Category Archive: Critique & Feedback

How To Handle Feedback: 6 Do’s & Don’ts

It’s another Archive Revive because I just got a new writing gig and am super busy! Currently, I’m sifting through feedback from the clients, so this re-post is appropriate…

How To Handle Feedback

Originally posted on Jan. 20, 2014. Updated Nov. 30, 2015

Script RevisionsIt’s been so long since I was in school that I can’t even remember if the professors taught us anything about handling feedback. Perhaps they just marked up our scripts in red and waited to see who would cry/quit and who would persevere/rewrite. Luckily, I was in the latter category. And over the last 15 years, I’ve had lots of opportunities to learn how to deal with script notes, whether from friends, teachers, screenwriters, broadcasters, producers or directors. In TV, it often feels like everyone, even the office dog, critiques your script.

So, without further ado, here are 6 tips on handling feedback…

#1 Don’t Take It Personally. If your story needs improvement, that doesn’t mean you suck. Notes are not an attack on your character or proof that you’re a bad writer. No story is perfect, and every writer has room to improve. In TV, everyone gets notes on their scripts, from the most junior writer to the top dog showrunner. Knowing that sure helped me deal with feedback at the beginning of my career; it’s easier not to take it personally when you know everyone gets critiqued.

#2 Do Respect the Note Giver. Giving feedback is sometimes as hard as getting it. If you’ve chosen your critique partners wisely, they’re not petty backstabbers out to sabotage your writing career, they’re people who genuinely want to help you. Same with editors, publishers, producers or broadcasters. You may not agree with their notes, but do respect them. They’ve put a lot of time and thought into their feedback.

#3 Don’t Be Defensive. When receiving feedback, don’t argue with the critique giver or defend your writing. Just listen and think about it. Why? Because there’s merit in every note, even the ones that seem way off base.

#4 Do Ask Questions. If you don’t understand a note, just ask for clarification. Heck, even if you understand but don’t agree, ask for clarification because it will help you see where the note is coming from, and once you know that, it might not seem so stupid.

#5 Don’t Ignore Notes. Not even the ones that seem wrong. In TV, we writers receive notes from many people who are not writers, so sometimes those notes are off base, meaning the note giver’s suggestion isn’t something the main character would do, or doesn’t make sense for the world of the show, or could even derail the whole story! BUT, as a wise showrunner I worked for once said, something about the story “bumped” the note giver, which means something isn’t working, so even if the note seems wrong, there’s a reason for that note, and as writers it’s our job to figure out what the problem is and fix it.

#6 Do Embrace Change. The whole point of getting feedback is to change your script/manuscript for the better. So don’t resist it, do it!

That’s what I’ve learned about feedback over the years. If anyone has other tips, please share!

Click here for most posts from Heather.

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Chipping Away at Writer’s Block

Writer's BlockI spend a lot of time around writers, and we all share one commonality, we occasionally get stuck. However, why we run face first into the brick wall of writer’s block often differs. I believe there are three main types of writer’s block, they are: Courage Collapse, Story Cave In and Content Vacuum. And I believe you need to know which kind of writer’s block you have if you want to find a cure.

Courage Collapse:
Every writer has bad days. There are negative critiques and bad feedback. These experiences can trigger some self-confidence issues. I’m routinely blindsided by my aggressive internal editor. It gives me an unhealthy relationship with the delete key.

To ease this kind of block try these tips:

  • Walk away from the computer for a few hours.

  • Pamper yourself, take a hot bath, enjoy a glass of wine with friends.

  • Get some fresh air and exercise, maybe take a walk in the woods.

  • Find your writing cheerleaders and load up on positive comments.

  • Laugh so hard you hold your sides and cry!

  • Do anything that helps put you in a great mood. Dealing with your inner demons is easier when you’re in a happy, relaxed emotional state.

I think this one is the hardest type of writer block to cure. Be kind to yourself, but never give in to that little voice.

Story Cave In:
Every writer has had a story start to fall apart. The characters are too much alike and seem dull. There are too many subplots. All the sentences start sounding alike. All of a sudden it hits, you have a block and no flipping clue what comes next in the story.

For a derailed story leaving you blocked, try these tips:

  • Reread old outlines and project notes.

  •  Talk with a friend about the story to try to rekindle the old passion.

  • Back track to the place the story took a left turn and reassess.

  • Decide if you want to go back to the first idea, or if you want to replot your story to include the new material.

  • Switch to a different project for a while. This is my go-to solution, and one of the reasons I always have at least two projects going at once.

  • Freewrite or do some story prompts.

  • Sleep on it. If you go to sleep thinking about your story just before falling asleep, your brain will often supply a solution, or some inspiration.

Content Vacuum:
There will be a day in every writer’s life when it seems like all the ideas are gone. If you can’t start anything new, it’s likely a form of exhaustion block. Watching a blank screen flicker at you for hours on end is not going to help. You must recharge your brain bank to cure this block.

To refuel your creativity try these tips:

  • Read everything you can get your hands on. Read outside your comfort zone.

  • Reread favorites and think about how they could be retold from another perspective.

  • Listen to music, go to concerts, take up an instrument.

  • Watch a movies, TV and go see plays.

  • Visit museums, take trips, enroll in a class.

  • Do things with your hands: cooking, sewing or drawing.

  • Play with your kids, join a board game group, or just play with toys at a store.

Content Vacuum is disheartening, but it’s also normal. Writing is a long and involved evolution, it takes massive amounts of brain power. Hitting a wall once in a while is all part of the process.

When the words are not flowing every writer feels like garbage. Instead of chucking your story and your laptop into the nearest trash bin, consider trying some of these ideas.

What about you? Do you have a great tip for banishing writer’s block?


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Beta Readers: Who, What, Where, Why & How

Beta Reader ImageFor some reason, the term beta reader confuses a lot of writers. They are not sure what they are, or why they need them. Even experienced writers often don’t know how to use these readers effectively to improve their work.

For a well-constructed book, beta readers are the last stop before the proof editor. And for a poorly-constructed manuscript, they are the last safeguard against wasting time and money editing or pitching a manuscript that’s not ready.

Beta readers are not:
– close friends and/or family.
– proofreaders or editors.
– writers, although they can be in the right situation.
– members of your critique group.

Beta readers are: people who will read your manuscript and give you honest feedback, even if that information stings your pride. That’s why friends and family often make rotten betas. They don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with you by admitting your book is awful! You need someone who cares more about the story than they do about your feelings.

Before looking for a beta reader:
If you want to get the most out of a beta reader, polish your manuscript to a pristine condition first. The only exception to this rule is if you and your beta have agreed to a modification. Some betas will agree to read a partial, or even early draft. But that is something to clear with them in advance.

Who makes the best betas?
There are lots of qualities that make a good beta reader. First and foremost, they are people who love to read. And they should love to read in your genre. It’s hard for a person who only reads thrillers to say if your romance manuscript is fabulous. Also if they know your genre they can help catch overused or missing tropes. They will also tell you if the story reminds them too much of some other popular book or character. This is valuable data for any genre writer.

Second, find people who are in your book’s market demographic. If you write children’s books your betas should be children and their parents. All the adult readers in the world telling you the book is fantastic are pretty much worthless. If you don’t know any kids, reach out to librarians and teachers. They know what kids like to read.

Third, it helps if you can find beta readers with analytical minds, and can think logically about the big picture. Good betas can find plot flaws and problems other readers might miss. Critique partners are often too close to the story to see these issues.

Fourth, they are reliable; you can count on them to read the story cover to cover. Or they are people who tell you why they couldn’t finish your manuscript.

Lastly, betas with great memories for details are able to catch those tiny story slip-ups we all make, like when a character wearing a watch asks for the time. Detailed-oriented readers are worth their weight in gold when it comes to betas.

How to find betas.
– You will need at least 3 readers, and finding them is not always easy.
– Almost anyone is a potential source for a referral, but friends of family and friends are a good place to start.
– Talk to other writers in your genre and see if they have any betas to recommend.
– You can also try online writer groups. Many forums have threads for writers looking for beta readers. Goodreads has a user group where authors can make connections by pitching their book to potential readers. This step is tricky; a beta shouldn’t know too much about your plot in advance.

Don’t send your work to strangers!
– I would like to believe everyone in the world is honest, but it’s not realistic.
– Don’t work with betas or reader services that expect to be paid. There are plenty of scams out there; don’t get sucked into one.
– Interview your prospective betas and get to know them.
– Ask them about their favorite books and authors.
– Learn what experience they have as a reader.
– If they have read for another author, see if that author found the reader’s feedback helpful.
– Find out how much time the reader needs to finish your project.
– Figure out what format works best for them and try to be accommodating.
– Start out slowly. You may want to send an untested beta only one or two chapters. See if you and the beta are a good fit before you commit to sending them your full manuscript. This step should also help you decide if the other person is reliable.

Beta readers are doing you a huge favor, so act accordingly.
– They took time from their lives to read your work. Listen to what they say with respect.
– Request the kind of feedback you want, but always remember your manners. Say please, and thank you every time!
– Reward their support. Offer to send them a signed copy when the project is published. Or offer to read some of their work and give them feedback.
– Make an effort to treat talented beta readers with special care. They are a great writer’s secret weapon.

Betas are meant to represent the neutral reader. They are a fresh pair of eyes to read and report back with their honest opinions. That’s pretty much all betas are expected to do. Some betas can do more, and that’s very helpful to an author, but you shouldn’t expect a beta to do anything extra. If you want to make your story better, get some knowledgeable betas and listen careful to what they have to say. This does not mean change everything they didn’t like. It means think about everything the mention objectively and make changes to tighten up as needed. If you just want someone to tell you the book is destined for greatness, have your mom read it.

If you have experience with beta readers, please share your insight in the comments.

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The Formula for Great Critiques is R.I.T.E.

Florence Fuller-Inseparables, 1900 Public DomainMany years ago in graduate school I taught a class on nonfiction critique writing. Most of my students had no experience critiquing another person’s writing so we spent a lot of time talking about the elements of a good critique. It didn’t take long for me to realize they needed an acronym to help them stay organized. I created the Triple R.I.T.E. as a check list for them to follow.

Since the WriteonSisters seem interested in the topic of critiques lately, I thought I would share my system with everyone.

The R. stage

Research first:
Take time to understand what phase the other author is in with their project. A first draft needs a different kind of critique than a finished project does. Define the other author’s expectations beforehand and work together to establish a realistic timeline for the critique process. This will cut out a lot of headaches later on.


Read thoughtfully:
In my opinion a full line-by-line edit will take at least three or four full manuscript reads. A big picture critique takes just one or two. If the project is of a shorter page count try to read the manuscript in one sitting. For longer projects keep the reading intervals closely spaced so you don’t lose track of the storyline.

Reflect on what you read:
Make notes as you read. Jot down any questions you have for the author. Also note every time you stopped reading, grew distracted, confused or bored with the project. Allow the project to sink in for a day before you start to create your official critique response.

The I. stage:

Record your Impressions:
This is the one step when you get to rant about how much you did or didn’t like something. Let out all your emotional gut reactions. This part is so important, we all have natural biases, by getting them off your chest you will free yourself from that first sentimental response and allow yourself to move on to a more analytical response.

Inspect the project for mistakes:
There are lots of great checklists for this step. The basics are: check the project for believable characters, nice pacing, logical plot development and great story craft elements. Look at how clean the work is grammatically. Make notes about any errors in formatting.

Learn to Ignore issues when necessary:
Don’t harp on anything the other author specifically asked you to skip over. If they know it’s an issue you’re not doing them any favors by pointing an accusing finger at it. Also don’t flag or comment on any non-issues. No one cares if the main character shares the same first name as the guy who broke your heart in high school. Don’t expect the author to change minor details to please your taste.

The T. stage:

Tally your information:
Take your time and collect together everything you’ve noticed while reading regardless of how small it seems. Don’t try to rush or cut corners on this stage. You should respond to the other person’s work with the same level of quality and care you would expect them to give your work.

Practice some Triage:
Organize your information into three levels of importance: critical fixes, important fixes and minor fixes. Most people can only process a limited amount of critique before they shut down and feel overwhelmed. Make sure the most important aspects of your critique take center stage.

Remember to Tell the Truth:
Be fair, unemotional and above all honest. Always remember you’re not their as a friend, you’re a fellow professional working as part of the other author’s team to make the project the best it can be. If you can’t objectively point out the problems as well as shine a spotlight on what they did well, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

The E. Stage:

Explain your observations:
Your goal is to create a clear and concise analytical report. You want a document the author can use as a tool for their revisions, not something that reads like a puff piece. However, this is also not the place to attack, bully, shame or belittle the other writer. Only the work should be critiqued, not the author as a person. Even if you hate their kind of story keep your comments focused on the writer’s skill and what they can do to improve the project.

Include your Evidence:
Avoid generalization and opinions and pack your critique with specific examples. In most cases you don’t need to highlight every single time they made the same mistake, give them a few citations and trust them to find and fix the others. If you feel you must mention your opinions include them at the end. Make sure you identify them as your personal viewpoint and use neutral language and logical reasoning to express them. If possible provide some cold hard facts and/or information about your expertise in this area to back up your comments.

Exercise Empathy:
Remember you can be honest and still be polite. I’m a firm believer in the “you can catch more flies with honey” school. The pages you’re reading are someone’s baby, unless they’re a total hack, they worked their butt off for a long time before they ever asked you to read them. Show them some respect!

After you turn in your critique make yourself available for the author’s questions. It might be necessary for you to shrug off any initial animosity the other writer might show you. Often it takes a few days for someone to emotionally recover from a full critique. If you followed the R.I.T.E. plan you have given them a detailed, thoughtful, but not overly negative or emotional critique, backed up with lots of examples to illustrate your points. The author should eventually calm down and thank you for all your hard work.

Writing a critique is truly a rite of passage, both for the author and the critique writer. When done correctly both parties gain insight and sharpen their writing and reading skills during the experience.


For more on critique partners and feedback, check out these other Writeonsisters posts:

Cheerleaders vs Critique Partners

Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: How to Handle Feedback

Plenty of Feedback: A Writer’s Guide to Finding a Critique Partner Match

In Favor of Writing Groups

Writing Groups: On the Other Hand…

Men as Crit Partners: The Male POV

Not all Feedback is Created Equal

Five Tips from The Oxford Inklings

Surviving the Biology of Negative Feedback




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Not All Feedback is Created Equal

I've read all the Save The Cat books. Can I critique your manuscript?

I’ve read all the Save The Cat books. Can I critique your manuscript?

Last week I blogged about the difference between critique partners and cheerleaders (answer these 5 questions to find out which is which). In short, cheerleaders are friends or family members who cheer us on and love our writing no matter how bad it is. Cherish their enthusiasm, but never rely on them for helpful feedback. Get a critique partner for that.

Once you find a proper crit partner, you’re golden, right? Well, maybe. Thing is, not all feedback is equal. Today I will answer the age-old question…

What is good feedback?

The most common advice for giving feedback is to sandwich critiques between compliments. But this in no way guarantees quality critique. How to tell a writer what is not working in the story is more important.

Subjective vs Objective Feedback

All feedback is a little subjective, but the best tries to be as objective as possible. The way to do this is to frame the feedback through the writing craft lens. Let’s study some examples:


This section is boring. This section lacks conflict.
I don’t care what happens to the hero. I don’t know the hero’s goal, so it’s hard to root for him. OR The stakes aren’t high enough for me to care whether the hero succeeds or fails.
I don’t like the hero. The hero is too one-dimensional to relate to. Even unpleasant anti-heroes need some positive qualities to make them well-rounded and interesting.
I don’t believe the hero would do that. The hero’s actions at this plot point don’t match the character you’ve set up. Either revise the set up or reveal a reason for the uncharacteristic behavior.
The ending fell flat. At the end of this journey, the hero is the same person he was when he started, making the story feel pointless and unearned.


Column A is subjective feedback. It may be totally valid, but it causes two problems. First, it’s an opinion that is easy for the writer to ignore, and second, it doesn’t help the writer improve the story.

Column B, on the other hand, is more objective and uses the critiquer’s knowledge of writing craft to define the problem. This has two advantages. First, the feedback sounds less like a personal attack because it’s not phrased as an opinion but rather as an observation of writing craft. Second, it helps the writer zero in on the actual problem. “Boring” is a vague and personal opinion, but “lack of conflict” is a problem with a solution – add conflict!

People who can give you this kind of feedback are invaluable. If you are just starting out, it might be hard to find this type of critique partner because they tend to be experienced writers who have studied craft for many years. If you don’t know any experienced writers, it might be worth hiring a professional story editor to get feedback on your manuscript.

Otherwise, read lots of writing craft books and encourage your writer friends and critique partners to do the same, then practice critiquing each other’s stories. Familiarity with story structure, writing lingo, and general craft will help you give and receive better feedback.

For more on critique partners and feedback, check out these posts:

Cheerleaders vs Critique Partners

Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: How to Handle Feedback

Plenty of Feedback: A Writer’s Guide to Finding a Critique Partner Match

In Favor of Writing Groups

Writing Groups: On the Other Hand…

Men as Crit Partners: The Male POV


Next Up From Heather

Click here for more posts from Heather.

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Cheerleaders vs Critique Partners

Me and my bestie

Me and my bestie back in college

This weekend my best friend from university was in town for a visit. We went to school for Television, me focused on screenwriting, her on the business side of the industry. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader, genuinely thinking everything I write, even the shit I came up with in first year, is great.

Cheerleaders are important people for writers to have in their lives. We tend to be neurotic self-doubters so it’s vital to have someone who doesn’t think your decision to be a writer is stupid, insane or unachievable. Cheerleaders have faith you’re going to make it and love you even when you fail.

But only having cheerleaders read your work isn’t helpful. I love my bestie, but I can’t go to her for constructive criticism. I need critique partners for that, people who will tear my work to shreds and reveal the weak spots. We all need that. But the trouble some aspiring writers run into is they don’t realize the people they’re asking for feedback are cheerleaders and not critique partners.

A while ago I read a novice writer’s script that was absolutely abysmal. And that’s okay when you’re new to writing. You have to make mistakes to learn how to get better. But when we tried to give her feedback, she pushed back, saying that others who’d read the script really liked it and thought it was great. She said she’d consider some of our critique but certainly not all of it because of the opinions of her other readers, one of whom was her mom.

At that moment I judged that her biggest problem may not be her writing, but her inability to tell the difference between cheerleaders and critique partners. And the sad thing is if she doesn’t figure this out, it’s unlikely she’ll make it as a professional writer because she’ll never improve.

I know, terrible! So for those worried you’re in the same boat, I created this:

Quiz: Critique Partner or Cheerleader?

1 – Does your reader have experience critiquing (manu)scripts?

a)   Sure, they’ve read all my stuff.
b)   No, but they have very insightful thoughts in book club.
c)   Yes, they’ve critiqued in school or in their career.

2 – Does this person love you?

a)   Yes, unconditionally.
b)   Maybe, as a friend.
c)   No.

3 – Is your reader a professional writer or otherwise in the biz?

a)   No.
b)   No, but they want to be.
c)   Yes.

4 – Is this person’s feedback:

a)   all about what they liked in the (manu)script.
b)   what they liked and what they didn’t from a subjective point of view.
c)   focused on the craft of writing, being as objective as possible.

5 – How did you meet your reader?

a)   Known them all my life!
b)   Through school, book club, friends, mutual love of books/films.
c)   Recommended by a trusted writer friend or professional.

If you answered mainly a) you have a cheerleader. If you chose mainly c) you have a critique partner. And if you selected mainly b) it could go either way. Of course, there are many variables to take into consideration and exceptions to the rule. Maybe your loved ones give fantastic feedback! It is possible. Just be aware that their feedback will be clouded by their feelings for you.

And do note that the most important question in this quiz is #4. The type of feedback someone gives weighs more heavily than any of the other criteria. Keep your ears tuned for craft-focused critique and value it above personal opinions.

It’s great to have cheerleaders, the people in your life who believe in you and pick you up when you’re down, but it’s equally necessary to have critique partners that push you to be your best.

For more on feedback and critique partners, check out these other posts:

Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: How to Handle Feedback

Plenty of Feedback: A Writer’s Guide to Finding a Critique Partner Match

In Favor of Writing Groups

Writing Groups: On the Other Hand…

Men as Crit Partners: The Male POV


Next Up from Heather… It’s occurred to me that telling the difference between subjective opinions and objective craft-based feedback isn’t always easy. Next week I’ll write about how not all feedback is created equal and give examples.

For more posts from Heather, click here.


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Men as Crit Partners: The Male POV

Glass male symbolThe hot topic the past few weeks at WOS has been critique groups/partners and it’s made me think about mine. I’ve had many these past years. Some are writers like myself, while others are friends and family, more of what I would consider beta readers. As I reflected on these relationships, I realized that I’ve had the luxury of having had a number of men read my manuscripts, stories I assumed would mostly garner a female audience.

My first venture into a writing group was the most terrifying. I’d written a 300,000 word, YA fantasy trilogy, an all-consuming experience that literally sucked up seven months of my life. I had the “ducky pajama syndrome” although my version was black yoga pants and an over-sized slouchy tee shirt. I literally had to throw my couch out after a year because I’d permanently indented the right side cushion, curled up with my laptop and drinking copious amounts of coffee that on more than one occasion sloshed onto the beige and white striped cushions.

I shared my new writing adventure with a friend that I’d heard published a book (turns out she self-published), who asked me to join her writing group. Intimidation only barely scratches the surface of what I felt after such an invite, but I ventured in anyway. Turns out, they’d all met in an MFA program a while back. But I survived, barely.

In that group was a man of about 47, James. He offered great advice and we became quite close. After this group broke up, he continued to come to my house once a month, along with another man about my age, and we’d drink wine and read our chapters to each other, offering advice. On another occasion I ran into a man at the gym, an English teacher who worked with my husband. I barely knew him but he eagerly confessed that he too had written a book and suggested we share our manuscripts.

I offered each of these men a way out, saying that I didn’t think they were my demographic but if they really wanted to read, I was honored to give it to them.

And I’m so glad. Men have a different perspective and since I’m not a guy, I write what I think, or more likely what I want a man to do or say, but it’s not necessarily the way guys think and talk. I had to laugh often, because the advice they gave began to have a familiar ring to it.

I always have a romantic thread in my stories (sorry, Heather and Robin), although I wouldn’t call most of them romance novels. I like action and adventure and pride myself on writing fast-paced dialogue and strong female protagonists who don’t need a man to get the job done. All of my male crit partners reinforced this, but ended with losethe same comment: “You have the talent to write a real page-turner, you keep us on the edge of our seats waiting to see what trouble will befall your protagonist. The climax, the action, the dialogue, it’s incredible but then… you spend fifty pages trying to get your lovers together. It’s back and forth, blah…blah…blah… Just end it already!”

The first few times my feelings were hurt. But I got over it and realized the accuracy of their words. Truthfully, I guess I thought guys were mostly about ESPN, spy novels, or political thrillers, the Fast and Furious franchise type. Stereotype much? GUILTY, I’m ashamed to admit. I wanted my male characters to be more sensitive, more verbal in their loving dialogue. But it was overkill. By a lot.

I’ll share this one last tidbit that actually blew me away. There are a number of blog posts/articles on the surprising number of men that read romance novels. Again, I had no idea. And here’s my first-hand experience with this. I had just found a new hairdresser after my old one moved away. He was a young man, probably in his late thirties. I had just finished reading the Twilight series, and told him I was writing a book. He was very interested in my book and made me tell him all about it. Then he added he’d read the Twilight series and loved it, and all the guys at his gym were reading it. If I’d jerked my head around in reaction to my startle, I would have had one of those haircuts where one side is distinctly shorter than the other. I couldn’t believe his words. And he wasn’t ashamed of it in the slightest.

Currently, most of my crit partners are women, and I love them to death. Their insights are laser-honed, honest, and always helpful. But I miss my men. I only have one left, and yes, he hit me with the same criticism about the ending of my newest novel. When will I ever learn? That’s why I need that male perspective to keep me honest.

Check out these other posts on Critique Groups / Partners:

Plenty of Feedback: The Writers Guide to Finding a Critique Group Match

In Favor of Writing Groups

Writing Groups: Nay?


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Plenty of Feedback: A Writer’s Guide to Finding a Critique Partner Match

Critique Group Match

Who is your critique partner match?

Critique Groups have been top-of-mind here at WriteOnSisters for the last couple weeks. Callie wrote a pro writers group post and Sharon presented the counter opinion. Whether you’re for or against probably depends on your experience. Most writers carry some baggage around when it comes to critique partners and groups. We’ve all been burned before. Finding that perfect match is hard. And if you’ve had a particularly bad breakup that crushed your writer’s heart, it’s scary to put yourself out there again. I understand. That’s why I’ve come up with some questions to ask to help you find a critique partner (or group, if that’s the way you roll) that’s right for you.

Do you want the same thing?

In my experience, different expectations are often why people break up. If your reason for getting together is that you want someone to give you deadlines and encouragement, but your partner wants to give and take tough feedback, you guys won’t be a good match. Talk about this up front. That said, writers may claim they want tough feedback but really don’t. You can find this out the hard way, or try to avoid the tears by first asking…

What’s in their past?

Sure, this might be an awkward conversation, but you need to know! Have they been in critique groups before? Or are they newbies? If the latter, you won’t have much information to go on, but if they’re the former, dig a bit deeper. Why did their past alliances dissolve? Do they speak ill or fondly of former partners? What did they learn from these relationships?

How experienced are they?

There are two ways to acquire this information: asking about their past (like the previous question) and reading their work. I admit I’ve never done this prior to jumping head first into a new critique group, but I might do so in the future. As writers become more experienced, we require more skillful critique partners. A beginner won’t be able to give the high level of feedback a veteran needs. Sure, they could give a reader’s opinion, but then you might as well just get a beta reader.

Do you have stuff in common?

You don’t necessarily have to write the same genre as your critique partners, but it helps. They should at least be respectful and have a basic understanding of the genre you write, and vice versa.

How much time are you all willing to invest?

Some people want to interact with their partners all the time! Some want a little more space. How much contact do you want? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? In person or online? Keep in mind this can change over time.

By asking potential critique partners these questions, you have a better chance of finding the right fit and avoiding the painful drama of a bad match. If you decide to give someone a chance, here is a final tip:

Set a trial period. Don’t get into this thing like you’re all going to be critique partners forever. Give people a safe out if the group doesn’t work for them for whatever reason, no hard feelings.

The right match is out there for you, though it may take a few tries or change over time.

Anyone else have more advice? How do you approach critique partners? Dive in head first? Or proceed with caution?

Next Up from Heather… I blog about Narrators, the kind you find in CODE NAME VERITY and DANGEROUS GIRLS. Go read those books!

For more posts from Heather, click here.

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Writing Groups: On the Other Hand . . .

Man jumpWhen Callie Armstrong wrote her post on Friday about writing groups and whether to join one or not, it brought to mind a day-long, pre-convention writing workshop I attended in March before the Left Coast Crime Conference. You might want to re-read her post before going further.

Oh, boy! At the workshop, there was quite a reaction to the adamant directive that we should not be in writing critique groups. (I work with three throughout the year, so my ears perked up!)

This mandate came from Jan Burke (workshop leader) and Sue Grafton (guest author). Jerrilyn Farmer (co-leader of the workshop) moderated her response by saying it might be okay with the right people, for a short time as she had done.

And to clarify, none of the three expressed the concern with pirating of their manuscripts as a reason to avoid groups. We do know that’s a concern many authors have had to deal with. Nope. The only issue they raised dealt with your responsibility as a writer. Not one of the three highly-successful writers thought that staying with a writing group helped make you a better writer.

In fact, the opposite.

Though none of them used the term, I connected their message with “learned helplessness” from my educator days. Learned helplessness is a condition that occurs when the student is given so much support to succeed that she cannot continue learning without the support. In fact, she abrogates her responsibility for learning, knowing she won’t be allowed to fail. She doesn’t know how to learn on her own.

Some have equated learned helplessness to generational welfare. People don’t know how to make it because they have no role models other than subsisting on welfare. It’s hard to imagine another way of living as model-making, as opposed to model-replication, is harder to do. Thus, learned helplessness has been alternatively called “learning welfare.”

How does that relate to writing groups? My understanding of the views of Burke, Farmer, and Grafton is that they believe that writing groups hold authors back from being the best they can be. And, in fact, a writing group is the resort of the “lazy author” (my words as I interpreted theirs).

Sue Grafton said words to this effect: Why would you listen to other people who may write the same or less well than you? How does that make you better? It is YOUR job to know when something isn’t working in your manuscript, and you shouldn’t expect other people to do your job. Do the work. Put in the time. Brutally evaluate your own output. That’s your job if you call yourself a professional writer.

But maybe there is a bit of disingenuousness going on? After all, these multi-published authors have editors and agents who no doubt function as a de facto critique partner, right? So is there truly no outside input? Not likely, but I suspect they would counter that these are publishing professionals giving feedback, not the friend who always wanted to write a book and is thrilled to be in a writing group.

I can see both sides to the argument. (Of course I can. I’m a wishy-washy Libran.)

I realized that I do depend too much on my writing group colleagues to find and help fix my manuscripts. I expect them to challenge my assumptions, question my direction, identify anomalies, and suspect my characters motives. Oh, and it’s certainly nice when they pick up all that passive voice and overwrought language I am given to.

I am lazy. Or I was. I am a recovering shirker, because I’ve changed. Sort of.

I am taking more responsibility for being the professional I need to be. I’m fortunate that I have multiple manuscripts going at a time. So I have divvied them up. I take some manuscripts to my groups for their help. Some manuscripts I am doing on my own.

It is very hard to do on my own. Decades of writing group interactions have led to a mild form of learned helplessness that I recognize now. By the same token, I believe my developing ability to be more independent of my groups was aided by the smart probing modeled for me and by examples of what works in their writing. So maybe I can eventually get to the Farmer/Burke/Grafton level of not needing any outside help. Or maybe not.

My future involvement, if any, with writing groups will also depend upon the group composition and disposition. There are archetypes in writing groups, too.

Each member is a unique character. Each is different and each contributes (or not) to my growth as a writer. I learn nothing from someone who finds my misplaced commas, and that’s all that person is capable of. Even on a modest day, I know I am a better writer than she is so who is she to tell me what to do. And when another one needs to humiliate writers to show she is superior in her understanding of writing craft, it is no wonder that an author might shut down and not find the gold nuggets among the rocks tossed at her. Group dynamics matter a lot. And I’ve been in the whole range of groups at some point.

A part of me thinks that critique groups also represent my potential readers. So isn’t that input helpful? To know what works or doesn’t? What is left out or extraneous? Where is it confusing?

“Nah”, Sue Grafton, Jan Burke, and Jerrilyn Farmer would say. “That’s your job.”

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In Favor Of Writing Groups

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about how writers write ever since I met a guy who swore he only ever wrote anything good while he was naked, but last weekend when I was in Barnes and Noble writing and I heard two women my age talking about how stupid they think writers’ groups are and how they each would rather wait to show anyone their work until they send it to publishers, I knew I finally found something I felt comfortable saying all writers need.


I never knew what a writing group was a year ago. I thought it might have been a handful of people sitting in Starbucks talking about writing more than they wrote or people who wanted to know if a character with a weight complex and daddy issues was really me disguised as a middle aged Turkish dog groomer (it’s not by the way).

Like the uninformed women in the bookstore Cafe I never wanted to be involved in one, or knew how to find one, but that was before a writing group appeared in my life without any effort. It was so easy in fact that I didn’t even know that’s what it was until I’d started sending stories out to them and waiting eagerly for their responses.

I thought you had to meet in person to be in a writing group, and since there are arbitrary rules for everything else that has to do with writing I searched online for a definition. I found about twenty before I decided I didn’t care and that I was comfortable having five people or so who read my writing and send me theirs.

My group is made up of people I met on twitter who liked some of the books I liked, and some of the books I didn’t, they recommended new writers that added several new favorites to my bookshelves. They’re moms and dads and single. They have opposing opinions on politics, or no political opinion at all. They’re from all over the world and their favorite place in a library is often different from mine. When we met we talked, read each other’s blogs and eventually I shared my stories with them, marking one of the first times I’d ever let someone read what I’d written. The act of pushing the blue send button that launched my words before other eyes was almost as helpful as the advice I received in the form of questions, but the questions changed how I wrote in a way I couldn’t have done on my own when I never imagined my stories being read.

There’s something about discussing the characters and their motives with someone other than myself that helps me flesh out what they want and decide how they’re going to get it or not get it. They become real when I talk about them, when I wonder why Bobby would risk living in the apartment above his ex lover and her husband and son. When I talk about them, or write about them apart from the story, they stand up from the page and walk around my living room or ride with me to the grocery store.

“Why did I kill her husband?” Bobby might ask me after an email exchange with a friend. Then I’ll wonder and daydream and write.

All of that comes from having people tell you what they think, people who are gentle when they need to offer criticisms but people who you trust not to bullshit you when something sounds wrong. Not only does their honesty help with the stories but it helps in the long term, to learn how to deal with imperfections before publishers turn you down and literary magazines send your manuscripts back with impersonal “we wish you the best” notes.

The nervous swirl of butterflies that fill my stomach immediately after I press the send button is still the same as it was in the beginning and will probably always remain aflutter, but now I can give them a voice and call out to those trusted souls just a few click of the keys away who will likely sooth my over anxiousness by telling me to calm down and shut up and reminding me that I’ll be fine.

So if you don’t have a group of people like that, get one. You need them, I swear. And if you can’t find them, get on Twitter and find me.

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