Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Critique~The Gentle Art of Accepting and Giving Writing Advice

First let me say that I have been most fortunate. I have been blessed by my critique partners and groups. Not all worked as well as others though, so I thought I'd put together a little "how to" about some of the things that have worked for me.

1. Where to find a partner or group ~ If you're a romance author, the obvious place to begin your search is your local or online RWA chapter. Ask if there is an established group? If not, ask if anyone is interested in joining you because you're going to start one. If there is no RWA, ask at your local library. They'll know if there are other writers in the area. Ideally, you want to trust your work to someone who at least reads romance. One group I met with in a library had authors from several different genres. While their imput was interesting, it was not always given with romance distinctives in mind.

2. Commit to meeting regularly. I recommend weekly. Everyone can write 10 pages in a week and knowing you need to bring something to critique can light a fire under you. Set a limit on the amount of material you'll bring (unless someone is under a deadline and needs more help in an emergency situation!)Decide on a venue. I personally prefer meeting in homes. It allows for snacks and coffee (and the occasional adult beverage!) But libraries let groups use their conference rooms and I've heard of groups meeting in coffee shops. (I personally wouldn't feel comfortable reading my work aloud in one, but maybe those groups don't read aloud.) If you critique online or over the phone, have a set time blocked out for it.

3. Check your ego at the door. Don't be defensive when someone suggests a change. I've been in groups where the author argued with every suggestion. It was as if he came down the mountain with the words carved in stone. Ridiculous. Everyone's work has room for improvement. Come to critique with a teachable heart.

It's your story. You control what changes you ultimately decide to make. But if you get the same reaction from more than one source, listen carefully. This is your opportunity to improve your work and make it more marketable.

By the same token, don't be upset if someone doesn't make the change you suggest. You're just offering your opinion (unless it's grammatical or spelling, of course.) Don't nag. That's what mothers are for.

4. Read your work out loud. I do this by myself too. When I hear the words, echoes leap out at me. Awkward sentences are hard to read aloud. Sometimes, I fix them as I read them, adding and deleting words as I meant the sentence to be, and don't realize I've deviated from the written version till my critique partner points it out to me. If I have to take a breath to finish the sentence, it's too dang long and I need to break it up. While you're reading, your critique partner should have a copy of the work in front of them which they'll be marking up. Don't worry about what they're marking as you read. They'll tell you when it's time for feedback.

5. Don't rewrite someone else's work to conform to YOUR voice. Your job as a critique partner is to help your friend write the best THEY can. (Yes, your critique partner is your friend or will soon be one. You can't share something as personal as your raw writing without developing a friendship.) Help by pointing out strengths as well as weakness. Everyone's style is their own. Respect it. And respect your friend enough to give your honest, yet tactful, opinion.

Anyone can rip something to shreads. Your job as a critique partner is to give constructive suggestions for making the work better. Avoid qualitative statements. Say "This isn't working for me here" instead of "This stinks."

If you find yourself in a situation where the person you're working with seems intent on only negatives, run, do not walk, away. The world will beat you down enough without subjecting yourself to it willingly. Critique partners need to make a pact to be respectful, honest and constructive. There will be times when we need to say there are flaws in the work that need changing, but that's what critique is for--to improve our work. Not to grind it in the dust.

6. Tone it up. Look for ways to help your partner tighten their prose. Are there too many clauses, adverbs, too much passive sentence structure? How can narrative be reduced to fighting trim and dialogue punched up? Is the pace appropriate? Is there too much description and not enough action? POV problems? Sometimes a writer head-hops without realizing it. Does the scene make sense? Are the motivations clear? My e-critique buddy Darcy Carson always tells me, "I can't smell this scene!" as a reminder that I need to engage all the reader's senses.

7. Learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others. Go to school on your critique partners' work. If someone else uses passive verbs, it's a reminder to me not to repeat the error. If someone brilliantly turns a noun into a verb, or encapsulates character in a neat little bundle, it encourages me to push myself, to try harder with my writing. I learned more about how to write in a few months from my critique group in Seattle than I had in a couple years of flailing away on my own. (I still miss them all soooo much!)

And lastly, be gentle and generous. Your critique partner is trusting you with something very personal, their writing. A manuscript is precious to its creator. Don't bring out the machete on the first week. As you work together, you'll learn how far you can go in your critique. Eventually, you can be as pitiless as you have to in order to help each other.

I shudder when an unpubbed author asks me for a critique. Do I give them the same treatment I'd give Ashlyn Chase, my current critique partner? She and I can whack away at each other's work and be thankful for each stripe. Or do I show them a few fixes they can apply throughout their work that will improve it? I usually opt for the latter because I don't know how much they can take. Writing is a journey and we're all finding our way. I don't want to discourage anyone from continueing along their path.

Try to give more than you receive. If that means your partner gets more pages reviewed than you this week, that's ok. Your time will come. If you give more praise than you receive, roll with it. Get excited about your partner's successes. Yours will come.

The Good Book says "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." Substitute "writer" for "man" and this verse encapsulates what it means to be part of a critique group. As we help another, we are helped.

If you're willing to have your work critiqued online, I'd like to offer to do one on my blog as an illustration of how I critique. Leave a comment and indicate you'd like to be in the drawing for a two page critique to be posted next week, if you don't mind taking your bath in public. Be sure to leave a way to reach you in case your name is drawn (Machete sheathed, I promise.)

If I don't get any takers, I'll pull out my first manuscript, shoo away the dust bunnies and expose my flaws to the world. And how I'd fix them now.

Maybe I should do that anyway. If you're a reader, you can leave a comment and vote for whether or not you'd like to see me take the machete to my own stuff. ;-)


Nynke said...

Ah, is that the much-famed 'bad' manuscript under the bed that you're referring to? I'd like to see a bit of that! Although I hope there's a starting writer around who does want to take her bath in public - it seems like a very useful exercise! (But I'm kind of happy I'm not a writer of fiction, right now ;) )

EmilyBryan said...

Yes, it's the first of my two training wheels novels. This one swelled to 300+ pages when I realized it was unsalvagable and stopped writing short of "the end." Sometimes, you have to be willing to walk away from a trainwreck.

Lisa Cohen said...

A concise primer on giving and receiving crit. Nicely done, Emily. You mirror what I have done over the years in moderating a poetry critique board.

EmilyBryan said...

LJ--Wow! Poetry mystifies me. I can't imagine critiqueing it.

Joyce Henderson said...

Emily, so many writers I've met in the past 25 years are sooo protective of their prose it's impossilbe to help them. Then there's moi and my two crit partners. We meet every two weeks. Each writes romance but I write Native American historical, one writes suspense and contemporary romance, the other writes Medieval and contemporary.

Twice a year we escape to Georgia or South Carolina for week-long writing binges. That's all we do, write during the day, critique in the evening. We play one day of the week. Works for us...and has for 15 years!

I urge every beginner or PRO writer to find and work with a crit partner or two. Not only will the writer receive invaluable input, but she'll learn so much about her own work when working on another's.

EmilyBryan said...

Joyce--Sounds like you have a wonderful group that's really working for you! I know what you mean about being over-protective. I've had people tell me they wouldn't have a critique partner because they were afraid the other person would steal their ideas! If their ideas were that great, they'd already be published.

Edie Ramer said...

Great blog! I hate it in contests when a judge tries to change my voice to suit hers. I would never want a CP who did that.

I'd like to see you critique a couple pages of your old ms. That would be fun.

Christie Craig said...

Great advice, Emily. I always say that critique groups are like jeans, you might have to try several pairs before you get one that just fits right.


EmilyBryan said...

Edie--I have a guest on my blog tomorrow, but on Thursday, I'm resurrecting The Thing Under my Bed, aka my first manuscript. Yikes!

In some ways it's good because I can see how far I've come down the writer road. In other ways, I'm wondering "What was I thinking?"

Jane L said...

This has been the hardest part of building a platform for me. Finding the right critique partner/group. I was going to say I have no idea why, but I do, my first two writing buddies got mentors, so they are working directly with published authors. Now my other lady said she has a hard time with historicals, she writes vampires only. So UGG! I am back to the drawing board. I have found an amazing site SAVVY Authors.com, they are helping me find a group now! WHOO HOO!
I cannot even begin to tell you how thrilled I would be to have my idol read my work! LOL!!!!

EmilyBryan said...

Christie--Whether you're talking critique groups or clothes, "One Size Fits All" is a lie every time. Thanks for stopping by, girl.

EmilyBryan said...

Jane L--Your name is in the 2 page critique hat!

Please don't feel you have to critique with published authors in order to gain something from the experience. I value the input from my beta reader just as highly as any critique partner.

Unknown said...

You always have such thoughtful posts.

I love all of your advice. When critiquing, I'm always brutally honest. Sure, I will point out what I like as well, and I would never say "this sucks more than a yeast infection" but I'm wasting my time if I don't point out everything that I think would help the person I'm doing a crit for.

I love my crit partner. She won't hesitate to tell me what's what and I adore her for it. I want to improve my craft and produce the best product I can. That won't happen if I'm coddled.

I'd be more than happy to take my licks in public. I've got an outer layer like the space shuttle and I'd be thankful for the extra advice. *g*

EmilyBryan said...

Ok, Saranna. You're in the running for the public scrubbing! ;-)

Glynis Peters said...

Thank you for this post Emily, it is informative and extremely useful. I am not sure I have the courage to be put in the hat at the moment, thanks for offer though. :)

Sandy said...


I agree with every single thing you said. Great post.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--I don't blame you.

When I was studying music, I participated in a number of Master Classes. I'd sing my aria, then an acknowledged singer or director would pull it apart, have me sing parts of it differently and zero in on trouble areas. Then after about half an hour of this public flagellation, I'd sing it through from beginning to end again. Needless to say, there was extreme pressure for a big qualitative improvement the 2nd time around. I was willing to do it for a chance to work with world class musicians.

But the amazing thing is, a Master Class is not done in a classroom setting. They sold tickets to opera buffs who wanted to see how the old hands whip up on the fresh young meat. I guess it's the old gladiator syndrome. People love to watch disaster in the making.

EmilyBryan said...

Ooops, Sandy! You shouldn't have. I just noticed I put a ? after a sentence that needed a period.

Gossip Cowgirl said...

The "reading your work aloud" suggestion: Priceless! I'll never forget when I first got that advice in an MFA class. I thought, how weird is that? No one is going to be reading my book out loud. But it was amazing how many of my own mistakes (or potential areas for work) I could find when I read it out loud, myself. When I had to take the time with every word, I paid more attention. I still do that, to this day.

Of course, it was much easier when I was publishing short fiction and poetry, because reading 50 words or 500-2500 words aloud is much easier than 85,000 (even 500 at a time)!

EmilyBryan said...

Rebecca--At one point, I made my sweet DH listen to my work. Can you believe it? That darling man spent a good part of one of our cruises listening to me read SILK DREAMS (my Diana Groe harem story)

Gillian Layne said...

I'd love to throw my hat (or two pages) in the ring. Because once you've done your critique, then others will comment on the critique...it's definitely a win/win situation, and should be fun! :)

EmilyBryan said...

Well, I'm posting the blistering critique of my much maligned first manuscript on Thursday. It was actually quite a hoot to look at it again. If you're an aspiring writer, this post will give you hope.

And I had 3 takers on the offer for a 2 page critique, Jane L, Saranna, and Gillian. Since I can't choose between you, I'll do all three. For the next three weeks, Thursday will be my critique day on the blog and I'll take you on one at a time. We'll discuss whether you want kid gloves or the machete treatment.


Donna L said...


I don't know if you have your victim err volunteer, but I am more than willing to give my thick skin a test. After getting back into writing after the injury I have found I have a slightly new voice and different style so I'd love to see it critiqued. It's been fun seeing my CP's work with it and it's been a bear working with it myself. Kind of like two writers working on the same MS, which means going back to the begining and overhaulig.

I loved the advice you gave it was right on the money and my CP's have become my closest friends. We were incredibly gentle at the begining and now can whack away knowing what each wants and needs.
contact me through NEC

Donna L