Critiques: Writing up the Big Stuff

At my workshop last weekend, for the Redwood Writers, I took the participants through a few of the basics of critiquing:

  • Reading the manuscript
  • Writing the critique
  • Presenting the critique 

After a few minutes of my blathering talking, I had them get into groups and practice these basics. Then I critiqued their critique and we talked out a few things.

One of these things was the overall write-up that I recommend doing for every critique. I had some experienced and strong critiquers in the workshop, and this wasn’t something they were all used to doing. They had good reasons–available time and the size of their groups, and I didn’t–I hope–push them too hard to change the critique methods that were working for them.

I did, though, spend a few minutes mulling over why I think this written critique is important.

What I’m talking about here is the summary a critiquer gives the writer–the page or two of clearly written, full-sentence comments about any big problems the critiquer is seeing in the manuscript. These are comments about things like the overall plot, the character development, the clarity of instructions, and the strength of the author’s voice. Yes, of course, the critiquer has marked these problems as they noticed them on the manuscript pages, but this write-up is an extra step.

Here’s why I think this summary is important:

  • Writing it helps the critiquer clarify their ideas. This doesn’t only help the writer, but pushes the critiquer, too, further along the learning curve we’re all on.
  • The summary saves the critique session from being too rambly. If everybody just makes notes on their pages, then reads through them, the critiques are missing the big picture, the birds-eye view of the manuscript. The critiquers end up focusing on the words and sentences, at a time when the writer may actually need to step back from those words and think about bigger concepts for revision.
  • No matter how supportive and respectful a critique is, the feedback can still feel overwhelming & intimidating. It can be hard for a writer to actually “hear” everything the critiquer is telling them, to absorb and understand it all. Having written comments to look at after the critique session can be invaluable to the author.
  • I am an advocate of the Don’t-Revise-Until-You’ve-Finished-the-Draft school of thought. In other words, if I send in a couple of chapters for my critique group to read, I’m going to keep writing. When I get their comments, I’ll read through them, but then I’ll set them aside until I have written all the way through my current draft–at which time, I’ll look at ALL the comments I’ve received and get ready to revise/write the next draft.
    If you also work this way (yay!), it can be weeks, or months, after you receive a critique that you start incorporating it into your manuscript. If you have to go back through 300 pages (times three or four critiquers) and sort through all the line-by-line comments, you’re going to feel lost before you get started. If you have a summary write-up for every chapter, from every critiquer, you have a solid place to start thinking about your revision. You have a way in.

In my book, The Writing Group Survival Guide, I incorporate this step–the step of writing up the big stuff–into the basic procedures for critiquing. If you’re in a critique group, or have been, was this part of your process?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments. 🙂


  1. free2cr8 says:

    I was part of a critique group — formed by friends — which was short-lived. I think that the issue was one of being overly sensitive and unrealistic when it came to what one wants to hear and what one should hear. I take the stance that critiques aren’t meant to stroke our egos but to serve to improve our writing. Needless to say, for the sake of friendship, I’m looking for another group 🙂

    But, I do like the idea of writing a summary; that is something I will definitely take with me when I find another group to join. And I’m definitely with you on the point that once you get a critique you don’t have to stop your writing to address the issue. I prefer to continue with my draft and deal with the critiques later on when I’m in revision mode.


  2. beckylevine says:

    Jaimie–keep looking. I think you’ve got the right thought–that a critique is to help move our writing forward. That said,there are respectful and supportive ways to do that, and there are…other ways. 🙂 I think, if you look hard enough, you can find writers who are ready to support AND give seriously constructive feedback.

    Good luck!


  3. Beth says:

    This is great advice, and something that I was thinking of blogging about soon! I have found critique groups invaluable…when they are the right one and when they do the things you talk about here.


  4. PJ Hoover says:

    I love receiving the typed up page when I get a critique. Likewise in y critique group, I love the overview comments. The big things.
    I need to be better and more standard when I give them in return!
    Can’t wait for your book to come out!


  5. beckylevine says:

    Beth, do blog about it! I think people are often afraid to start critique with others, because they can’t see the structure or the patterns that help get the back-and-forth ideas going. I think the vagueness they see in how the group runs, and how the critiquers pass info back & forth, scares some writers off. So tell people how great it can be!


  6. beckylevine says:

    PJ–Oh, good. I was starting to wonder if it was just me! 🙂 I’m excited about the book, too–I’m just starting the section on critiquing books for young readers. Fun! 🙂


  7. Shawna says:

    I think your points are excellent, especially not editing before you finish a draft. Kind of like of a dog chasing its tail, you just can’t move forward. Oddly enough, today I dealt with the exception to that rule. At one time, I had a larger group of reviewers (writer friends) but many have put writing on the back burner, etc and at present, it’s just me and my SO who happens to be a writer. We send everything back and forth. Yesterday, he brought a characterization issue to my attention. I explained the why to him and he mentioned I might want to let the reader in on the character’s thought process. He was right. So today, I rewrote that chapter because it was pivotal for the rest of the novel. But it is an exception to the rule.
    Another reason I don’t edit as I receive the feedback is because in the time it takes to finish the novel, I’ve grown more objective. I can go back to what I wrote months ago and look at it with a clearer eye.
    I also love the idea of the summery. I’m going to incorporate that starting tomorrow when I start on his new novel. What a helpful tool.
    I am looking forward to your book coming out. Every writer needs to know how to take and give a critique.


  8. beckylevine says:

    Shawna–you’re completely right. There are exceptions–anytime you need to get something figured out before you move on, it’s worth it to slow down & do a bit of revision. I’m betting, though, that you dealt with the character issue NOT the specfiic wording! 🙂

    I hope the summary tool works for you guys–good luck. And I think it’s great that you and your SO can critique each other.


  9. Shawna says:

    You’d be right. : ) Thanks again, Becky.


  10. writerpeter says:


    I agree with your approach. The biggest hurdle for the long fiction writer in local writer’s groups, however, is forming a circle of dedicated writers who will read each others’ full novel and do the type of critique you suggest. I will gladly do that for a serious fellow writer of my choosing in my genre (mystery-thriller)in exchange for the same. Fortunately, we have the internet, and distance need not be an obstacle. We’re trying such a one-on-ne program at the St. Louis Writers Guild.


    • beckylevine says:

      Peter–yes, it can be hard to find enough people who have that kind of time available (or who read really fast!). It’s worth the hunt, though, and it’s one of the reasons I talk about starting with a group early–when the group grows together, they’re more familiar with each others’ work & critique styles and this part of the process feels a bit less intimidating, I think. And you’re right, online groups give us so many options!

      Thanks for stopping by!


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, and just took a look at the guild webpage–it looks like a wonderful organization!


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