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:
- 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.
- 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.
- When the critique comes back, thank the person for their time before you look at the comments.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)