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Getting the Most out of Critiques

Written By: Eddie Snipes - May• 24•11

Critiques with purpose

Peer critiques are a valuable tool in polishing up your writing, but it has to be done correctly to be effective. Writing is critiquesa lonely business, but publishing is a social world. You cannot go at it alone. Even the best writer can’t critique his/her way to perfection.

You may know what you meant to say, but the reader doesn’t. If you have to explain yourself to a critique group, you need to rewrite. A reader can’t ask questions. As you read your work, your mind fills in the gaps and gives you blind spots. Polishing your work requires help.

Let’s take a few minutes to look at ways to get the most from critiques while avoiding common pitfalls.

Don’t let critiques steal your voice

This is a challenge for everyone-but especially for new writers. Often critique groups point out differences in opinion and style. You must evaluate critiques and weed out the preference issues from the problems. Or perhaps the preference is a valid one. If more than one person points out a similar issue, that should be a red flag. However, you will get a lot of bad advice with the good. This is especially true if critiquers are aspiring writers.

As a new writer, I partnered with a group of other newbies. Bad advice abounded. For example, I had a scene where a character gagged from the smell of exhaust. One of the critiques suggested, “She gagged like a dog stuck in a log with a skunk.”

Not quite the best advice. New writers mistake exaggeration as description. You must trust your gut and find your own style.

Preparing for critiques

A critique group isn’t there to find your spelling and punctuation errors. Before submitting a critique, proofread your work to the best of your ability. No work should be critiqued until you feel it’s perfect. It isn’t, of course. You’ll discover this when people pull out the red markers. If critiquers start fixing poor spelling, they won’t be looking for the problems you need to find. And you will have wasted a good opportunity.

Be Cordial during critiques

Never argue with a critique. Never, never, never. You want people to help you. Don’t make people tiptoe around your feelings. No work improves under a rubber stamp. It has to be refined, tried, and refined again. In fact, your work will never be perfect. There is always something you will find. I think the letters move around when writers aren’t looking. If you don’t believe this, let your work sit for six months and check it. You’ll find something. Many things.

If you are critiquing, also be cordial. In a group I attended, a woman looked at someone’s work and said, “You know what I think of when I read this? I think, this looks like something an amateur would write.”

Don’t do this. Don’t insult the person or the work. Stay focused on the specific problem being addressed. You should be asking yourself, “How can I help this person improve as a writer?” Sprinkle criticism with praise. The writing may be awful, but keep in mind that everyone’s work is awful at first.

Philip Gulley was such a bad writer that his college professor passed him with a D if he promised to never write again. Years later his interest in writing was rekindled when he started writing short essays for his church bulletin. Today he has eight published books and is a popular humorist.

Bad writing is the gravel road we must pass over to reach good writing. Keep this in mind. The person you critique needs to be encouraged to persevere as you point out ways to improve. Think of critiquing as a ministry to others. Your goal is not to evaluate their worth as a writer, but to mentor them into better writing.

Find a partner for critiques

Short critique sessions has a pitfall. Even if your group is small, most sessions only permit 3-10 pages. By the time you reach page 200, you have no memory of the beginning of their book. For this reason, critique groups rarely catch plot holes, contradictions, and other ‘big picture’ mistakes.

Develop a writing relationship with someone on your skill level or higher. It should be someone who is willing to read your manuscript from beginning to end in a short amount of time. This is necessary in order to identify plot problems, redundancies, and other things your eyes cannot see. Critiquing in small blocks helps to line edit and clarify language, but a critique partner can take you to the next level.

Once you’ve passed the test of the critiques, you’re then ready for an editor 🙂

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22 Comments

  1. V.V. Denman says:

    I’m nodding my head as I read this. Yes. Yes. Yes.

  2. Ellen Andersen says:

    I’m beginning to look for a critique group. this helps me to evaluate whether one I visit would truly be helpful.

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      I definitely encourage you to find a critique group. Just approach it from a realistic perspective.

  3. Eddie, this is a good post. I want to add a couple of insights, having led the Word Weavers Critique Group in Gainesville, Florida, for the last year — hint, if you are near Gainesville, please join us.

    First, when we started, no one in our writer’s group had ever been in a critique group before, which was probably a good thing. The members learned how to properly critique from how I told them to do it, based on the Word Weavers sandwich method: praise, things that might need a little work, and praise at the end of the critique so the person comes away encouraged, not discouraged.

    My experience has been even with someone who is brand-new, you can find something in his piece to praise. It won’t all be “bad.” Look for the good, it will be there.

    One incident that came up early on is one of the attendees started criticizing other people’s critiques–didn’t agree with what the rest of us were saying and accused us of destroying this person’s work. Don’t do that. You may not agree with what someone else says, but each person gets his say. You can write a note on the part that you disagree with in pen, “I like this,” but don’t critique someone else’s critique.

    My writing has improved from reading other writers’ pieces in a critique group. You learn from others, even those who are newbies.

    We probably would not have a C.S. Lewis and a J.R.R. Tolkien if they had not critiqued each other’s work in a London pub.

    Word Weavers has now come under the auspices of the Christian Writers Guild and are actively planting new writer critique groups around the country. If you are interested in starting one, contact me and I will forward your desire to the person who can make it happen.

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      Thanks for you insights, Lorilyn. Critiquing is such an important part of good writing, but it must be approached as a tool and not as a the complete editing process.

      I’ve heard good things about Word Weavers. I attempted to start one at the beginning of this year, but I could never get anyone to follow up with me. WW made three appointments to call me and missed all three appointments without letting me know. It worked out for the best since I’m busy with the Christian Authors Guild. I think WW may have grown too fast and can’t manage new group requests as they come in.

  4. This was great advice! I loved the cute cartoon too. It’s so important to be encouraging when you critique as well as give helpful advice. There is a positive way to make comments, and I try to use that with my local group and online group. I also offer critiques at the ACFW conference and love to encourage aspiring authors. I remember the people who’ve helped me, and I want to do that for others.
    Blessings,
    Carrie

  5. May I send my English students to this blog via a link? We are using peer reviews extensively. I think this is a wonderful and concise articulation of ideas.

    Amberly

  6. Excellent article. Excellent points.

  7. Roland Mann says:

    Nicely put! It’s difficult to critique a work with a writer who continually wants to explain or defend. I think a “gag-rule” is a good one to have for those being critiqued.

  8. Jo Walker says:

    Eddie.. thank you, and thank you to Lorilyn for further clarification. I am one of those newbies, to writing and critiquing. I belong to ACFW and we just formed a small group of seven writers. I am the least experienced, so my fellow members have their work cut out for them with me and my writing. What you both shared is very helpful. I want my critiques to have value. Thanks the headsup about always having something positive to say as well.. 🙂

  9. Carole Brown says:

    Eddie, an excellent article on critiquing. Thanks for posting it.

    cb
    http://sunnebnkwrtr.blogspot.com/

  10. Lisa Grace says:

    Thank you Eddie, I’m starting a group this summer with four other local writers. I’m going to send everyone to read this article before we meet so we are all on the same page.

  11. Beth K. Vogt says:

    Great article, lots of good points. The first point–don’t let the critique steal your voice–resonated with me. And I like how to solve the problem: Weed out preferences versus problems.

    As and editor, I do tend to correct spelling and punctuation. I don’t discuss it in critique group because that’s not the topic of conversation. But I do think writers need to turn in the cleanest manuscript possible–and that includes grammar and punctuation and spelling.

  12. Joanie says:

    Thank you for this post. I will be joining my first group at the end of the month.

  13. Eddie;
    May I quote you on this in my upcoming workshops?
    You’ve touched on several areas I’ll be teaching – one of the biggest areas is the – Don’t let the critter steal your voice.
    I will be sure to credit you with anything I quote, if you don’t mind me doing so. Thanks.

  14. I really enjoyed this post immensely. You have brought up a lot of great points for critiquing each other.

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