Monday, April 11, 2011

How does it feel to be under critique the gun?

A new member of Lilac City Rochester Writers (LCRW) participated in a critique session we held last month. Last night she asked how it feels to be under critique the gun? This is my reply.

That is an interesting question with a very complicated reply. A successful critique depends on a couple things: the critique group and the receiver of the critique. I'll talk about the latter first.

It's your work -- you know what you want. No one uses everything they hear at the critique. The trick is to recognize what is useful and what is not. If you have a good group, their objective is to make your story better. To help you make it the story you want it to be.

I once took a class run by award winning author Nance Kress. When my piece was read, I got 13 critiques. I gave Nancy’s comments more weight than the others in the class. That said, I felt no pressure to make a change just because someone suggested it. However, when six of the thirteen people made the same comment, I looked at that very seriously.

Another important thing you need at a critique is to have a thick skin. I am twenty times the writer I was four years ago, when I started writing, because I don’t let my ego get in the way. You must be able to say, “Thanks, I’ll think about that,” then move on.

A critique is not the place to defend your work. Don’t get me wrong, it is very legitimate to say you were trying to do something, as long as your purpose is to find out why it didn’t work. (“I put clues (somewhere) to help the reader figure it out. Why didn’t they work? What do I need to do to fix it?” That is not defending you work, it’s an effort to become a better writer.)

To be a good critiquer, you must be honest. You must also be kind.

I think the feedback we all gave GHJT on his need to dump the “data dump” paragraphs is a fine example. If you recall, it was because he was in the middle of a fight scene. He couldn’t keep breaking up the action with information the reader didn’t need to know at that time. It was a fight. Let the action flow.

When you listened to us, you probably noticed that different critiquers mentioned different things. That is one of the beauties of a diverse group. My strength is the physical scene. If your character sees a red car pull away from the murder scene, I will catch it when you make him color blind four chapters later. Now, you may do that on purpose – that is how he gets caught – but I will generally catch those things. Other writers will catch other things

Another thing a good group will do is feed off the other critriquers. If KKGHER says something I didn’t think of and it is very good advise, I will say that. I don’t want you to think that KKGHER is the only one to think that way.

It works the other way, too. About a month ago, I was at a critique where the two people who spoke before me said something I strongly disagreed with. When it was my turn, I respectfully disagreed and explained why. If I had already spoken, I would have made a point to get my thought in before we moved on to another writer.

However, the most important thing a good critiquer will do is say something positive about the work. Someone put a lot of effort into the manuscript. They are trusting you with something personal. Treat it with respect.

One final thought on critique groups: they do not have to be genre specific to be useful. Yes, a SF/Fantasy writer’s group will automatically know the rules of writing in those genres that, perhaps, a Romance writer may not. A genre specific group will have a better idea of what works/sells for that type of story. However, good writing is good writing. An action scene is an action scene. A poorly developed protagonist will stand out. A non-genre specific group can be more demanding as they don’t just accept. They can make you justify what you are doing.



  1. A great description of the dynamics of a good critique group! I believe I have learned tons about writing by critiqueing others and being critiqued. One of the benefits is the growing ability to be your own editor. It seems I find the clunkers in my writing more readily...but clearly not all, as you know, Steve

  2. Thank you for the comment. You are right - the more I critique, the better a writer I become. Once you start seeing the mistakes you make in other's manuscripts the easier it is to see them in yours.

    I, also, think critiquing helps define the type of writer you are/will become. I have been rethinking 'some' of what I say because when I read the revisions that advise wasn't taken. (Which is the way it is supposed to work.) I have been cogitating why they didn't do it, and I frequently end up agreeing with it. Hmmm. PERHAPS I not the expert I think I am. :-)