Critiquing


With those changes that come along in life, I’m doing less editing these days and more writing. This week, especially, I was sending out samples for a possible freelance gig, doing revisions on the NF kids’ book, and submitting the draft of a grant application for review.

Which meant that this week was about me receiving a lot of feedback.

Only, outside of the critique-group environment, that “feedback” is actually called something more like “make-these-changes-now-please” notes. The please is because I work with nice people!

There are different types of review comments, most of which you’re probably familiar with. Some of the ones I’ve been seeing are:

  • Do we need this comma? (Yes, I tend to be comma-happy!)
  • This seems awkward. (Okay, I was writing fast!)
  • Can you give me some more information about this? (Sure, let me just put on my research hat.)
  • How about re-wording it like this? (Depending on my mood and the suggestion, this either prompts an “Oh, hey, yeah, that is better!” or a “WTH? Who said you could edit me?” The latter one usually means I need to have some coffee and then take a second look. At which point, I typically end up at least alittle closer to the first response. Or I find a compromise. And then apply the Executive-Decision power of the writer and make a change I can live with.)

Honestly, and happily, this week was also filled with many “nice jobs” and “thank yous.” And doing revision work is such a different mind-set from getting those original words on the page; it feels good to clean things up and get projects finished or at least moved on to the next stage.

But there’s a difference between reviewers for whom, essentially, you work and those critiquers with whom you are working. With employers, you get a little less choice on how to handle the comments. (Sometimes, a lot less choice.) With critiquers, you have the freedom to say, “Well, no, I don’t think so.” In practice, when you’re the author and you’re sifting through the feedback, you can say that as often as you like. Yep. You have the final power.

Of course…the critiquers are your audience. They’re your first readers (and sometimes second, third, fourth…). Which brings us back to that old question, who are you writing for? Yourself? Or the people you want to fall in love with your book. Both, obviously.

But sometimes maybe it’s a good idea to put on the employee hat, just to push yourself a little harder. You can remind yourself that, yes, there are people who can (and should) “edit” your work, who should at least give you their honest, intelligent ideas about how to make it better. And there are plenty of times when you should listen, when it’s important to take yourself off that author pedestal and listen to the readers.

Even if it takes that extra cup of coffee.

It’s that time again: time for the monthly guest-post on critiquing. Remember, leave a comment on this post, and I’ll enter you to win a copy of my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.  I met Annette Dashofy when I went to Pittsburgh for the Pennwriters Conference (one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to, btw). We’d talked back and forth on Twitter before, and meeting her in person confirmed everything I thought about her from our online conversations–she’s sharp, funny, and a great person to be around.

Annette Dashofy is secretary of the Mary Roberts Rinehart (Pittsburgh) Chapter of Sisters in Crime and vice president of Pennwriters. She’s a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Magazine. Her short fiction includes “A Murder Runs Through It” from Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (2011) and “A Signature in Blood,” a 2007 Derringer Award nominee. She is currently working with an agent on revisions to her mystery novel set in the world of Thoroughbred racing. She blogs at Writing, Etc.  and Working Stiffs. To learn more, check out her website .

And here’s Annette’s excellent post.

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Over the years, I’ve belonged to a number of critique groups, both face-to-face and online. Becky has asked me to share a bit of my experience with my online group.

I started out as just another member. When the owner put out a call for assistance, I became one of three moderators. Now the three of us have taken over as owners. We divide the tasks. I’m known as The Cleaning Lady.

Our group is genre-specific. We’re crime-fiction writers, although we span a wide range from historical to traditional to thriller to paranormal. And anything in between. We keep a maximum of 20 members, and participation is required. Each member must critique three submissions and post one chapter each month. If you want to run more than one chapter a month through the group, you must critique three for each one.

I’d love to say the system runs flawlessly, but I’d be lying. It’s my job to track everyone’s submissions and critiques. If a member stops participating, it’s up to me to nudge them. If they continue to drop the ball, I drop them.

Sometimes I hate my job.

But with only 20 members, we need to keep everyone honest. Besides, I’m not the wicked witch (although I’m sure there’s at least one member who might disagree—you know who you are!). If life has simply gotten in the way, I’m happy to put a member “on hold” for a month or two, reserving their space until they can get back to writing.

There are good and bad points to a critique group of this size. With twenty members, not everyone is going to be on the same level skill-wise, whether you’re talking about writing skill or critiquing skill. We have published authors. We have rank beginners. Not all the stories are to everyone’s tastes, either. But the good part is that members do tend to gravitate toward those they can best work with. No one has to read all the submissions (although there are those over-achievers who try—you know who YOU are, too!) We tend to have “clusters” of members who critique each other’s work.

Each member gets at least three critiques on each of their chapters. Often they’ll get more. So while they may not find one person’s comments particularly helpful, another critique might really ring true to them. Even the very unskilled, beginning critiquer can offer some insight from a reader’s point of view.

Regardless of how helpful a particular critique might be, I think it’s of the utmost importance to be gracious in receiving it. You may disagree with the feedback, but that person took the time to read your stuff and offer suggestions on how they think you might make it stronger. You can take it or leave it, but it’s nice to offer a genuine thank you to the critiquer. After all, that person spent time on your story. Time they could have spent working on their own.

I’ve been a member of other online critique groups as well. Most weren’t as structured as this one. But those didn’t seem as productive either. Having the obligation to post and critique each month keeps our members plodding (and plotting) ahead. I’ve run three and a half manuscripts through this group and my writing has benefited greatly from the feedback I’ve received.

Carol Baldwin is the first in my monthly series of guest bloggers talking about critiquing. Carol’s most recent book is Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 (Maupin House, 2008). She has coordinated an SCBWI critique group for over 15 years, blogs at www.carolbaldwinblog.blogspot.com, and is writing her first young adult novel. The three Gs in her life are gardening, grandchildren, and learning how to golf.

Read through Carol’s great post to see all the steps critiques can take you along. Take the time to leave a comment on the post. As with all the posts in this series, I’ll be picking one commenter to win a copy of my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. Enter by Monday for a chance to win. Make sure you leave contact info in the comment, so I can get hold of you!

And…here’s Carol!

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When someone asks why I decided to write about two girls in Charlotte in 1950—one white and another light-skinned black—I tell them it’s a long story. A story full of critiques, re-vision, and rewriting.

Half-Truths started as a picture book. About 15 years ago, I visited Wing Haven, a bird sanctuary in Myers Park, NC.  The garden’s history is full of stories about animals which the founder, Mrs. Clarkson, rehabilitated. When I visited I thought, Someone should write a picture book about this place! I tried, but there were too many stories to fit into (what was then the acceptable) 2000 word limit.

Elizabeth Clarkson with one of the birds she nursed back to health

Since the market wouldn’t support my original idea, I re-visioned the story.  The new book would be a fictionalized account of Mrs. Clarkson rehabilitating a baby robin. I created a young boy protagonist to make it a “boy book.” When I shared the idea with my son-in-law he scoffed, “Boys aren’t going to read a story about a bird! They want blood and guts!”

His off-the-cuff “critique” made me consider my audience. Maybe this was a girl story? I started playing with different ideas.

At that time, I met Joyce Hostetter and read BLUE. She repeated the advice that Carolyn Yoder gave her: “Look for the story in your own backyard.” Although I had moved to Charlotte, N.C. 22 years earlier, I began observing many instances of the same last name belonging to both blacks and whites. What was the connection?

As I looked at pictures of light-skinned African Americans and listened to local stories the seed of my story started to root.

Thad Tate was a prominent African American businessman from the 1890’s-1940’s. Picture courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. I heard stories of his granddaughter passing.

Since I’m a transplanted Yankee writing a Southern story, I surfed the Internet hoping to figure out how my characters spoke “Southern.” The result was a disaster. A member of my SCBWI critique group, Miriam Franklin, read one of those first attempts and said, “No character in Myers Park talked like that!” Her critique was another wake-up call.  I didn’t know who my characters were or where they came from. Their diction should flow from characterization, not vice-versa.

My next significant critique intervention came from Harold Underdown, my critiquer  at the 2009 Highlights Writer’s Workshop. His most helpful question was simple, yet pivotal: “What does your character want?” I have repeatedly wrestled with that question, and have actually found not one–but layers of answers as I continued to write.

Carol Baldwin and Harold Underdown in Chautauqua, NY

I joyfully marked New Year 2011 by finishing my first draft. I read the entire manuscript and then buckled down to what I naively thought, was a chapter-by-chapter revision. I participated in Kidlit4Japan and won a critique from Ann Manheimer.  Among other helpful recommendations, she suggested that I didn’t open my story close enough to the inciting event. As a result, I revised the first five chapters.

Fast forward to September, 2011 and the SCBWI Carolinas conference. Mary Kate Castellani, an associate editor with Walker Books, read 10 pages and offered the biggest book-changing critique of all: since my story featured two main characters–one white and one black–I should write it from both girls’ points-of-view.

Total shock. Rewrite my entire book? Write as much from the black girl’s POV as the white girl’s? How could I, a white author, do that?

That is when I learned how a good critique enables you to re-vision your work.

I laid out my book using different colored note cards representing the alternating chapters. I suppose that means I’m a plotter; I had to visually see how to make the story work from both girls’ point-of-views. (picture of my dining room table)

The result? I’m thrilled that the finished product will be more accessible to a wider audience and am enjoying the new places my manuscript is taking me. But, my critiquing and re-vision hasn’t stopped.

My local SCBWI group reads each new chapter and provides helpful feedback.  I love their thoughts about my characters. “Kate wouldn’t act like that,” or, “Do you really think Lillie would say that?” Their comments make me see my characters through new eyes and help ensure that my characters are both consistent and original.

Revision happens on the small, microscopic level, as well as on the “big picture” level. Recently, to prepare an application for the SCBWI WIP grant, Joyce Hostetter went through my first ten pages and showed me how I could cut 400 words. Meanwhile, Rebecca Petruck looked at the big picture of these same pages and gave a cogent argument for opening the book with a different scene.  Re-vision time again!

Many years ago I created this graphic organizer “The Writing-Revising Cycle” for my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8. Feel free to print out a copy and hang it near your workspace; it’s still a good reminder to me of the work I have ahead of me.

Today’s blog is sort of a mini-survey. Along with my own writing, I’m still doing plenty of critiques for other writers these days. What with the nature of the world, I do a lot of my work online, via email and with much neater feedback in Word than I could ever do with my own handwriting. :) I typically make plenty of comments in the manuscript margins, and I type up the overall critique in a separate file.

Pretty much like I talk about in The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

But I’ve been wondering. I know there are plenty of writers who critique together online. I’ve started doing that myself, on top of my in-person critique group, and it works well for me. I only miss the coffeehouse atmosphere a little. On the other hand, I think there are still writers who are most comfortable face-to-face, actually hearing their critique delivered out loud, even if it’s the same one they take home on paper to look at later, during revision. I think they feel more happy with the chance to ask immediate questions, get things clarified, and do a bit of brainstorming about specific problems that have been worrying them.

So then I thought…Skype.

I hear wonderful things about Skype school visits. I’m getting close to hiring Laura Purdie Salas and Lisa Bullard at Mentors for Rent, to help me pull together some samples I want to send out. That consulting session will be via Skype, and I’m looking forward to it. Both Lisa and Laura are “there” at the conference, and I think it’ll be much easier to have a three-way conversation when I can sort of see who’s talking when. Easier, more relaxed, and–I’m guessing–very helpful. Skype mentoring.

And maybe Skype critiquing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let’s make it all hypothetical. If you were going to hire a freelance editor to critique part or all of your book, would you like the idea of being able to talk to them in person, as well as get their written feedback? Would you, if you were already paying a page-rate for the critique, think it worthwhile to pay for an additional hour of time, to get that face-to-face delivery of the critique? Or would you just feel like it was more technology you  had to figure out and equip yourself for?

Please do leave a comment with your thoughts. All opinions welcome!

I talk a lot about figuring out your personal critiquing goals. If you’re just starting out on your hunt for the right group, I recommend spending a little time thinking about who you are, what kind of a writer you are, and what you want a group to do for you. If you’re in a group that isn’t working quite as well as you want it to, the same kind of self-assessment can help you pinpoint what you’d like to change.

BUT…once you’re in a group, it isn’t all about you. It’s often about how that group works, as a unit. How everybody helps everybody else and, because of that, how strong the group gets.

So…for today’s Friday Five, here a few of the benefits and strengths of a good group.

1. Increased productivity. Groups are the best motivator I know for getting everybody writing and revising.

2. Brainstorming. Yes, you can share ideas back & forth with one other person, but there is a magic that happens when several people are tossing ideas back and forth, and that magic is exponential, not incremental.

3. Commitment. If one or two of you show up at every critique session, that’s okay. But unless everybody puts the group at the same level on their priority list, the group is not going to have the same power. Knowing that everybody thinks this critiquing thing is as important as you do–that’s the foundation for a strong core.

4. Education. The more you critique, the more you learn about the writing craft. The longer you critique with a solid group, the more that group becomes a repository of knowledge and skill. That every single members shares in.

5. Confidence. Yes, we all have to grow our own writing, we all have to push our own limits & find our own path. And, when you first start out with a critique group, the critique process can definitely burst a few of your bubbles. In the long run, though, knowing that you have a group you trust lets you take risks, cross lines, and know they will give you an honest reality check on everything you write. I truly believe my critique partners help me to go further and to find out–always a delight–that I CAN make something work. A strong group is a great help to the backbone, to our sense of ourselves as making progress and getting better.

We’ve all been there. We’ve read a submission from a critique partner, and we’ve got a lot to say. A lot that isn’t maybe so great and that is not, we’re pretty sure, going to make the writer feel good. Maybe it’s a new member of the group, and you don’t know how they’ll take the feedback. Or maybe it’s a revision from someone you’ve critiqued with for a while, a revision they’re really excited about, and you think it’s just not that exciting. Yet. You’re looking at the manuscript and you’re looking at your notes, and you’re feeling just that little bit sick to the stomach about writing it up and delivering it to the author.

What do you do?

1. Don’t back off. I really believe that, if you avoid telling a critique partner what isn’t working in their manuscript, you’re doing them a disservice. Even if it’s one they might, at some level, thank you for. Implicit in the agreement to critique together is, I think, a request that we do our best, that we catch problems and let each other know about them. At the far end of the spectrum, if you hide your thoughts, you are setting your critique partner to find out about this when it’s too late–when the comments are coming from an agent, editor, or reader of their self-published book.

2. With number 1 said, this doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to gentle/cushion the news. Of course, you’re going to start and end your critique with something positive, but you can do more. First, try to get your mind out of that bad-news mindset. Remember, you’re trying to protect the writer from that perhaps unnecessary rejection down the line. You are giving them a chance to revise and make this book better. You are helping them to identify weaknesses in their writing, weaknesses they can–with learning & practice–get rid of. Yes, most of these methods are, in a way, mind-games we play with ourselves to justify what we’re going to say, but…and here’s the thing: If you can get yourself into that game, then your more positive feeling is going to make its way into your critique and weave hope into the feedback. If you’re a parent, you do this all the time. You see your kid stepping up to something they may or may not be ready for, and you worry. If you let that worry show, your kid gets it. They see your doubt and your stress, and it infects them. If, on the other hand, you’re skilled at tucking that worry away and you open yourself up to the idea that your kid may have found something right and good for them, they’re going to sense that–your belief and faith in their possibilities. Ditto for your critique partner.

3. Don’t worry about covering every problem in your feedback. If it overwhelms you, think about what it’s going to do to the writer. A critique group is about revision, about–I believe–as many revisions as needed. It’s only Super Writer who can make every change a manuscript needs in one draft. Pick two to four things–big things–that you think the writer needs to tackle, elements of the story they should figure out before moving on to the smaller pieces. Is their hero being active enough? Are they using dialogue as effectively as they could? Are they starting the story at the right spot?  Talk about these problems as clearly and helpfully as you can–explain, give examples in the text, make suggestions for figuring out improvements. Let the rest wait.

4. Remember you’re not alone. (Unless you’re just working with one critique partner, and–honestly–this is one of the strong arguments for actually being in a group.) Odds are, you’re not the only person finding big problems in the submission. Your other critique partners may find, or focus on (see #3) different weaknesses than you do, but it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to walk into the next meeting with your not-so-happy-dance comments while everybody else is  popping champagne corks and handing the writer lists of agents to query.

5. Lastly, and this is a biggie, do not carry the responsibility for this manuscript around on your shoulders. It’s too heavy a weight, and–honestly–it’s not yours to bear. Yes, you care about how the writer feels. Yes, you know you’re going to say some things that will be hard for the writer to hear, that may even hurt them. Yes, that’s hard. BUT…it’s their story. It’s their writing path. It’s part of their journey to learn to face the reality of their projects, their skills–to face that and to recommit to making it all better. As long as you have done your best to be kind and respectful (which includes digging deep and sharing what you unearth), as long as you have thought about the way you are phrasing your critique, you have done your part. At some point, you have to let the writer do theirs.

Hugs and chocolate can also be provided.  :)

When I talk about the basics of developing a critique, I recommend that–in their critique feedback–readers offer writers an explanation, an example, and a suggestion. An explanation of what’s not working, an example (or two) of that not-working element from the manuscript, and a suggestion for what the author might do differently.

Here’s what a suggestion is not. It’s not an instruction. Not a command. Not a directive set in stone.

Here’s what a suggestion is. It’s a possibility.

I use a lot of possibility-speak when I critique. I might say something like, “What if George misses the shot at the tee and has to take a second swing. That might make the events of the scene seem less easy, less convenient.” Or I might write, “Could the eagle have a broken wing? Be one-legged? Then Mary has to figure out what to do with this wild animal, and she’s immediately got a big problem.”

Much of the time, my ideas come from the story I’m reading—something the writer has seeded themselves, either without realizing it or without having (yet) developed it strongly enough. Sometimes, I think of ideas the writer hasn’t played with, at least not in the text I’m reading. Either way, I think possibilities are an important part of a critique.

Here’s why:

  • Sometimes, a possibility hits the nail on the head. The writer hears your idea, snaps their fingers, gives you a huge hug, and runs home to weave the new thread into their story. Everybody’s happy.
  • Sometimes, a possibility gets close. It’s not quite right, doesn’t mesh with the writer’s own strong view of the character or the scene, but it opens up a door to a new direction, one they hadn’t realized was there. With a little time, a little more thinking, they will figure out the change that works for them.
  • Sometimes, a possibility is pretty off-target. The suggestion you make doesn’t fit at all, from the writer’s point of view; they see no way to work it into their story. BUT…what it might do is clarify the explanation you already gave them, make sense of why the examples you pointed to aren’t working. Just like a picture sometimes is worth a thousand words (just not one I’ve drawn), an example can be the piece of the critique that the writer gets.

Sometimes, a possibility does none of these. And sometimes, yes, there is a writer in a group who completely ignores, forever, every possibility offered by their critique partners. Overall, though, I think it’s worth it to make the attempt, to offer those suggestions as they come to you. You can’t always track a revision change directly back to a specific comment, and–if you hold back–you’re missing the chance to see that magic happen. You’re missing the chance to watch the sharing of a critique group transform a story.

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