Category Archives: Critiques

Critiques ““ Part 2 ““ What? How?

In Part 1, we talked about why critiques are needed and how hard it sometimes is to accept the feedback. But what exactly is a critique? The word itself reminds us of critics – you know, those dreaded experts who review movies, theaters and books, who are known to publicly humiliate artists. It also reminds us of those nasty teachers who rarely said anything positive except how good their red ink looked scribbled across your work.

A critique is about critical analysis but unfortunately, some focus only on the critical part. A critique is about feedback, providing constructive criticism which makes every facet of the unpolished gem shine. Sometimes it means explaining why certain things don’t work well to help the writer see and understand where the writing can be made stronger; plot holes, logic gaps, unsympathetic protagonist, craft issues. Other times it’s about pointing out the things that work well because those are the writer’s strengths and they must be encouraged so the writer doesn’t lose sight of what he does well.

Here are some basic points to remember:

  • Ask the writer what is wanted? A readers critique that identifies what is and isn’t working in terms of plot and character? Or line by line polishing?
  • Ask what prevents this work from being salable? Asking helps both the writer and critique approach the work constructively.
  • Be respectful – DO NOT say – “Lousy writing’ or “You never seem to get it!’ We all have fatal flaws that we repeat. There may be a certain eloquence or lack of, dangling participles, dialogue, plot problems, setting or description issues, flat characters – most of us need to become aware of these things over and over until we get it!
  • Remind the author that this is your personal opinion and not gospel. Remember that your comments are only suggestions and the author has no obligation to put them into action.
  • Focus on how to improve the work rather than what’s wrong with it. State the problem. State why is it a problem. Provide example(s) of improvements.
  • Tell the author what works well (a line, a character, what made you laugh). When I started writing, I went to a workshop and felt like I’d been shredded to death. It was horrible. Yet, one person said that I wrote plot well. That was all the encouragement I needed to continue writing and to constructively use the other comments.
  • Focus on what is important. If addressing a major problem may cause several small ones to disappear, don’t spend time on the small problems.
  • Never dismiss the intended story. It can be fun to suggest alternate directions (constructive), but never dismiss an author’s intentions – they have their own story to tell.
  • Don’t overwhelm the writer. Too many nits can be discouraging rather than helpful. To this end, tailor your comments to the author’s skill level. For example, for new writers, focus on the main thing to improve rather than a laundry list of everything that’s wrong.

I’ve seen critiques which ruined a good story because the author didn’t have enough confidence in what his story was about, didn’t know the good parts, took everyone’s suggestions to heart and ended up with a mish-mash that incorporated everyone’s ideas but ended up pleasing no one. In Part 3, we’ll be talking about how such a disaster can be avoided.

Cheers and happy writing!


Critiques ““ Part 1 ““ Understanding the Process

Recently I gave a presentation to a local writers’ group on the art of giving critique. To fully understand and engage in the critique process we need to first understand why we write, what a critique is, how an author can help the process and how to give a critique. In this blog, we’ll talk about why we write and why receiving a critique can be so difficult.

Why do we write?

When we understand why and what makes us so sensitive to feedback, it actually becomes easier to absorb the information we receive in an impartial way.

I, like many of you, write because I’m miserable when I don’t. As others need to breathe, so I need to write. We all write because we are story tellers – we have something to say, we see worlds and creatures and characters the average person does not, we give commentary about the human condition, our politics, our society, our values, our relationships – we are observers with a unique way of expressing ourselves – BUT most important, for us, writing is fun and it is who we are.

We have an idea – that is personal. We think. We sweat, we write and rewrite hoping that the story we tell is understood by others. The crux is that we, the writers become so intimate with the process and the material that it feels personal – and it is because every fabric of our being has been poured into the story.

So when someone doesn’t like what we’ve done and how we’ve done it, it feels personal even when it isn’t. But, when we focus on the need to express the characters and world we see, it becomes much easier to accept feedback.

This is not dissimilar to mining for gems. We find the diamond. It is rough. It is uncut. We cut. We polish. We wanting to reveal the heart of the stone – the heart we know is there. We work with experts who can help us get the angle just right on every facet. Then we polish until it sparkles.

Writing is no different. We have a gem stone of an idea. We hone our tools. We dig. We scrape. Sometimes we cut and reshape, making every facet as stellar as it can be. And then we must ask if others see what we do.

The critique process should help us polish our gems, to make the story stronger, to make its heart shine brighter. And, if you have a good critique group, they’ll help you do just that.

When we understand that our goal is to express an idea, to create a story which is both entertaining and enlightening, the feedback feels less personal, more constructive because we know that everything we do makes our gem shine brighter.

There are two other things to remember:

1) learning that the gem we polished isn’t as bright as it can be, hurts. And it can hurt a lot. That’s part of being human. Part of being a writer is understanding that and gracefully going forward by thoughtfully considering the comments.

2) the person giving the critique can get it wrong. As the writer you must also figure that out. But generally, most don’t get it wrong if there are problems with grammar, structure, story arc and character development. And let’s face it, if we don’t solve these problems before submitting, no editor will read the story, let alone help you polish your gem.

The next time we meet, we’ll talk about what a critique is and how to give a good critique.

And the winner is …..

And the winner is ….

Not you!

What happened? You’ve worked on your craft for tens of thousands, hundreds of hundred thousand words. You’ve gone to workshops, read every blog, every book on craft you can find. By now you know what the pros say and you can teach the writing courses just as well. And yet, the podium still eludes you.

Then there’s Writer X gracing the podium. Her writing isn’t as crisp. Her wrinkles of profound thought aren’t as deep. And she’s much newer at the game. So why was her work chosen over yours?

As co-editor of the Shanghai Steam Anthology, I’ve had to read well crafted and poorly crafted stories. Some writers had great ideas but needed to hone their writing skills. Others wrote prose well enough but the story lacked tension, the story arc was incomplete, the dialogue didn’t work, it lacked theme/focus or the historical homework wasn’t done.

Then there were the stories which survived the first round of cuts. Those which had that extra something. Some would need some revision, others editing while the best ones required no work.

What!!!!!! you exclaim. Some needing revision are in the final round? What about the ones with the well crafted prose that you denied? Why weren’t they chosen for editorial revision?

The answer is simple – besides being decently written, these stories are memorable. Despite their flaws, I was engaged to the end. Every story in the last round evokes an emotional response whether it’s of laughter, amusement, bitter sweetness, feeling defeated, cheering a hero, being horrified, melancholy, elation, and so on. It may be quietly engaging as in a romantic tragedy or a simple rendering of a thought provoking moment.

The emotional response I’m describing is not about liking or disliking a character. It’s about the story itself. Am I left feeling optimistic, laughing, amused by the clever turn of events or am I saddened, horrified, forced to reflect on the human condition? And does that story stay with me long after I’ve read it? Does it have emotional resonance?

The story, like every character in it, has its own voice – its own drama, its own growth, its own ability to draw readers in and not let them go. That voice carries the story’s emotional resonance which is framed by the promise made at its beginning and is concluded or addressed by the end.

We understand that the story arc is an important backbone for a story with a beginning, middle and end which includes challenges, climax and denouement. Characters cleverly doing their thing without purpose or meaning is not enough. How do you want the reader to understand the world you’ve created when the story is done? How do you want him to feel? Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Hopeful? Depressed? Scared to death? Satisfied for running a marathon? Cheering that the good guy beat the bad guy?

Once you understand what emotions you want the reader to experience, your writing voice will be clear and the story’s emotional resonance will reflect that. Emotionally, the reader is compelled to read the story through to its bitter, joyful, triumphant, tragic or thoughtful end. You don’t want them feeling emotionally flat and wondering so what?

 Good writing counts for a lot in submissions for contests, anthologies or publishing. But no matter how well crafted the words are, how strong the plot and characters appear to be, without emotional resonance the story isn’t memorable. It’s the little aha! I get it!  or what a ride! feeling a reader experiences that makes it memorable. That aha! may be a good chortle, a reflective moment, celebration of the protagonist’s victory or grumping at a character’s stubbornness.  Whatever the aha! is, every reader craves it and every story needs it to be memorable.

 Now when you revise and edit your work or when others critique it for you, ask them: How does the story make you feel?, Does it stay with you after you’ve finished it?, If you had strong feelings about the story, tell me why. If not, what does it need/why does it feel flat to you? These are hard questions to ask and answer but knowing this will take your story to the next level and make it resonate with readers.