You the Writer; You the Critiquer

One of my ICL (Institute of Children's Literature) instructors once told me, "A book is not written, it's rewritten." That helped at a frustrating time of constant rewrites and what felt like no results. Today? Pfsaw! Rewrites are the norm, though I will admit some, such as the ones for my MG mystery, are more difficult than others.

Taking your ms to your critique group once, or as many times as it takes, will bring you closer and closer to your goal until it is ready to submit. I promise: there won't be any doubt when that time comes. You, and you alone, will know when your masterpiece is ready.

Celebrate you as a Writer for what you do is a Labor of Love

You, the Writer
Showing your work to others is a big step. Set aside any feelings of doubt or lack of confidence for your greater goal and open yourself up to others' scrutiny. Remember, your critiquers are on your side. They care about you and want you to succeed. They will most likely be more gentle than opening yourself up to the market, which can often feel like tossing your work into a black hole.

  • Let the other writers in your group know your background and whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced writer.
  • Let them know the type of piece you are writing.
  • Be clear about what you're looking for. I once paid a "pro" editor (she charged for her services) to critique several chapters of a MG novel, expecting to receive comments on the content as well as on grammatical errors. I received only the latter and was disappointed. My mistake? I didn't tell her what I was looking for.
  • Begin with the most polished piece you can offer.  Avoid the trap of "looking" for someone else's expertise or opinion. If you're unsure of your material, then you need to do more research. Use your most honest editor's eye to identify for yourself what you think your ms needs. Pitfalls to look out for could be structural, weak characterization, lack of organization, to name a few.
  • Know your craft. Rewrite accordingly, so that what you take to critique is your very best work.
  • Expect changes. Asking for other's opinions opens you up to varying points of view on your material. Take notes. Write down every comment, even or especially the comments you disagree with. Later, these comments might open up new pathways that, with time, might be easier to accept and run with, than when they were first presented.
  • Faced with a major rewrite after your work is 'torn apart?' The entire piece is swimming in red marks? That is frustrating and has happened to me many times. Best thing to do is take a break. Get back to work when you're well rested and feeling fresh. Be grateful that these changes have been found. "Fix" them. More critiques of the same piece might follow. Welcome them. Keep your mind on your goal and your critique partners will help you get there.
  • If you're having trouble with a passage, your critique group offers an excellent place to gather opinions.
  • Believe in yourself and your material. If you feel strongly about your piece, then the opinions of others can be received and utilized. But if someone offers their Personal Opinion (and even becomes emotional about what they say), BEWARE. Go home and weigh what each person said against your own expertise.
  • Get to know your critiquers. You might find that you value some opinions over others for various reasons. In rare cases, you might come across one or two jealous critiquers. One of my most painful experiences with critique groups was actually being pushed out. I was a new writer and was replaced by an experienced writer with connections. We had planned to attend a conference together before the big BLAST OUT. I went to the conference alone and had to see the ladies from my group eat together and browse the tables together. Oh, the pain of it all! Anytime anything like this has happened to me, I have learned to take a break, allow some distance to come between me and the problem; resume work after sufficient time has passed and my confidence is restored. (And try to remember that mistakes are my teachers.)
  • Remember: You are an entertainer whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Your material should make you want to sit on the edge of your chair; it's so poignant and exciting. Know your audience. Make your verbs strong. Make your prose clear; as if you're telling your tale to one person sitting on the other side of your table (who is smiling and loving your story).

You, the Critiquer
  • First and foremost, Be Kind and Be Sensitive to your fellow writers. Remember that they have poured their heart onto every page. View anything you have to say (or write) about another writer's work as a suggestion left to the writer to consider. Then, let it go.
  • Never criticize.
  • Begin with comments on what you liked about the piece. Then move on to how you think the piece could be improved.
  • Put yourself in the writer's place and offer only your most helpful ideas.
  • Trust your gut instincts. They're usually right.
A partial list of what to look for in Nonfiction:
Does the title grab you?
Does the opening make you want to read more?
Look for improvements on how the piece could better be organized.
Make sure facts can be backed up.
If the piece leaves you wondering about something, could it be added?
Are there any redundancies?
Is the piece wordy?
Did you explain everything well?
Are there photos to accompany the material?
Can some of the material be lifted from the main text and put into a sidebar?
Is the piece lively, entertaining and colorful?
Can the ending be chopped, if for a newspaper?
Fiction short list:
Does the beginning draw you in? Or could the story be started at a different point?
Does the main character appear soon enough? Is there enough dialogue in the beginning?
Does the story show and not tell?
Is there a beginning, middle and end? Can you form a circle from beginning to end?
Do the scenes flow and advance the plot?
Does each character have an arc?
Does your main character have a goal?
Does your story have conflict?
Is your story too predictable?
Did you explain everything well?
Does the main character grow and change by the end?
Would a different point of view, such as first person as opposed to third person, make the story more interesting?
Are there any shifts in point of view?
Does the dialogue sound natural?
Are there any description "dumps" where pieces of the information could be spread out, ever so briefly?
Does the story come to a satisfying conclusion?

Put on your Editor's Hat:
Best (but difficult) policy: When you finish, let your ms sit for a week. Work on something else. Come back to it and you will find changes. But they must be important changes, because you need to finish at some point and start sending your ms out. In recent years, when I've done everything I can, I've been sending my ms's to professional editors. The cost, often reasonable, is well worth it. 

On a personal note: My experience in different types of critique groups has been terrific except for the BLAST OUT group. In addition to my current critique partners, who are only a few but are experienced writers in my genre, I have readers, some with children, some without; but they all love to read. Their comments, coming from a reader's point of view, are always helpful and give me many great ideas.

Please leave a comment: Please let us know what your experience has been with your critique group(s).  Do you belong to a large group or have a few trusted readers?

Heart in snow photo courtesy of

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction courses, picture book course and mystery and suspense course. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Heidiwriter said...

Good advice, Linda. I value my critique groups immensely!

Linda Wilson said...

Hi Heidi, thank you! Wishing you a happy, productive new year with lots of writing opportunities!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, this is excellent advice. I've been in a few critique groups and ran one. Your tips are spot-on. And, in regard to that critique group that blasted you out, their loss. You're an amazing writer!

Karen Cioffi said...

And, tips on what to look for are great for editing too! :)

Suzanne Lieurance said...

Linda - Good advise to let people know what you expect in a critique. I've seen people offer the most ridiculous comments about a manuscript because they didn't really understand how to critique. For that reason, I always find it helpful to create a critique guide with any writers group that gets together to critique manuscripts.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Karen, about that one blasted group! Suzanne, that's a great idea to have a critique guide already made up for a group. Each group I've belonged to has been so different, we made up the rules as we went along, which I've compiled for this series. I like the idea of creating a guide in writing to follow. Thanks for you helpful comments!

Unknown said...

Great post! I also think you can be your own critic. It may be a huge challenge but it can help polish your self-editing skills.

On Mourning the Loss of Ask Amy for Her Daily Wisdom with My Oatmeal and Coffee Each Morning

  The Guest Blogger with Typewriter  She Used  in Early Ann Landers Days To #WritersontheMove Subscribers and Visitors: Amy Dickinson just a...