Thursday, November 1, 2012

What I've Learned About Critique (Part 1)

One of the challenges of writing is accurately assessing our work.

Often I'll write a scene and think, 'Brilliant! Best chapter yet.' Two days later I'll read it again--and realize it's the most over-written mule puckey I've ever done. (Then think: "Who uses words like 'obfuscate' in commercial fiction? Idiots trying to sound like writers, that's who!")

And I'm not alone. Most writers (even those who've been published multiple times) admit it's hard to see what's right/wrong about their story.

So we turn to others--critique partners, spouses, beta-readers, friends--hoping for a clear, objective assessment of what we've written. When we get really (desperate) serious we'll even spend our dollars on online courses and workshops, or subject our manuscripts (and egos) to the helpful-useless-encouraging-brutal commentary that accompanies contests.

So here's the first in a two-part series about what I've learned about soliciting and accepting critique:

1) People who love you make lousy critique partners.

Think about it: There's no upside for them. If they genuinely like your work, you won't believe them; if they tell you it's awful, Thanksgiving dinner is going to be really awkward.

Family is wonderful for sharing experience. So grab them and visit the Grand Canyon, go Bungee jumping, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. When it comes to writing share your happiness (I got a request!) and sorrow (but they turned it down.)

And don't EVER let them read your work-in-progress.

If they ask, tell them you'll send a copy once it's published.

2) Critique groups can be wonderful* 

When I showed up at my first critique group, they complimented my writing--then gently informed me that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. The next week they suggested having a line or two of dialogue (or some direct action) on every page.

It's been a long process, but my critique partners have been unfailingly kind as they guided me toward creating readable prose. One long-time member summed it up: "If it's real bad, we'll emphasize what a great typist you are!"

Critique partners catch emotions out of whack, words that don't fit, sections that lapse into exposition or a distant (less compelling) point of view. If everyone gets stopped by the same phrase or section, I need to take another look.

And I learn as much from giving critique as receiving--especially when I look hard for what works, then figure out why.

3) Critique groups can be creativity killers*

Sometimes critique groups become echo chambers where voice, usage and tone get passed from one member to another like a virus. We all have a tendency to seek approval, and when everyone nods and smiles at what you've written, it's intoxicating.

Problem is, we writers tend to applaud people who write just like us.

I'm the worst offender, which became painfully clear when I recently edited a friend's work--and realized I'd changed her 'voice' so it sounded like mine. Then I read a book in her genre (not one with which I'm familiar) and saw that my suggestions would've been completely wrong for her audience.

After apologizing, I vowed to leave the close editing to others and merely comment on her story arc--which is very compelling.

Some 'truths' are nearly universal: Action and dialogue move a story along; exposition slows it down. Backstory is boring in long chunks. Jumping points-of-view can be confusing. Direct action is better than reported action.

But when evaluating critique, sometimes it's important to know what to disregard (at least for now.)

Next time I'll talk about beta-readers, online courses, and contests.

I'd love to hear your experience with critique groups, and how you decide whether to heed or ignore the advice you receive.

Cheers....and Happy Writing!


*My experience with critique groups has been fabulous, but I've heard editors say they can tell when a piece has been 'workshopped to death.'


  1. You bring up great points, T. All critique groups need to be taken with a grain of salt.

    1. Deciding what to use can be tough. Sometimes I'll make the suggested changes on a separate copy to see if I like it better. Often I do!


  2. Critique partners are fabulous if you have the right group. And a crit partner should never tear you down. The intent should be to build you up.

    But if Marilyn says it, I usually never question it. :D

    1. She's the bomb! So much experience...and willing to share!

    2. Thanks for making me blush, you guys. :)

      Excellent points, T. I've never been on the receiving end of a critique group, but like you, I've learned a ton from critiquing others' work. It forced me to move beyond "I like this" or "I don't" and figure out the all-important WHY.

      One thing I'd add -- be POSITIVE you're ready to be critiqued. I've known writers who were devastated after their first critiques because everyone didn't love their work as much as they did. It's not for the faint of heart.

      But then, neither is writing as a profession.

  3. Great pointers! I have to admit, I love it when you critique me as you see things I haven't noticed. And very often hadn't even thought of. You learned to critique well because you're kind and gentle, point out the good parts of my story, and show me where I need to rethink or improve other parts.

    Good blog!

    1. Same here, Linda! I've learned so much from you published authors. It's good to know you think I'm kind. All credit goes to learning from my critique partners.


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