Friday, January 21, 2011

Critique - What Works for Us

By Kim

For the benefit of those who couldn’t attend What Women Write’s presentation at the Richardson Library on January 17th, I thought I’d share my portion of the discussion.

Most writers quickly learn that a good critique group is as much a blessing as a bad one is a curse. What many of you may not be aware of is that the six contributors of What Women Write are not only partners on this blog, but we regularly critique each others work. Through trial and error as well as lessons learned from past experience, we have formed what we believe to be the best possible group for all involved.

Here are some of the secrets to our success.

Each of us has something different to offer

Joan will be blunt, but kind. She'll tell me when my prose is lazy and has eliminated passive voice from Pamela’s work. She's especially helpful when it comes to global and pacing issues.

Pamela's fearless about challenging me to do better, even if there's nothing inherently wrong with what I’ve sent to her. I just rewrote the opening scene of The Oak Lovers based on one of her suggestions, and it's made a tremendous difference. She points out when Joan uses too much description or too many analogies, or catches little things that Julie hadn’t even realized she did wrong. Pamela also catches little grammatical mistakes.

Julie is another grammar guru, and is fantastic at rearranging sentences for enhanced affect. She may give you a line edit even if you didn’t ask for it. (I’ll never turn one of those down, no matter how early the draft.) For pacing and tone issues, she’s your woman.

Susan claims she’s horrible at judging her own work (which is brilliant) but that she’s a tough editor for everyone else. She’s especially strong at finding little inconsistencies in voice. Susan and Julie have similar backgrounds and they work well together when it comes to big picture critiques.

We are all a little frightened when we receive something back critiqued by Elizabeth. There’s a lot of red ink and little of it will be praise. However, we’re all aware that she doesn’t give a detailed critique unless she believes the story’s worth it. She’ll be the last reader before I send out queries on The Oak Lovers. If I use a mid-twentieth century word in a 1908 scene, she’ll catch it. If a sentence is awkward, she’ll not only tell me, but offer suggestions for fixing it.

As for me, I’m a compulsive editor and perfectionist for my own work, but try not to interfere too much with the writing voices of others. I’m not a line editor, but I will catch places that are inconsistent or don’t make sense and I’m good with overall story impressions.

How we exchange work

We do the majority of our critiquing over e-mail, which has the advantage of allowing the reader to edit at their leisure. We all use the Track Changes tool in Microsoft Word. It saves time and allows the writer to see at a glance what needs work and where praise is directed.

We critique at our retreats as well. Feedback is immediate there, but the drawback is that sometimes little details are missed by listeners when the authors read out loud. Especially if Elizabeth reads--she forgets to breathe.

We have ground rules

The writer must be open to an honest critique or it’s a waste of time for all involved.

Whenever possible, writer and editor should agree on what type of critique to give. If it’s an early draft, global comments may be more helpful than line edits. If it’s time to query, call Elizabeth or Julie.

A critique relationship should be reciprocal.

Don’t send a first draft (though we break this rule at retreats).

If feelings are hurt, wait a day and read the comments again before responding.

Always say thank you.

Potential pitfalls and how we avoid them

Everyone is busy with their own writing, outside jobs, kids, or all of the above. Sometimes material does not get returned in a timely manner. If the writer has a deadline, tell the editor. If the editor drops the ball, apologize.

The tone of an e-mail communication can be misconstrued. If feelings are bruised, wait until you calm down and then call the person who wrote the e-mail rather than writing back.

We are six very different people brought together by a mutual love of writing. We accept our individual quirks. If a petty fight starts, others step in to diffuse the situation. We can agree to disagree.

What makes our group work

We do not compete with each other. A reader who picks up Pamela’s women’s fiction may not be drawn to my historical fiction. Elizabeth is the only one who writes YA. Julie and Susan use similar southern themes and settings, but entirely different stories. I likely write for the same audience as Joan, but we believe our best chance for success is to build each other up rather than plot sabotage.

We’re all serious about our craft and genuinely want to improve.

We’re all at the same stage in our careers.

We realize that one of us will land a book deal first and accept we might not be that person. This isn’t a race and there are no losers.

We trust that no one in the group be purposely hurtful or disrespectful to anyone else.
Left to right: Julie, Pamela, Joan, Elizabeth, Kim and Susan

These are the keys to our success. We’d love to hear what works for you!

Photos by Deborah Downes


  1. It's great to hear about how your critique group works. How did you find each other, I wonder?

  2. Andrea, thanks for dropping in. I'm pretty sure Pamela is going to answer your question in an upcoming blog. But in the meantime, the short answer is serendipity!

  3. Yes, Andrea. Stop back by on Monday and I'll talk about how we connected.

  4. Love Elizabeth's answer to Andrea's question. That's so...true. As for your post, Kim, it reads as beautifully as it sounded at the event. The way the women of this group connect and work together reminds me of those of the Prose Portal, the critique group I started in Shanghai six years ago. Still miss that wonderful bunch of talented women.

  5. You all sound like terrifying, mature, brave, creative writers! I take my hat off to you!

    Many writers who are less motivated and less focussed would buckle under your critiques!

    You are a very professional group and I have no doubt your names will be on covers of books soon and some of you may even land on the best seller list! My congratulations to all and full steam ahead!

    Paula Niall

  6. Paula - Terrifying? Gosh, I hope not! I'll take the rest, though!

    I would not be half the writer I am today without these ladies (and my mom, who is a great critique partner as well) keeping me honest!

  7. Hmmmm. Would I rearrange the order of your paragraphs? Perhaps renumber your chapters or edit the words?
    Woe to the poor photographer whose art is chopped and torn for the good of the "layout".




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