have offered to read it. Besides, how do you feel when all you hear is bad stuff. Doesn't feel good now does it?
Now having said all that, what do you do if you don't have a critique partner. Well, you hire an independent copy editor or proof reader. Most will offer a few pages of critique for free just to see if you like their work. Some charge by the page, others a flat rate. And sometimes even with critique partners, a copy editor/proof reader is a good thing. I just found this guy Robert Van de Laak, who reviewed one of my short stories and let me tell you what...I was blown away by how many mistakes he found. Not only for grammar, but punctuation (mostly comma placement) and spelling (did you know the mantel on a fireplace is spelled -el, not -le. I didn't.) I normally don't recommend someone until asked, but if you find yourself in need of a once over, this is the guy to do it. firstname.lastname@example.org Tell him Anne sent you. (and no I was not paid for this endorsement.)
So there you have it. Tell me -- Do you have one or two critique partners? Are you in a group? How did you find yours? Do you love yours as much as I love mine? How do you critique? Do you use an independent resource for crits? Was any of this helpful? Please feel free to offer up your own suggestions in the comments.