Thursday, October 18, 2012


image by parylo00
This evening, we had a committee meeting of my writers' group to decide the programme for the coming year. This is a fantastic local group that I belong to (I am Vice Chair, in charge of Vice)—we meet twice a month. One meeting is usually a workshop or a speaker, and the other is usually a manuscript critique evening, where we look at manuscripts up to about 1500 words long.

It's a fairly large group; there are thirty members, of which twenty-two or so usually come to meetings, where we can usually get through ten to a dozen manuscripts. Obviously, everyone has a different writing style, and a different critiquing style too. With twenty-odd people commenting on every manuscript, the depth and content of critiquing is going to vary a lot. Some people will love an aspect that other people will hate. Some will focus on technical craft, and some will focus on how it made them feel as a reader.

While I've always had good and useful critiques from this group, at times I've had surprising responses, too. I'll never forget the woman who harangued me for using Americanisms (I am American, and was writing American characters for an American publisher). I won't forget the time I wrote (badly) about a train crash and one of the members sent me several online resources giving me facts and figures that I needed to make my scene more accurate. One time I wrote an obscene word in my work, and a member (now long departed) told me that she could not read any further because it was the word that her ex-husband used to call her.

Tonight, we discussed the art of critiquing. Since several members have newly joined, we thought about maybe creating a resource for them to learn how to critique. But the problem is, it's very difficult to teach someone how to critique, and if you do, you run the risk of critiques becoming formulaic. We all agreed that a breadth of response could be valuable. We also all agreed that as a rule, while we listened carefully to all the critiques, we didn't always follow the advice we were given. That we had to follow our own vision in the end.

We decided to try to compile a document with our thoughts about critiquing, and how to respond to critiques, to put up on our website as an aid, or even just a way of starting a good discussion.

What's your opinion? What works, and what doesn't, in critiquing? And how do you choose to respond when you receive a critique?


  1. Julie, this is a great question, and one I have wrestled with myself on both sides of the RNA new writers scheme. When I'm critiquing I like to say what didn't work for me (always with the proviso that this is my opinion and that in the end this is the author's story so they should feel free to ignore anything I say), then (and here's the controversial bit!) I offer suggested solutions... TBH I never know whether or not I should do that. I don't want to intimidate someone into taking my advice, or make them think there is a definitive right-or-wrong answer, nor do I necessarily have the right solution (and I always point that out) but I think sometimes it can be helpful to offer solutions, just to get the author to think more deeply about the characters and their conflict and how these translate to a reader. But I'd love to know how people feel about that. Should I do it, or shouldn't I? Would it be better just to point out the things that didn't work for me and then leave it to them to come up with their own solutions, because in the end this is their story and I would hate to de-motivate anyone.

  2. In my experience, asking someone for a "critique", it usually puts them in the mindset of finding things that are wrong. And if you're looking for something wrong, you'll find it. I offer and ask for "reads" now. I don't know if that will help, but it's worked for me, both with people reading my work and me reading theirs.

    I also judge a lot of contests, and one was a great experience because there was kind of a judges' primer on hand if we needed it. The first question was, Is this something you would read? If the answer was no, we were to send it back and let it be judged by someone else who appreciated that particular style of writing. It took me a long time to realize that the reason my friend P. and I nit-picked each other was because our tastes were incompatible.

    One last thing, and that is to stress how important it is to try new things, even if they don't work. If someone says, "hey, this would be more powerful if it were from a different POV," it won't hurt to try. Maybe they're right. Maybe they're not. Worst case scenario, you like it better the old way and change it back.

  3. I think the best critiques are those that start with something really positive so the author feels they've created something worthwhile - it's just not perfect yet.

    I hate being told that the critiquer "would have done it this way" instead, because it's my story and obviously I haven't written it their way and never will. However, carefully worded suggestions make me think and more often than not act on them (whether following that particular suggestion or just changing the scene). And I'm always grateful when someone points out things that are definitely wrong which I haven't seen myself because I'm too close to the manuscript.

    Both critiquer and receiver have to remember that it's always subjective though and the writer should only take on board what works for them and makes them feel comfortable I think.