Critiques Are A Two-Edged Sword / Author Maggie Toussaint

Author Maggie Toussaint

Author Maggie Toussaint

Authors are polarized on the subject of critiques. For some, the idea of anyone criticizing any part of their baby is unthinkable. Other authors wouldn’t dream of turning in a manuscript unless it had been vetted by critique partners.

So let’s get that out of the way right up front. Critiquing isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.

What is critique? It’s evaluating a theory or practice in a logical or analytical way. That makes it sound like there’s one right way to do something. But when it comes to writing, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Writers come from all walks of life and embrace many styles of writing. Their advice varies in helpfulness. Their analysis is shaded by their experiences, likes, dislikes, emotions, and other intangibles .

If you understand that critique is an analysis shaded by opinion, you’re better prepared to evaluate the feedback you receive. That’s right. Getting a critique is only 50 percent of the work. Evaluating the feedback is just as important.

Here are guidelines that helped me along my critiquing journey:

  1. Be selective who you ask for critique. Even though family members and friends may give insightful comments, other writers, particularly ones in your genre, can be very helpful with regard to craft elements and story construction.
  2. State up front what your expectations are for the critique. Some beginning writers may only know how to do line edits, when what you really need is for someone to check characterization, POV, pacing, or plot arcs.
  3. When the critique comes back, thank the person for their time before you look at the comments.
  4. Try to filter the well-intended comments through an analytical lens. The remarks aren’t personal. They’re someone else’s reactions to your story.
  5. If you find yourself itching to explain something, know this. You can’t explain to every distant reader, an agent, or an editor. What’s in your head should be available to them through the written word.

If you offer a critique, remember these tips. Point out weak areas in a kind way. Give positive feedback on things done well. Mark the sections where you had strong emotional responses. Resist the urge to rewrite extensively in your own words – this isn’t your story. If something isn’t working in the submission, try to identify the root cause. If you can’t identify the cause, describe the effect it had on you. (For instance a book with too much backstory might drag.)

My experience has shown that there are at least three levels of critiques, and I break them down by how far along in the writing process the project is.

For first drafts: analyze big picture stuff (do plot events happen in an understandable progression, is the main character(s) established, is there setting), voice; mood, other story intangibles (if a work has “story” it shines through even the worst writing); and genre appropriateness. NOTE: only do line edits at this point if the person asking for critique wants them.

Hot Water

Hot Water

For drafts in revision: check that all of the above are fine-tuned by making sure the transitions between scene and sequel are present, check for dangling story threads, check for consistent characterization, look to see if setting is experienced instead of told, check for pacing by evaluating dialog to narrative blend; check for gender differences in POV; check for story hooks at start and end of scenes, as well as larger hooks at the end of chapters; check grammar, spelling, and do line edits once the other stuff is up to a professional level.

For final drafts: keeping in mind all of the above, read for flow, for voice, for consistency, for places where the book drags or moves too fast for the scene content, note spelling errors.

Lastly, writers must be capable of evaluating if the critique input stays true to their story vision. Many people get discouraged about critique because they are unable to process the input. If someone told you that crayons were currency, would you believe them? No? Why not? Because you know better.

Just as you know best when it comes to your story. Evaluate each comment. Does it improve the story? Does it detract from your voice? Make sure you’re not having a kneejerk response to the comments. Sometimes it helps to let the critique sit a day or two before you edit the comments into your work.

It all comes back to the writer. She/he must take responsibility for writing – and for rewriting.


Maggie Toussaint

Formerly an aquatic toxicologist contracted to the U.S. Army and currently a freelance reporter, Southern author Maggie Toussaint loves to blend murder and romance in her fiction. With ten published books to her credit, her latest releases are Hot Water (romantic suspense) and Dime If I Know (mystery). She’s an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. Visit her at www.maggietoussaint.com.


(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/).  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at beth@killernashville.com.)

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About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com). As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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22 Responses to Critiques Are A Two-Edged Sword / Author Maggie Toussaint

  1. Polly Iyer says:

    I agree with everything you said, Maggie. I have great critique partners. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

  2. Thanks, Polly. I’m quite happy with my critique situation as well. It took awhile to get to the right place/people, but it was worth the journey!

  3. And your critiques in particular are wonderful, Maggie! Everything you’ve said has helped me with character development.

  4. Excellent post, Maggie. I agree as well. I’ve had good and bad experiences over the years. The bad ones have made me shy to find any partners. I have to admit I wish this article was a must-read for everyone considering giving someone else a critique. I currently only have one partner I’ve been exchanging with for a few years now. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s a god-send. 🙂

    • Joanne,

      I’ve been involved with either a critique group or individual critique partners for nearly ten years now. I’ve had a range of experiences, but the good always outweighed the bad for me, else I wouldn’t have continued to seek out a critique.

      One gal gave me fits as a CP, and I ended up bowing out of that group altogether just to get away from her. I’ve tried in person groups and online, and I actually prefer online crits. Must be the introvert in me.

      Thanks for stopping in. And thank goodness for your critique partner. Hang onto her!

  5. Lots of good advice here, Maggie. Thanks for the reminder that we can’t explain things to every reader, judge, or prospective editor or agent. Hence, we do need to know if something is not clear to the reader. (and not try to “defend” it.) As to being the person who critiques, because I’ve received a few nasty comments from judges – which is so uncalled for – I’m careful when I judge or critique. I actually say a little meditation type prayer to remind myself to comment on the piece in a manner that I would like to have my work commented on. That helps me focus on positive criticism and ways I think the writer can improve their work.

    • I can tell your comment comes straight from the heart, Heather. I’ve also been dinged by well-meaning judges, and it does sting. For me, that’s where the realization that its not personal comes in. As always, easier said than done. Thanks for chiming in!

  6. It’s great to see the difference between developmental editing and line editing so succinctly explained. I usually encourage writers to receive 8-10 reads before beginning to query agents. It’s amazing how many things other eyes will see, and how little we ourselves do (I do anyway) once the book feels complete. Nice post!

    • Hi Jenny,

      I had a problem when I first began to critique because I didn’t know how to determine if the writing elements were strong enough. I did a lot of line edits on first drafts that were complete wastes of time. But as I’ve grown as a writer and critiquer, I learned what type of “eyes” were needed when.

      Even with a critique partner and and extensive editing process, I’m always amazed at what my editor finds.

      Thank you so much for your comment.

  7. ellisv says:

    Excellent, Maggie. You said it very well. Even if I don’t always agree with someone’s suggestions, I try to figure out why something bothered them. I have a wonderful critique partner who helps me tremendously. I wouldn’t make it without her.

    • Hi Ellis,

      You addressed a point which needs to be said. If someone made a comment and an author doesn’t agree with the comment, the onus is then on the author to figure out why there is a smidge of story confusion. Clarity is important, even if you’re sowing clues and red herrings.

      Thanks for the visit, and give your critique partner a hug. She’s special!

  8. Terry Odell says:

    I’ve been with my current on-line group so long, we tend to be cutthroat because we want to find out what isn’t working. When I judge contests, I have to remember to “tone down” my comments. These are excellent suggestions.
    Terry
    Terry’s Place

    • Hey Terry,

      It sounds like you guys have developed thick skin. But I understand the tendency to become less “politically correct” through time. Another writer wanted to join in with me and my current critique partner, but our style of critiques didn’t work for her. She backed out immediately, which left me feeling a bit like I’d failed, but I was cheering for her for knowing what was best for her.

      Thanks for your comments.

  9. Very good advice for writers, Maggie. New and veteran authors can benefit from your comments.

    • Thanks Jacquie. Some days I feel very much like a veteran, other days I find myself making newbie mistakes. But every day is an adventure, and writing is definitely a dream job! Appreciate you swinging by to keep me company.

  10. Maggie, excellent advice.

    Taste is a very individual thing. Not everyone likes everything. And it’s important to appreciate context when evaluating a critique.

    • Thank you, Margaret. I am still learning and growing when it comes to critiques, though I enjoy doing them. Of course, its absolutely ruined pleasure reading for me, especially if something is “off” in a story. With the rash of indie pubs today, you never know how well edited a book may be.

  11. Great advice Maggie. I’m going to give a copy of your blog to everyone in my writers group.

  12. Thanks, Jacquie. I appreciate your stopping in to read the blog and leave a comment.

  13. Excellent post, Maggie, with good advice. Glad I made it over, even if late.

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