Showing posts with label How to critique. Show all posts
Showing posts with label How to critique. Show all posts

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.

Critique Groups Do's and Don't's

Take the Leap
The purpose of a critique is to sift out what's wrong. Showcased is your polished masterpiece, ready for publication. Explore your options until you find the most effective, longest lasting way to vet your work.

While working as a freelance writer, my family moved frequently. Luckily, through membership with organizations such as SCBWI, I found a writing group at each juncture. The information gathered here comes from my own membership in different types of groups.

Join a Critique Group or Start your Own
Gather interested prospective members. Make sure each writer is:
  • Serious: willing to devote time studying her craft while practicing it.
  • Dependable: can be counted on to come to meetings and review members' work.
  • Honest: willing to let members know where she stands, as a beginner, intermediate or advanced writer.
  • Open: lets members know ahead of time what type of writing she would like to have reviewed.
  • Communicative: gives her input on everything from critiquing to helping to run the group.
Rules that Work
  • Establish a leader.
  • Decide how many members are desired.
  • Decide the type of writing preferred, if any. For example:   
  • Open Group: Allows all kinds of writing at any level. The advantages are many.               The variety of different types of writing gives the group widely varying points of view. One of the groups I belonged to had a poet, three article writers, and an adult novelist. The group expanded my world.
  • Closed Group: Offers members who write only in your genre and are at about the same level. Advantages include powerful know-how in your genre. Potential for longer critiques is possible. Partnering among members is possible for more frequent and indepth critiques. Also, members can help each other stay abreast of conferences, webinars, informational books, etc. When I wrote biosketches for Biography Today, I had deadlines which weren't easy to keep because of my daughters' activities. My writing partner spent one entire day helping me crank out one of my assignments so I could meet the deadline. Whew!
  • Agree on one of the following:
  • No Homework: a writer brings a chapter, a section or a few pages of a work to be read on the spot. The writer can read her own work or ask another member to read it. During the reading, each member takes notes on a separate piece of paper. After the reading the members go round- robin to share their notes then give their note paper to the writer to take home.
  • Homework: each piece of writing is emailed to members by an agreed-upon date, no exceptions. Members critique the work at home and share their results at the meeting. Members' copies are then given to the writer to take home. Writer brings her own copy of her work so she can follow along during the critiques. Critiquer is given a specified amount of time to explain her critique and the writer is given a specific amount of time to ask questions or comments. I've belonged to both types of groups and really have no preference. I found both Open and Closed Groups effective as long as they were run productively.
  • A timer: members agree on the amount of time given to each critiquer. Enough time is given so that no one feels rushed. There can be exceptions, along as everyone agrees, if a writer needs more time. However, this is an important rule, especially if the group is large. Everyone deserves a critique. There is nothing worse than having one person take up so much time that the meeting either lasts too long (and everyone gets exhausted, which can weaken enthusiasm), or there isn't enough time for everyone to share their work.
  • Cut the Chit Chat: be firm about saving chit chat for later because it's easy to fall into this trap and lose the main purpose for meeting.
  • Food or No Food: meet at a public place, if possible, such as a room at the library. Meeting in people's homes can be way too comfortable. These kinds of meetings can incur a serious loss of productivity. One of my favorite groups solved this by having two pot luck meetings a year, summer and winter, at lunchtime. We still worked but relaxed and visited. We even brought white elephant gifts for our winter get-together (in someone's home) during the holidays.
Parting Words of Wisdom
Here is a sprinkling of "focus" notes I keep on my bulletin board as reminders of what I am about as a writer.
  • Show, don't tell: spend one (or more) entire revision sit-downs combing your ms for "telling" statements. Turn those into "showing" your readers what's going on.
  • Nonfiction articles: one editor's advice was simple. Answer the W's in the first two (or three) paragraphs. Then the rest of your article is the How.
  • Nonfiction articles and books: Before embarking on your idea (and spending time on it), make sure you have acquired the photos.
  • Write it plain, then make it pretty: I heard this during an editor's talk and have followed it ever since. It's a great tool. The first time(s) "getting it down" you can't possibly expect your writing to shine. All you're doing is pouring your soul onto paper. After you're sure you've written everything you want to say, put your ms for a rest. When you pick it up again, make your writing more interesting; splather your personality all over the page; give it your all.
  • Entertain your reader: Just like being a host at a party; if you're having fun, your reader will have fun.
  • When in doubt, research: if you're stuck (have writer's block) it might mean that you need to do more research. Fiction and nonfiction alike both have to be accurate, so perhaps you need to spend some time looking something up to learn more about it. If you're stuck on a non-research-type problem, then you might need to rest a bit and do a THINK. One of my writing instructors talked about BIG THINKS a lot. We all keep pen and paper with us at all times. Who knows, you might solve the problem by suggesting what you need before you go to sleep at night. The problem could be solved in the morning or in a few days, depending on the size of the problem. If you can identify the problem as a plot problem, a characterization problem, etc., then study the area in question. You might find your answer there. I think we all know, too, that often our answers come while we're sewing, doing a flower arrangement, or on a walk. So sometimes it's best to do something else that's creative to relax your mind. It often kickstarts your imagination into doing wondrous things.
  • Sit your reader down across the table: and talk to him. Tell him your story. You can try this out loud if you've come to a snag.
  • Write while sitting on the edge of your seat: that's how you want your reader to be, so engrossed in your story that their eyes light up and their super excited about your story.
  • Remember this wisdom from Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
Watch for next month's post: "You, the Writer; You the Critiquer."
Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Navy
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.

Tread Gently - 10 Steps To Provide a Helpful Critique

As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin. No question. Not only do you have to anticipate criticism of your writing, you need to request it.

For two reasons:

1)  Rather be critiqued by a small group of people you trust, than be trashed by thousands "out there" whom you don't even know.
2)  By doing critiques for others, you will develop your own skills in the process.
When I was growing up, my father often said to me, "It's not what you say, it's the way you say it!" And this is true of critiques. Everyone is a critic, because everyone has an opinion. We all know what we like or don't like, or what works or what doesn't. But perhaps we need to learn how to say it, or how to receive the criticism of our darlings.

Today, let's look at how to do a critique as well as what to avoid. Next month we'll look at how to react to a critique.

1. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVES. Before you start critiquing, scan through the article and look for points you agree with, expressions you enjoy, sections of writing that make you smile. Using the comment section (if using Word Review) leave indications of your reaction. This may be a smiley face ☺ or an "Amen!" Perhaps you will leave a comment, "Oh yes, been there," or "I couldn't agree more." Or maybe you prefer, "I love this!" or "This story is so applicable." You can always do this as you go, but I find often I lose track of the need to encourage when I'm deep in a critique.

2. CONFIRM WITH THE WRITER WHAT SORT OF REVIEW (S)HE WANTS. Does she want an in-depth critique or only a general impression? Your crit partner may want to ask, "Does this work for the Baby Boomer market?" Read it through and resist the temptation to point out the extra spaces and the wrong punctuation. All she's asked for is whether you think it fits her proposed marker. Be careful not to destroy the writer's confidence in her work. Respond with an encouraging but helpful note. "I love it. I think it would improve if you wrote in 1st person though." Or "Great article, but I don't see it fitting in Chicken Soup. I could be wrong though." Or "Where I think this article has potential, I think it would be better for another market." (If possible make a suggestion.) In other words, give some constructive advice about the article, but don't go into picky details. If perhaps you think the article is good, but one illustration doesn't make sense, point that out.

I have had the situation where I've asked "Do you think this might work?" and the person I sent it to spent a good half hour of his precious time marking up every little dot and tittle of the article. The result was a waste of his time, and frustration on my side. I only submitted a draft to see if it would work. This wasn't my best writing and I didn't want a full-on critique of it. (By the way, this is the only time writers should submit a draft to a crit group, and they must be careful the recipients understand that it's a draft.)

3. APPLY YOURSELF TO THE TRUE REASON FOR YOUR CRITIQUE. You want to help the writer—you don't want to show off your own expertise. Make sure you understand the goal of the writer, and seek to find ways to help them achieve those goals. e.g. She has written for Chicken Soup. If you know C.S., look for ways you think the article is suitable and comment. Look for ways that don't fit the C.S. requirements, and point them out. If you don't know the market, say so. But then do the best you can with the critique. Good writing is good writing regardless of the intended market.

4. ASK FOR A POLISHED ARTICLE. If you realise this is a first draft, unless it is the situation as covered in #2, write back and say something generic, like, "This looks as if it has potential, and once you've done more work on it, I'll be happy to give you a full critique." I have been in a situation where a critique partner regularly sent in "first draft" material, relying on her critique group to tidy it up for her. You are not there to write the article. You're there to help make it better.

5. EVALUATE THE WRITING, NOT THE WRITER. Don't make comments like, "You're too preachy." Rather say, "This section comes across as preachy."

6. LOOK FOR ENCOURAGING WAYS TO MAKE YOUR POINT. Perhaps you want to say, "This is weak. You shouldn't use 'he ran fast'. Use a stronger verb." Rather say "Instead of the adverb, you could say 'sprinted'. That sounds stronger."

7. OFFER SUGGESTIONS. Instead of saying, "This sentence doesn't work," say, "How about . . . ?" And give the writer some idea of how they can go about making a change.

8. CORRECT MISUNDERSTANDINGS. As writers, we know what we're trying to say. Sometimes we get it all wrong, but because we can picture the scene, we don't notice the muddiness of the paragraph. You, as a critique partner, may read something and feel confused. Who is speaking here? Tell the writer. "I find this paragraph confusing. I'm not sure who's speaking." And leave it at that. Let the writer sort it out.

9. GUIDE, DON'T TAKE OVER. By all means give a few well chosen suggestions. But don't do a rewrite of the article. The resulting piece may well be much better, but the writer will have learned nothing—except possibly never to ask you for help again.

10. ALLOW FOR FEEDBACK. Members of the group I currently belong to encourage us to write personally to the person who gave the critique in order to clarify what they meant. Perhaps after correcting the section, I may ask "Is this what you mean?" However, if the writer becomes defensive, or wants to argue, say something like, "I have given you my opinion. Feel free to ignore anything you're not happy with." In fact, I almost always say that when I offer a critique. It is only my opinion, and the recipient is free to take it or leave it.

Now over to you. Do you have anything to add? Do you have an example of any of these that you'd like to share with us?

Further posts to read: 
Critiques are Essential by Karen Cioffi-Ventrice
Finding the Right Critique Group by Linda Moore Kurth

Next Month: Gracious Acceptance - Eight Ways to Deal with Critiques by Shirley Corder

SHIRLEY CORDER lives on the coast in South Africa with her husband, Rob. Her book, Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer contains 90 meditations based on her sojourn in the cancer valley.

Please visit Shirley's Write to inspire and encourage website or at, where she writes to inspire and encourage those in the cancer valley. You can also meet with her on Twitter or FaceBook

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