Friday, June 25, 2010

Swallowing Critique

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."

- Mark Twain (Thanks for quote, Julie Dao)

Four years ago, just after I wrote my first rough draft, I tried to join a critique group. I was far from home and to say I was nervous doesn’t express the terror I felt having strangers look at my work. I wound up being lost and late. Only one person showed up, and she intimidated me. She was kind enough about my work, but I knew I clearly wasn’t in the same league.

I dropped out.

Then I wrote another manuscript. I think I waited a year before finding someone through SCBWI. I e-mailed her and she wound up living in the same city as me with children of similar ages. We cliqued on-line. We cliqued in person. We exchanged manuscripts. She helped me grow as a writer. But then she got a job and wrote less. While we maintained our friendship, we didn’t keep up our writing exchanges. (It didn’t fair to submit to her if she had nothing to submit to me and a job and family to keep her busy.) Now she’s returning to writing, so we’ll see if we rekindle our manuscript exchange relationship. (And she started a blog:

My husband looked at my first manuscripts, but said it was hard for him to be objective. (Besides, he’s a little mean in his delivery and doesn’t know anything about the sandwich method. More on that later.) My sister has read them all and given me good feedback. Here and there, family members, friends, and others have read manuscripts.

This past January I tried a critique group, but after three months, I had to drop out. There were too many people. Seven is too much to commit to reading and too many writers were sending within two days of the meeting. In addition, nobody wrote children’s books and only one wrote fantasy. While I liked them, it wasn’t the best place for my manuscripts or me.

I have another beta reader, Jackee, whom I met through Mary Kole’s kidlit site. She’s been awesome, but we don’t have a consistent schedule. She's busier than me with little kids at home.

Then I offered to read Aubrie’s manuscript and she’s offered to read mine. That has been awesome. Not only is she a prolific reader, but also she’s a fast responder to my pieces. She’s made my manuscripts waaaay stronger.

Justine Dell just had a nice series about her Beta Reader relationship, if you want to check it out:

Truth be told, I prefer beta readers to groups. The one-on-one suits me. Having to read a bunch of work, while it takes months to get through mine, makes me antsy. But then I read these blogs with these built-in support systems and thought, I need that.

In May at the NESCBWI conference, I met a nice writer. She asked if I’d be interested in joining a critique group she was setting up. I said I would. We’re to meet every two weeks so the manuscripts should move ahead steadily. And we’re to post our work a week in advance, so everyone has ample time to critique. I like the parameters.

In the last few weeks, I read a post (I wish I could remember whose it was) by someone who was reluctant to join a critique group or even have a beta reader. By the ends of his comment thread, he seemed to have been convinced of the benefits.

There are many benefits:

- Objective feedback. (Not, “My dog loves it!”)

- Other people’s strengths may counterbalance your weaknesses.

- You’ll have more confidence your manuscript is strong before submitting.

- Finding someone else’s mistakes will make you a better writer.

- When your book is on, you’ll have thicker skin when someone skewers it.

- Support!

How to be a good critique partner:

Critique sandwich:

What’s good.

What can be improved.

What’s also good.

And there’s ALWAYS something good. It’s not your job to crush dreams. You’re no authority on who will fail and who will succeed. We all start somewhere, and where we start is usually horrendous. It’s your job to give them idea how to improve their piece.


Beth Revis, in her series of posts that chronicled her writing career, wrote that someone told her she was a terrible writer. Thank goodness she didn’t give up because now she has a three-book deal and quit her day job, thankyouverymuch.

But what about when you get negative feedback? And you will. You’re supposed to smile, thank everyone, don’t argue, and sit on the information for THREE DAYS. Nearly everyone swears this is enough time to process it and be ready to make the changes to make your writing better. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests this method. Stephen King in On Writing recommends at least three people look at your piece. If the readers have conflicting opinions, do what you want. If they’re all saying the same thing, change it.

After three days, if something isn’t sitting well, don’t do it. Show it to someone whom you trust. That’s my advice.

This happened to me with my new critique group. I’ve put more into this manuscript beginning than any other. It’s been on my blog. It was on Miss Snark’s First Victim contest. It won Miss Snark’s First Victim contest. An agent liked the beginning as is. This new group wanted me to change the beginning.

I’ll sit on the idea for three days before making a final decision. But I’ve already discussed the suggested changes with my beta reader to get her advice. And there other suggestions were helpful so I've already strengthened my manscript by joining.

There are examples of writers who say they were given advice, ignored it, and wound up being successful. This puts writers who are considering critique groups and beta readers off, but it doesn’t need to. Trust your instincts. And make sure you can separate your instincts from your ego.

If you are submitting without people looking at your work…

If you are submitting after little changes from a rough draft…

If you aren’t scouring blogs and books about what agents expect…

…then your chances of getting published are slim.

Even if you’re getting requests for partials or fulls, don’t fool yourself. If the beginning is solid, but it falls apart later and you haven’t had anyone (besides your cat) reading it and telling you how to fix it, then you’ll just receive rejections on those partials and fulls.

Swallowing critique from other writers can be intimidating but if the goal is to be published, you’ve gotta suck it up. And if something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut.

Remember, we’re in this strange journey together. Good luck!

Where are you on your writing journey? Who reads your manuscripts?


  1. The hubs is the only one who reads it directly after is complete, he is sweet and supportive but that's about where it ends. From there I work on revisions and slowly hand bit by bit off to my critique group. All of whom are great blog buddies. I don't think I'm in their league and I'm running out of things to submit but this is my first time so I'm taking it with ease.

    I tried the beta reader and she is very helpful, but I'm not helpful to her, I apologize for not reading her work and feel ashamed that I have yet to sit down and do so, I just get too caught up in other obligations. So I'm that girl that isn't ready to commit. I'm still learning the process.

    I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one that sometimes feels out of the league, and not sure where to go next. Glad Aubrie was helpful!!! My girls are too!

  2. I am all for trusting instincts and for going with your gut feeling especially about your work. Always. :-)

    My own writing journey has been in listening to other people's extremely helpful and valued critiques but not balancing them with what my heart was telling me. This has been a painful process for me to realise but now that I know - it's freed me somewhat!

    But you are bang on when you say to ensure you are able to separate your instincts from your ego!!! That's the hardest part I think.

    Good luck with your beta readers - so glad that your ms is thriving - even glad-der that you've found the bestest place for your ms to do just that.

    GOOD LUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Take care

  3. I have a couple trusted readers with opnions I value. They are honest and constructive in their input, and usually spot-on with their observations. To join a critique group, to me, feels like it would almost be too many cooks stirring the pot. So I'm always interested to read about other writers' experiences in a critique group, to see if it would be beneficial at some point to try.

  4. Ahem. Back again - sorry for that.

    I learned the hard way to be careful who you show your work to. I think they have to know your genre and you have to respect their writing. I never show it to friends and family - it's sure to spark a fight with my husband - he hasn't learned the sandwich method either.

  5. Theresa, I think you are dead right about separating the instinct and the ego.
    I think you are very brave letting people critique your work. I know it improves it but I would personally be afraid that I would start writing to a formula and how do you know your 'own voice' is being removed.
    I think you would really need to know the person and their work well to trust their opinion.
    Saying that I only write short pieces and I am my own worst critic. I may feel different if I had a whole book under my belt.

  6. @ Jen, I like your method. I like sitting on my rough drafts, revising the heck out of them, and then submitting to other readers.

    @ Old Kitty, just because you get a critique, doesn't meant the criticism is valid. We have to be careful about not losing our own voices.

    That's why beta readers are easier - it's apparent pretty quickly if there's trust and respect. With a critique group, a few meetings are needed before you know if it works with everyone.

    @ Joanne, as you can see from my post, I've been more successful with beta readers than critique groups. I was even supposed to join one on-line but I sort of dropped it. One-on-one is much easier, but slower if you want multiple readers.

  7. @ Talli, I'm sure it was my fault because I was playing around with the post when you tried to comment. Sorry!

    Some people swear by their husbands' input. Not us!

    It's hard to trust the opinions when you first join a group. It takes time. Maybe it won't be for me. This is my last attempt.

    @ Brigid, I agree, you do have to be careful not to lose your voice. And often I notice people want you to add things because a question isn't answered from the get-go. They forget how many books are good b/c everything isn't revealed on page one. Sometimes questions are good!

  8. I have a critique group too, it`s been a wonderful experience, I improved my manuscript A LOT!

    But, I like Betas! Can´t get enough from them, and husby keeps saying the book is great but he doesnt have experience to advise me anything ARGH!

    Its really hard finding Betas when u r isolated in switzerland...oh well!

    Great post Theresa!

  9. I started writing about twenty years ago. I thought I was going to be a serious writer but I didn't pursue it.
    I had family and friends read my work and they were always polite. Quite frankly I think I didn't want to hear anything negative.
    I never grew as a writer but still love it.
    If I may say, I have been following your blog because I really like your writing. I can feel your heart through your words. I can tell your passionate about what you do and it really comes across.
    I found that most people how did anything worth noting faced a lot of opposition. I guess we are always faced with the uncomfortable texture of doubt but have to overcome it (writing or not).
    I guess I am off your topic. Sorry. I'm not a write like all of you but I enjoy your blogs.

  10. this is such an excellent post, Theresa. it's so interesting to read about your process and the hoops you had to jump through -- it's so hard to find a good beta.

    i'm so happy you're finding your way through.

    all my fingers are crossed for you!!

  11. @ Clara, all of my beta are on-line, even though one of them lives here. I'm sure it is hard to find someone in Switzerland.

    @ Barbra, what a sweet and thoughtful comment. If you follow (and anyone else follows) my blog because it moves you and you like the writing, it makes me feel teary and wonderful.

    @ Tahereh, it is hard finding a good beta and even harder finding a good group. Thanks!

  12. You are very right about all this. I'd like to have a beta reader, but I just don't think I'd have the time to go over their manuscript, and that wouldn't be fair. But I do have a couple friends who've seen my work, though I must admit, they're not the best at imparting advice.

    I'm still waiting on a response from that one agent who requested a partial. He should have some great tips for me. :)

  13. I agree! (And this is a really informative post.)
    It's hard to find the right readers sometimes. They do have to be at a similiar stage in their writing journey to you to be able to critique usefully. Must remember the sandwich method! The biggest problem I've found is a reluctance to be contructive, everyone wanting to encourage and not offend.
    Yes! This is relevant for me when I get attached to the beauty of the words themselves. What I've learnt is sometimes a scene or a description or character can be well drawn and well written in my work but it takes someone else to point out, (or even leaving it aside for a while) that no matter how hard I've worked on it, it just doesnt belong there!
    I cut and paste these segments into a new file and they often end up as a story in their own right, but more often as poetry.
    It took me a good while to understand this about writing that my gut seemed to be too in love with to cut! All the best, have you ever thought of compling your posts into a book? You cover a lot of topics of interest to writers trying to balance their life with their writing, and of course, seeking to be published.

  14. @ Amanda, it's good to make time to read other people's work. I swear, it makes you a better editor of your own manuscript. And it means you have someone reading your piece.

    Good luck on the agent who requested a partial!

    @ Words A Day, the critique group I joined in January was too positive, in my opinion. There's a way to tell people what works and what doesn't without being offensive.

    Stephen King says to sit on your draft for three weeks so your words no longer feel like children and it's easier to kill them.

  15. You know, I've had a trilogy in my head for over a year and I still struggle with beginning it. I read all the posts from you and Aubrie, Roland Yoemans, etc., and I learn so much...I feel like I'm in the best writing and how-to class anyone could find. I really appreciate all the information you all share, as well as the camaraderie...We use the sandwich method in our classrooms and even, when needed, with parents (albeit, very carefully)...

  16. I agree that you MUST always trust your instincts! That's one of the many reasons I love Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink". I usually find that when I ignore my gut, things start to go wrong. I love what you wrote about separating instinct from ego. I'm so happy that you have the right support system to help push you further and to help you improve your work:)

  17. I love your bit about if you aren't having people read your work, or sending it off after one revision, or not researching etc etc-- your chances are slim, etc. ---- so true!!! How wonderful that you have helpful beta readers now! Sometimes it takes an outside view to see what we don't.

  18. I have a couple of friends who I've shared some of my work with.

    I have tried a writers group, schedule not so great (late on a school night), mostly I found with groups you can so many varying opinions, its overwhelming and can add to the chaos.

    The beta readers definitely sound appealing, especially if the turnaround is quick.

    Overall though, I find it hard to ask someone to critique if a) they are not writing or have an interest in it b) have a busy work/life schedule...the guilt kicks in. Its a learning process for me right now, I'm just trying to get MS first draft finish...I could be sometime *sigh*

  19. Other readers are soooo useful.
    I always end up trimming or revising big chunks of my work based on the suggestions of others.

  20. There's an award for you on my blog!

  21. I still haven't finished a manuscript yet, and though I have seeked out a few critique partners, I'm wondering if I should wait until I'm done. It's good to get feedback as you go, but I feel bad having my drafts critiqued when I know they will change drastically later.

    But thank you so much for this post! It's very enlightening to read. :)

  22. I completely agree with beta vs. groups. They get too competitive. I also have people ask me to grade and revise stuff for them constantly. One ex-friend and I co-wrote something once, she took my name off it, then got a bunch of good feedback ironically about the parts I added and had the audacity to e-mail and tell me about the great feedback on "her" writing. I miss having a writing partner, though, even a bad one.

  23. Thanks so much for mentioning me in there :) You're a big help to me, too!

  24. @ The Words Crafter, you're so right about using the sandwich method in teaching as well. When I was an extended term sub, I had to do parent-teacher conferences. It works especially for the more challenging children...

    @ Kathleen, I love Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Didn't think of that one.

@ Al, I wind up revising and adding!

    @ KarenG, I prefer beta readers over critique groups, so we’ll see how it goes. I know you have the writing and editing jobs, so you know how important it is to have a polished manuscript.

  25. @ Talei, finding the time to critique is really difficult.
    Good luck with your WIP.

    @ Al, besides revising, I always add based on beta’s suggestions. We either over or underwrite.

    @ Tessa, thanks! I'll check it out.

  26. @ Sandy, I would wait until you've done a rough draft and editing before joining a critique group or getting a beta reader. The critiques will be more massive, which will be disheartening, and many suggestions you have figured out on your own.

    I'd suggest finishing your rough draft. Putting it away for three weeks if you can help it. Really, it makes all the difference. Otherwise you just hear those "perfect" words you put the first time. Then edit a few times. And then start showing it. Good luck!

    @ Hermione329, what a shame you had a competitive group. I haven't found that problem. it's the time commitment that gets me.

    @ Aubrie, I'm glad I have you as a beta reader. If I had one more reader like you, I'd be all set.

  27. I think it was a brave thing to do by letting people critique your work. To be frank, I never would have. The things people say can always differ between people. I'm happy to see you have such a great Support group behind you...:)

  28. I have 2 online buddies I met over a year ago on a writing forum. We've clicked & meshed. We provide chapter critiques and beta reads for each other. I'm very lucky to have found 2 talented, helpful ladies to work with.

  29. A very good post. Those new to writing and sharing need to remember that they have choices. If the first group they go with isn't a good fit, move to a different one. Plus, they can start their own group.

    Straight From Hel

  30. @ Mr. Stupid, if nobody critiqued my work, I'd never get published. At least, I doubt it because my manuscripts improve so much. No pain, no gain, right?

    @ Jemi, lucky you! How great you found two people to work with. Perfect.

    @ Helen, you make an excellent point. It's not like you're stuck. A critique group isn't a cell phone contract.

  31. Hi Theresa:

    It is hard to get good advice, because most experts won't give us the time of day. But, I found this trick to writing:

    If you have two scenes of equal length, but one scene is average and the other scene is well written, unique, or you are passionate or knowledgeable about it, strengthen the good scene as a way of minimumalizing the obligatory or average scene.

    The rewrite will be easy and enjoyable because you will be adding to a part of your manuscript that you are already passionate about anyway.

    Keep writing and good luck.

  32. It's been fun exchanging back and forth, but I do feel bad I'm so slow.

    And you're right--good readers along the way can make all the difference and help make a piece as strong as it needs to be.

    Thanks for reminder!

  33. @ Walter Knight, what great advice. Thank you!

    @ Jackee, don't feel bad you're slow. I probably spend way too much time at the computer. Good luck with your WIP.

  34. You're right, Theresa, which is why if this agent turns me down, I'll quit making excuses and get someone. A blogger friend of mine already volunteered for the job. :)

  35. @ Amanda, that's great. I hope you and the blogger friend wind up being a good pair.

  36. I love how you persisted in trying to find a beta/crit group even though it had been disheartening in the past.

    I think it's essential to have multiple eyes on your work. There are so many things that you can be blind to as the author. I'm very grateful for my crit buddies.

    Also--I didn't know you won the Miss Snark's first victim contest--congrats!!

  37. Ooo, awesome post. And you know, good CPs are hard to find (I tend to shoot for individual partners, rather than groups) and I've had some not so wonderful experiences too. But I've also found some absolute GEMS who push me to be such a better writer than I am. I'd be lost without them. :)

  38. @ MBW, thanks. I was one of the winners, but the agent passed. Still, it was something.

    I agree, the critiquers who work out in the long run are invaluable.

    @ Shannon, I prefer individual partners, but I'm trying to stick with a group. My beta readers have been gems too!