The Gentle Critique

“I am never indifferent, and never pretend to be, to what people say or think of my books. They are my children, and I like to have them liked.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How to Survive (and Thrive) in a Critique Group

You can do it, and we’re here to help. That’s the motto of a successful critique group. You’ve formed a group because you want to improve your writing–but you also need to actively support and encourage each other if you want to succeed (i.e. sell your manuscripts). To meet that goal, it’s essential to create a positive, encouraging atmosphere.

Here, with thanks to authors Erica Spindler and Lucy Taylor, are a few guidelines to keep in mind when giving and receiving critiques.

When giving a critique: Be specific and be kind.
  1. Always confirm the writer’s strengths first. It will soften the blow of criticism. No one’s work is all bad. Be sure to point out what you liked about the piece.
  2. Keep a caring, helpful tone of voice, even when pointing out a flaw. Remember, the goal is to support each other. You’re there to help and encourage–not to hurt.
  3. Watch your word choice. Instead of saying, “This is wrong/contrived/completely unbelievable…” say, “I had a problem with…” or “What do you think about…”
  4. Once a point has been made, drop it. Instead of restating criticism that has already been pointed out, just say, “I agree with Jane.” No need to beat it to death with a club.
  5. Remember that no one should walk away from a critique session feeling stupid. Every writer–from newbie to Nora Roberts–has room to improve. Say, “I’ve made this mistake before…” or “A lot of writers have a problem with…”
  6. Be specific. Making a sweeping statement like, “I didn’t buy this at all” will only send the writer off to slit her wrists. Instead, try saying, “I had a question about the villain’s motivation here…” or “I felt this scene was a bit slow…” or “I feel the heroine needs a few flaws to balance her strengths…”
  7. In addition to specific comments, do mention your overall impression of the scene’s effectiveness. Did it move you? Were you pulled into the story? Was the tension palpable? The characters memorable? See the forest as well as the trees.
  8. Don’t be a know-it-all. If some point of fact bothers you, don’t say, “This would never happen,” or state outright that the writer is wrong. Instead, ask if she checked it during her research.
  9. Express confidence that she can fix the problems. You don’t want anyone walking away from a critique session feeling like she should throw away her manuscript. Remember: support, encourage, succeed.
  10. If time runs out and you don’t have the chance to offer all your comments, jot them down and give them to the critique-ee so she can consider them later.
  11. Consider all critiques confidential. Someone is trusting you with an early draft of her story. No one outside your critique circle needs to know anything about it. Do not discuss it with others. Do not e-mail people about how weird/wicked/wild it was. Do not talk to your mom, hairstylist, or dog groomer about it. Be worthy of her trust.
  12. The most important point: suggest ideas and improvements. Positive suggestions and brainstorming are the most useful part of any critique. You might have just the plot idea or word choice the writer is looking for. After you’ve pointed out a flaw, always try to offer a solution: “I had a problem with the hero’s dialogue here, but maybe he could say…” or “To strengthen the conflict, maybe you could try…” All criticism should be accompanied by positive suggestions for ways to fix the problem.

When receiving a critique: Ears open, mouth shut
  1. Keep an open mind. Don’t be defensive. Don’t get emotional. Listen. Take notes. You might just hear something that will spark an exciting new idea or solve a problem that’s been driving you crazy. Keep your ears open and your big mouth shut.
  2. Remember: the comments are only opinions and suggestions. They are not carved in stone. It’s your manuscript. You’re free to use or ignore anything you hear. Take what you like and leave the rest. Meanwhile, keep your big mouth shut.
  3. Don’t argue or attempt to explain, as in “You just don’t understand…” You have a limited amount of time to receive your critique. Don’t waste it by talking when you could be listening. Do you plan to accompany your book to New York, so you can sit on the editor’s lap and explain everything while she reads it? No? Then don’t do that now. Your manuscript has to stand on its own. If a point is unclear to a critique partner, it may be unclear to an editor. So sit back, chill out…and keep your big mouth shut.
  4. If several people mention the same point, pay attention. You have a problem there. Put a star next to it in your notes…and continue keeping your big mouth shut.
  5. When the critique is over, ask questions. If time allows and you need more feedback about a particular point, ask specific questions: “Does anyone have ideas for making the hero more sympathetic?” or “What if I move the murder scene to chapter two?” (Yes, you may now open your big mouth–but not to argue, justify or explain!)
  6. Learn to be objective. None of us likes to hear that our writing is less than perfect. After the critique, set your notes aside for awhile and give yourself permission to just feel the pain. (It may take a day or two!) When you look at the notes again, you’ll probably realize (surprise!) that many of the comments are right on target–and your manuscript will be stronger when you make changes. You’ve just taken an important step toward becoming a professional writer. Congratulations!

USA Today bestselling author Shelly Thacker has earned lavish praise from Publishers Weekly, Locus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Detroit Free Press and booksellers who have called her “a virtuoso beyond compare.” A two-time RWA RITA Finalist, she has won numerous other honors for her fiction, including a National Readers’ Choice Award and many Romantic Times Certificates of Excellence. There are more than one million copies of her novels in print.

Copyright © 2004 by Shelly Thacker. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for individual writers to print one copy of this article for personal use. Any other reproduction by any means, print or electronic, is strictly prohibited without written permission of the author.


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