Helpful Critiques

I don’t know what I would have done without my critique groups over the years. They keep me accountable, give me a deadline to meet, and each person has had a strength that helped me improve my writing. Without feedback, I get too close to the writing and can no longer be objective or see the mistakes.

Here are some hints for critiquing:

As Critiquer: This is important! Always start out your critique with the positive—what you liked about the scene, what worked well, what evoked emotion, memory, nice descriptive phrases, etc. When you talk about something that didn’t work, say “I bumped on . . .” Try not to “fix” the problem or tell her what to do—let the author do that.

As Critiquee: When you are being critiqued, remember the motto “JUST NOD AND SMILE.” It is best not to try to explain too much and especially not to get defensive about your work (it’s a natural reaction, but not constructive).Just take in what the critiquer is saying and use it or not as you see fit. It may be something you might not agree with at the moment, but after thinking about it, maybe it starts to make sense. Or, it’s a question that you know you’ve answered in a previous or upcoming scene. When the critiquer asks a question, you are not required to answer it—it’s just food for thought.

Things to look for in doing a critique:

Point of View (POV)—not switching from one to another within scenes. Trying to avoid the omniscient.

Character Development—emotions and feelings. Does the character stay “in character?” Growth/change as the story progresses. What does the character learn from his/her experience?

Setting and Grounding—Descriptions, using the five senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, Taste). Keeping the reader “grounded”—reminding him/her where the characters are and what they’re doing during dialogue.

Dialogue—realistic, concise, not overly didactic (giving info to the reader through dialogue where the character would obviously know it and not have to state it). Watch for overdoing dialect. Watch overuse of “taglines” (he said/she whispered). Whenever possible, substitute with an action or a reaction by the character. This helps with grounding and helps you develop each character’s individual voice.

Show vs TellHint: Any time you write “He/she felt something” or “He/she was something” you are TELLING. You want the reader to identify with your character, to be inside his/her head. Do you identify with the first or the second example?
“Sally felt so sad and depressed after John died that she cried all day.” Do you feel her sadness or depression?
Or-- “Suddenly she realized the sound in the room was her own sobbing. Tears burned hot on her cheeks. She raised a hand and it trembled before her eyes. She could end it all right now.

Orchestration/continuity. At the beginning of the scene she was wearing a blue dress, by the end she had on brown pants. Or how did he get from sitting in the living room to suddenly standing in the kitchen? Are all the arms, legs etc. in the right place, doing things that are physically possible (in a love scene or a fight scene etc.)?

  A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, will be published in May 2014. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.


Magdalena Ball said...

An excellent critiquing overview, Heidi. Critiquing is critical to all writers.

Heidiwriter said...

I don't know how anyone can make progress writing in solitary seclusion, without feedback, but some do, I guess!

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Heidi, for these great hints. Being positive in the critiquer's suggestions goes a long way, I think, in encouraging the critiquee to do their best. I know I'm spurred on by positive suggestions, not necessarily just "being nice," but another person's honest opinion of a way my work can improve.

Karen Cioffi said...

Heidi, great tips on giving and receiving critiques. Belonging to a critique group is a must. And, listening to critiques with an open ear is a good thing. Not that you have to listen to every comment, but it's a good idea to weigh them all and see which have merit.

I love your example of showing and telling!

historywriter said...

Well said, Heidi. I continue the group you started with Sherry. It's really clicking wonderfully. A mix of genres and coffee. Can't believe it will be 12 years old this fall.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

Great info Heidi. I think it is extremely important for the person being critiqued to listen more than talk.

D. Jean Quarles said...

Great post! I agree, the information given is so important when we spend so much time alone. Loved your suggestion about being silent when being critiqued. I agree, there is going to be something in the critique that will give you information on how to correct a challenge that other readers may have in the future.

Kathleen Moulton said...

Heidi, I learned so much from your article. Thank-you so much!

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