Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hey, you! Critiquing Partner! by Carla Damron

“That was really good. I liked it.”

Hey, you. Critique group member. Yes, I’m talking to you. Do you think you can get away with this feedback? Seriously? Sure, early on in my writing life, I needed unconditional praise. Heck, sometimes it was the only thing that kept me going. But since then, I’ve changed.

1)    I went to grad school. I’ve had critiques that were more intrusive than a colonoscopy. I’ve been told my piece “may be beyond hope.” I’ve had feedback that made me want to trade-in writing for a more reasonable hobby, like say, piloting a space shuttle. But most importantly, I experienced an increase of epidermal strata. (My skin thickened.)

2)    I’ve joined more seasoned writers groups.  They showed me that, while a little praise can be a needed nudge, more in-depth analysis of my writing is a far greater gift. I’ve learned to cherish comments like “I found my mind wandering during this section,” or “I need more visual detail to fully believe this scene,” or “If you tightened the tension in this section the reader will be more engaged.”

3)    I’m now thoroughly addicted to critiquing. I’m in several groups, and believe it is an honor to review my fellow group members’ works. They trust me with their writing and I try hard not to let them down. A nice sidebar to this approach: I start to feel a part of their writing process. I have an investment in what they are working on and, when they sell or place a project, I feel proud. And if a manuscript that I think is strong gets rejected, I feel mad for the writer. Stupid editor/agent/publisher! Clearly they ate bad fish during lunch before they read it because they SHOULD have accepted this. Don’t give up!

My point is, “I really liked this” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Did you look hard enough? How about the structure of the sentence ending the second paragraph: you’re going to let me get away with that? Didn’t you notice the waiter had brown hair on page one and blond on page six? Do you really think the character’s “eyes wandered around the room?” Isn’t that medically impossible? And how many times did I use the words “shrug” and “hoosegow”? 

(Okay, I’ve never actually used hoosegow, but it’s a great word, isn’t it?)
Of course, after you’ve done the hard work, and told me what I need to revise, I won’t mind if you say you like it. I value your opinion more than I can say.
What do you like to see in a critique partner? 


Gayle Carline said...

Now I feel compelled to use "hoosegow" in my next story. Yes, I want real critiques from my partners. "I liked it" doesn't even give me praise - what did you like about it? Details, folks. Details. And you can deliver bad news with love and respect, so don't feel like you're beating up on me.

Jim Jackson said...

I agree that “I really like it” without a detailed analysis is telling me you were too lazy to do the work necessary to critique my work.

I don’t need someone to tell my how to fix a problem; I can usually figure that out myself. I do need people to tell me the problem exists, even if they really like it.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

Oh Carla, I won't bemoan my problems with critique groups here. But I've had too many writers try to make my manuscript into their manuscript. Style is also another issue for which writers want to imprint their style onto yours.

I'd rather have overall comments like, the plot doesn't work for me because...Or I can't see this character, who you've described as a mouse, killing the guy. If the manuscript is a page-turner tell me, if it bogs down, I want to know. Making comments in the sides about their emotional response to something I've written is extremely helpful.

Communication among critique partners is essential. If it's a first draft, taking the time to line edit is a waste.

carla said...

Yeah, and it helps to recognize specific strengths of
critiquers. Not so helpful if they want you to
change your style or voice!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Speaking as one of Carla's critique partners, I appreciate so much what her knowledge and experience from the Queens MFA program has brought to our local group. It's invigorated our process and made us focus on how to bolster a writer's skills.

Speaking also as an online critique partner with Jim and Elaine, I respect the thought and evaluation that takes place in offering comments to someone you don't see face-to-face. In some respects, it makes you tighten what you have to say and offer suggestions only where something takes you out of the story.

Good message.

Warren Bull said...

By far, the most helpful comments are the ones that focus on what does not work well Then. of course, it's nice to hear about what did work.

KM Rockwood said...

I am in a small writing group that meets once a month (for breakfast, at an understanding French bistro with wonderful coffee and crepes. It's not usually crowded and we've given copies of our books to the staff & owner, so they let us stay forever!)

We don't read one another's entire works, but we all bring portions we are having problems with (like dangling prepositions?) It's very useful.

One member is a lawyer who does a fair amount of criminal defense, one is a former newspaper editor who catches our grammatical errors and one is a church secretary with the most diabolical mind. I'm not entirely sure what I bring to the table, and I'm afraid to ask. But it's a wonderful group.

Shari Randall said...

Great post, Carla. You are so right - comments that at first seem hard to take ("my mind started wandering here" and "POV violation!") are actually gifts. A wise editor once told me "It's about the work, it's not about you."
And now the word "hoosegow" goes viral!

Linda Rodriguez said...

I've had good critique groups and bad one over the years. The one I have now is a very good one. I think it's hard for a lot of people to learn to think critically about a what a book is trying to do and how to help the author achieve her/his own vision rather than saying, "no, this book should be a different book with a different vision--mine."

carla said...

Linda your comment re: vision is perfect!