What Do You Think?

My writer friends, beware of asking that question regarding your work. Or more precisely, to whom you ask the question. Because not all critiques are alike. Or even useful.

I have a friend who was on a deadline for submitting a manuscript. She had asked a (fairly new to her) critique group for feedback. Everyone wrote in the same genre, so she felt like the feedback would be helpful. What she was hoping for were plot problems, characters with the wrong name, bursts of unattributed dialogue, scenes that were in the wrong place or unclear. What she got was punctuation notes (some helpful, others contradicting the style guide of the publisher), suggestions to rewrite entire subplots, and one person questioning the premise of the book.

My friend freaked out. I finally wrote an all caps email telling her to IGNORE EVERYTHING. Because it was just too late (deadline) to make substantive changes to the plot. And her premise had gotten her a book contract, so somebody liked it.

It made me think about critique groups and critique partners. We’ve talked about critiquescritiquing, feedback and editing on the blog several times. I thought I’d weigh in with my opinion on who you should ask to read your book when, and what a good critique partner does and doesn’t do.

My process is two write a lousy first draft, and then add research and shape it into second draft. I also try to give each draft time to sit, though deadlines sometimes get in the way. This is when the first critique comes in–usually my friend Jason. At this point I need someone to look at the big picture, the frame of the story. Does it hold together? How is the pacing? Was he surprised?

I then take his comments, and incorporate them into the manuscript. If they make sense, and work for the story. He may not love that the farmer’s son was guilty of the crime. But was he upset because the rest of the story didn’t support that (bad), or because he really liked the farmer’s son and was sad that he was guilty (good)? This critique partner needs to be a trusted reader who understands how delicate a book (and writer’s ego) is at this stage. Honesty and suggestions.

I then do another pass on the manuscript, looking for action, sensory moments, pacing, and every other editing technique I have learned after years of classes and workshops. When I am “done” I give it to the next level of readers. This round reacts to story (and usually Jason is a reader here too), but also looks at structure, grammar, punctuation, and overall clarity.

At this stage, I am easily confused. I have been working on the manuscript for too long, and have lost all objectivity. So I need to find people I trust. People who offer their ideas, but couch their ideas in support of my work, not a desire to write my story themselves. And I need to muster the strength to say “no” to some suggestions.

Any my final critique partner? Me. A couple of days in the drawer, and a read through of the entire manuscript. Straight through. And then I ask myself “what do you think?” and hope the answer is in the affirmative. And if not, I fix it.

How about you? Do you have readers or critique partners you trust? Or are you your only reader?


J.A. Hennrikus is a mystery writer. She is the President of Sisters in Crime New England, on the national board of Sisters in Crime, and a member of Mystery Writers of America. She also blogs with Wicked Cozy Authors.

26 thoughts on “What Do You Think?

  1. I too write my first drafts without getting hung up on quality, then try to read them as a reader to see what needs work.

    The first person I show my work to after I have reworked it enough to not see huge flaws is my wife. She gives me a good idea of whether the story is enjoyable and makes sense.

    The trick I use for obtaining feedback from groups is to ask for what I want: if you ask for a critique you will get either a one-two line comment on overall experience or everything people think is wrong; if you ask whether the story makes sense, you are much less likely to get ten responses all highlighting the same missing comma.

  2. I read my drafts first like Dave because I always end up finding mistakes. Sometimes, I have like 5 drafts.

    The first person I show my work to would be my writing partner, Christine. She’s a good writer and she gives me a good idea….she also always encourages me.

    The trick I use for obtaining feedback from groups is to ask what I need to improve on. As a writer, we all need to improve somehow….no matter how much writing you do….it will never be perfect. You have to be open to constructive criticism but if people give you too much suggestions, use the ones you want to, and ask others, not just one person.

    Thank you!!!

    • The craft of writing is always to be improved upon, I agree. That said, at some point (deadlines being one of them) you have to live with “good enough”, and sometimes finding someone who supports that is helpful as well.

      • Yup, the craft of writing is always to be improved…..you do have to live with “good enough” sometimes. I always like to support others in their writing, I even run a writing club at school.

  3. This is good advise. I asked for a critique from two people for my book. The first gave constructive feedback but the second was particularly unhelpful liking, indeed loving, everything one minute and changing her mind the next and being nothing short of nasty! It knocked me for six and took away all my confidence. If it wasn’t for the fact that I found out from mutual friends that this particular girl can be fickle and spiteful I don’t think I would have recovered to ever write another word.

    • I didn’t talk about this in the blog, but sometimes bad critiques come out of jealousy. I’ve had a couple of crippling experiences as well. The confidence is really tough to build back up.

      One of the (many) nice things about being a mystery writer is that revenge is pretty easy. Wonder if there have been any critique group mysteries?

      And “knocked me for six” just became a new favorite phrase.

  4. I give it to my friend Heather who is not a writer. What I need from her is to tell me where the plot is weak, characters believable, where the story lags. My second reader is from my critique group and she does the same from a writer’s perspective. I find that her feedback reflect a lot on how she writes and I need to make sure that I retain my style when doing revisions she suggested. When I feel my ms is as good as I can get it I pass it on to Anne who does the final editing. Where does corrections are done I get a professional editor.

  5. I haven’t written much lately — however, I’m thinking that in the future that I’ll just write and write and then not look at it for a week or so. I’m not thinking about blogging… I mean longer works. This is helpful! Thanks.
    ~ Eric

  6. I’ve handed it to friends and had them go, “It’s perfect!” (which is not at all helpful) to those trying to rewrite the book as they would tell it (also not helpful).

    I now have a Writing Gang and we read each other’s work. In general, we try to be supportive of the story as the writer is trying to tell it. We talk about parts we were confused by and whether the connection between two characters is really there. So, it works well for us.

    On the opposite side as a critiquer, it’s a challenge, too, to pull back and not let your biases get in the way. I try very hard to make suggestions that will help the writer move toward THEIR vision. Though I’ve commented in ways I’ve regretted because I didn’t understand the genre (romance) or began to get a separate vision of the story — all of which had to be squashed. If I do feel that I might have a bias going on, I try to be clear that that might be the case and that this is only MY opinion and should be taken with an appropriate grain of salt.

  7. Great suggestions! I’m always hesitant about who reads my drafts because I’m afraid of what I will hear! My boyfriend was a Literature major in college so I have him read through things because he’s honest with me but also he’ll let me know when things like pacing and plot are confusing along with tips about grammar and such.

  8. I really liked this post and everyone’s comments. I find that my writing group are overly kind. This is just as frustrating because you are after constructive feedback but you don’t get it!
    I also think that as writers’ we need to freak out less and toughen up. Every writer whether published or not will face criticism. If you don’t like what you hear, ignore it and move on. Our egos should not be as easy to crack as Humpty Dumpty. After all, we chose this occupation didn’t we?

  9. Reblogged this on Dance with the Rain and commented:
    I was looking at the blogs I follow and somehow, it lead me to this post. I used to write before way back in high school. I am such a bookworm that time, you can never see me without a book in my hand. You know how people look nowadays when they are using their smartphones in social gatherings? Change the smartphone with a Harry Potter book (or something from Charles Dickens).

    Well, there was a time when I attempted to write a fan fictions (yes, not something that passes for publication) of the books that I love combined with the anime characters that I’m fond of.

    I did several that time, but I only finish up ’til the second to fourth chapter. I usually ask my brother or my mom to read it. They never really read it so I didn’t get any feedback, hahaha! I tried asking my friend too, but since we’re both anime and book lovers with very different opinions, she somehow didn’t like the works that I have. She wanted major changes in the plot (I was like “Why don’t you write this then?”) In the end, I got so discouraged that I started writing less. Now, the works that I started are still in my box kept somewhere.

  10. Pingback: If I Could Offer One Critique… « Copywrite1985

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