A Time to Write…

Are you in a critique group?

Do you regularly share your writing with a friend / writer / editor who gives you suggestions for changes and corrections?

Are you frequently sharing pages of your work-in-progress (WIP) with someone else who copy edits you along the way? That is, making word changes and suggestions, correcting grammar or punctuation?

If so, there may be too many cooks in your kitchen. And you may be in danger of any number of pitfalls: losing your voice, losing your motivation, or getting STUCK.

I’ve had authors tell me they were “stuck” and needed my help. They couldn’t seem to move forward on their manuscripts. Careful digging on my part revealed that both of these authors (who don’t even know each other) were writing pages, then allowing a writer/editor friend to look them over, offering critique and feedback. Sounds normal, right? Wrong. In both cases, the person offering the advice wasn’t clear on what KIND of advice is appropriate for an author working on the first draft of a creative piece.

Here’s what’s NOT appropriate: any type of copy editing or line editing. That means: correcting grammar, punctuation, capitalization, redundancies, typos, format, specific word choices, awkward phrasings.

Here’s what IS appropriate to discuss in the first-draft stage.

For fiction: plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, hook, point-of-view, suspense, readability, author’s style and voice, general appeal and overall fiction technique.

For non fiction: structure, clarity of ideas, logical flow, continuity, readability, transitions, author voice, clear and concise arguments and explanations, interest level and general appeal.

The point is this: When you’re in the first-draft writing stage, you need to pay attention to BIG PICTURE issues. Later, in revisions, you will worry about more detailed concerns.

If you get too concerned about a word here and a comma there, you risk becoming flat STUCK in no time. It’s a left-brain, right-brain thing. Let those right-brain creative juices flow, unhampered by the logical, rational left-brain. The right brain is known for looking at wholes, i.e. big picture. That’s where your creativity comes from. The left brain is characterized by looking at parts, i.e. tiny details. That’s where your ability to edit and rewrite comes from. Don’t try to do both at one time! That’s why you get stuck. Your right and left brain are tripping over one another.

I know I will get a lot of challenges on this because everyone seems to be in a critique group, and I even recommend them all the time. What concerns me is that critique groups may not be functioning in their intended manner. The members may not even be aware of what level of feedback is necessary and appropriate at which stage of the writing process.

So evaluate your crit group and editorial helpers. Determine if what they’re doing is helping you or hampering you. Decide if you can gently lead your partners in a more productive direction, or if you need to stop showing them your work. Sometimes all it takes is to clearly ask them for what you need: “I’m not interested in detail editing, I want to know what you think of my overall voice in these few pages and if you think the plot is headed in the right direction. How’s my character development? Am I maintaining reader interest?”

Now, tell me about your critique group or anyone who helps you with your writing. Is it working? What could be improved?

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/signboard-a-neon-sign-unique-letter-1770895/

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

35 Comments

  1. […] Rachel Thompson tells us how to focus on writing right now, Rachelle Gardner urges us to find a time to write, and Zoe M. McCarthy advises finding worthy rewards for meeting your manuscript word-count […]



  2. Richard Mabry on October 18, 2018 at 7:59 AM

    Read my comment from 10 years ago–and I wouldn’t change a thing. I write 10K words, let my first reader (my wife) read it to see if I’m on the right track, then proceed from there.



  3. Gregory Despain on March 25, 2012 at 3:47 PM

    I just want to mention I am newbie to blogging and site-building and truly liked this web site. Most likely I’m planning to bookmark your blog post . You absolutely come with incredible articles and reviews. Many thanks for sharing your web site.



  4. A. Catherine Noon on April 29, 2008 at 3:36 PM

    >FINALLY! I’m so glad you wrote this. I completely and totally agree with you, and find the same disagreement you mention with groups I work with and teach. “But, critique is helpful!” I’m sorry, I just don’t want people in my sandbox when I’m creating. It messes up my flow. It’s so nice to hear another writer understanding that idea, because the attitude of, “no pain, no gain,” or even “leave me alone while I’m creating,” gets downplayed as foo-foo by people who, frankly, want to do violence to a creative person’s fledgling work. The attitude that we as writers should be able to withstand any kind of creative “feedback” is silly and patently dangerous to the creative process. I teach creative unblocking and I cannot tell you how many people come to me after such savaging, wounded and hurting, but unwilling to admit it right away because they think it’s somehow silly of them to be injured. Gah! Drives me nuts. Thank you for such a thought-provoking essay!



  5. Rachelle on April 28, 2008 at 7:56 AM

    >Dear Southern Writer,
    Nine month winters? I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Colorado has over 300 sunny days per year, lovely winters where the snowstorms are separated by weeks of blue skies and snow rarely sticks around for more than two days, and I have never even come close to being in the path of a tornado.

    (And I’m from Southern California so I know nice weather.)



  6. Suzanne Hartmann on April 24, 2008 at 9:33 PM

    >Before I read this article, I couldn’t say enough good about my critique group. After reading it, and the comments here, I realize how truly blessed I am. We are a small group, are all motivated to take our writing to publication, and have learned to trust each other.

    I must say though, that I never would have survived a critique group while I was writing my first draft. During that time, I would finish a chapter, show it to my husband, make changes based on his suggestions, then have my sister read it. My husband not only helped me keep the story realistic, but had great ideas too. And I could trust my sister to tell me what she really thought about the story. Neither one of them is great with grammar, so they focused on the plot.

    But once I finished my first draft, I NEEDED a critique group. I needed to learn how to get rid of newbie problems, tighten my writing and add conflict and tension. All I can say is that God is good and thank Him for leading me to both my critique group and my critique partners outside the group!
    Suzanne :O)



  7. Anonymous on April 24, 2008 at 4:01 PM

    >When I first joined a critique group, I had a hard time not doing fine-line editing when someone said she wanted a big-picture edit. But I trained myself to do it the way the writer wanted it done. The group helped me to get started on a book I’d been wanting to write for years and to get back into writing articles after a hiatus.

    Several months ago our group broke up because one writer changed her style of critiquing and pointed out everything she could find in every manuscript, first draft or not, whether the writer wanted big-picture or fine-line.

    I got stuck for awhile after that, because I was mourning the loss of the group as it used to be. But I realized I had been allowing those other writers to dictate what I would write about. I went back to the first drafts and discovered how much I’d let them change what I wanted to write. Now I have just two critiquers, and I’m much happier.



  8. Tiffany Stuart on April 24, 2008 at 11:29 AM

    >This is such a juggling act. I can’t write with confidence without another set of eyes to see the flaws. And yet I can get so stuck knowing the strengths of my critique partners. I know what their natural bent is. I know what they will find. Repeated words. Flow problems.

    Also as a writer, I want to write my best especially if I plan to present my polished works to a publisher.

    I so want to be free to write creatively and yet open to hear the faults of my work. I want to submit clean copy.

    I’ve heard too many times from publishers that writers send in sloppy drafts.

    I want to write professional or not at all.

    🙂

    I will try to apply this truth. I need to get unstuck!

    Thanks for sharing this challenging post.



  9. patti lacy on April 24, 2008 at 10:37 AM

    >I meant to “sign” my name to the multiple voice comment. Sorry!
    Patti Lacy



  10. Anonymous on April 24, 2008 at 10:34 AM

    >Wow, like someone with multiple personality disorder, my voice is all over the place. My critique partners help me reel in those drunk and disorderly folks and get to the voice who’s supposed to have the floor. I wouldn’t think of sending off something without the free look-see by my critiquees.



  11. Southern Writer on April 24, 2008 at 6:56 AM

    >It’s uncanny how similar your thoughts and word choices are to a lament I wrote back in January 2007. “Great minds,” and all that … I would be so flattered to think something I wrote may have helped amuse a big time agent, but damn, why couldn’t it have been one who would consider representing a novel that contains lots of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll?

    p.s. I loved Colorado when I lived there, but I sure don’t miss those nine-month winters, or the tornadoes y’all get down there on the high plains.



  12. Ed J. Horton on April 23, 2008 at 11:00 PM

    >I’ve never been part of a critique group. Personally, I’m not against joining one, but only if there were some members with expertise (i.e., published) that would bring true craftmanship to the group.

    One other comment. I used the services of a professional critiquer a few months ago. The cost was an investment that I believe I’m now reaping dividends from in my writing.



  13. Marla Taviano on April 23, 2008 at 8:29 PM

    >Oh my word. I just read through the comments and when I got to Lea Ann’s my eyes got huge.

    That’s exactly what I was going to say!!

    I started reading this post and felt a little twitchy. I’ve never, ever, ever shared a WIP. Not with anyone. Not sure why (not). Snobby? Scared? Want my books to say what I want them to say, not someone else?

    Anyway. Great stuff, Rachelle.



  14. Anonymous on April 23, 2008 at 7:49 PM

    >Critters often crit the small stuff ’cause it’s easier. In a writer’s group to which I used to belong, we would nickel-and-dime each other to death on these things. Reason? We could only work with 20 pages at a time, and how could the group get a feel for “whole story” if we had to stop mid-chapter at times?

    Don’t completely blame crit groups per se. Part (not all) of the problem is the rules under which they offer feedback. At least, it was so in my case.

    Nowadays I have one trusted partner who is fully capable of critting either whole-story issues or nitpick…all I do is ask for what I need.



  15. Linnea on April 23, 2008 at 6:54 PM

    >I have one reader and one reader only who comes in to answer questions at two specific points. The first time is when I’ve completed the first few paragraphs. How is my hook? Do you HAVE to read on? The second time he reads is when I’ve completed three or four chapters. How’s my pacing? Am I going too fast or too slow? Does one chapter draw you on to the next? That’s it. That’s all I want to know.



  16. cballan on April 23, 2008 at 5:37 PM

    >Sometimes I do think critique groups fall into the trap of spreading icing on half-baked cakes. One reason, and I stand guilty of this myself, it’s easier and safer to point out mechanical errors.

    Delving into story and motivations and dynamics, all those aspects of first-stage fiction, is messy business. Often subjectively messy business.

    My ideal group would be plot-stormers, where we could throw around what ifs, then whats, and so hows.



  17. Dr. Dume on April 23, 2008 at 5:31 PM

    >Whether a critique group is useful depends on how you use it. If you slavishly follow every comment you’re going to end up in a mess.

    I have an early episode in one book where a character pricks his thumb on a pin. Trivial, and quickly forgotten. A critiquer insisted I should remove it as irrelevant – yet that drop of blood was essential to the endgame.

    On the other hand, critiquers have pointed out huge blunders I hadn’t noticed. So take the advice but filter out what’s useful and ignore the rest.

    An early mistake I made was to write a chapter and put it up for critique. Bad idea. I was stuck in an editing loop on that chapter for weeks, and now it’s not even in the novel at all! Ah, I recall the days when I still had hair to pull out.

    So I use a critique group. Just one, in fact it’s a subgroup within that group with just a few members. I don’t listen to everything I’m told, but I have to admit to being very grateful for the plot holes and dead ends they’ve spotted.

    Critique groups can work but only if you’re thick-headed enough to ignore every piece of advice you don’t agree with. Otherwise you’ll be revising forever and never get to submit anything.

    Oh, and make sure the crit group is members only. If anyone can access the story, it’s published and you’re stuffed.



  18. David A. Todd on April 23, 2008 at 5:19 PM

    >Can’t say that I disagree with the advice. In defense of crit groups, however, and the critters who comprise them, line editing is the easy thing to do; big picture critiquing is much harder.

    The crit group close enough to me to conveniently and economically attend is populated by writers who think it a great accomplishment to have Publish America accept their manuscript. I don’t think any but me has aspirations of selling a mss to a traditional publisher. None of them had spent much time developing craft, except what they could glean from the crit group. The one on-line crit group I joined for a while was a little better, but I found e-mail a difficult means of receiving critique.

    I have also found that critiques from writers, while valuable, don’t give much feedback as to how the intended audience might receive the book.



  19. Lea Ann on April 23, 2008 at 4:54 PM

    >When I started reading today’s post asking if we were members of all these things, I began to slide down in my chair and guilt lifted an eyebrow!
    Then–I found the glorious part that let me start breathing again! I’ve never had a desire to let ANYONE else look at my work until I feel it is ready for the public–i.e. agent, publisher, etc. I fully expect edits at that time, but what I found after spending 4 years as an English major in college was that the majority of people who think they can write–can’t write!
    I totally agree with the comment above about the blind leading the blind. I’ve found–with the very little I know–that the majority of people in most of these critique groups will never write professionally, so why allow them to tell you what to do? Do we all agree on the kind of book we enjoy? Of course not! People have different opinions on what constitutes a “good” book.
    I’d rather let the professionals decide if my book has merit, than be torn down by a group of people who may not know what they’re talking about.
    What a relief that I don’t have to go out and join anything yet!LOL



  20. Terry Whalin on April 23, 2008 at 2:57 PM

    >Rachelle,

    Great points about a critique group. I’ve got a detailed article about critique groups that I wrote a few years ago. Here’s the link:
    http://www.terrylinks.com/critique

    I hope it helps people. The right group is invaluable but a poor group can even hold back a writer’s career.

    Terry Whalin
    Book Proposals That Sell



  21. Anonymous on April 23, 2008 at 1:56 PM

    >I have both endured and enjoyed critique groups…depending on the expectations, and sometimes experience, of those involved. The critique group that I started and led in Fort Collins worked best for me, because I had the opportunity to define the expectations – letter and spirit.

    Regarding the writing process, I love Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: understand that your initial attempt at creating a work is the “sh***y first draft.” I remember how relieved I felt the first time I read those words. In my experience, permission during the early stages of the writing process makes ALL the difference.

    Speaking from a fiction writer’s standpoint, it works best for me to initially encourage the story and the characters to run and play wherever they choose. Open up the creative hose and just let it spray out as far and as fast as it can – no editing, no second guessing, etc. I love this part of the writing experience!

    After that process has run its course and I have a sh***y first draft staring up at me from my laptop, then I take Stephen King’s advice and let it sit for a while – at least a few weeks. After that incubation period, the really hard work begins. I pick it back up and create an initial chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene outline including both plot and character development details. Then I clean up the outline and MS simultaneously, chapter by chapter – matching the outline notes (plot and character development) and fixing the grammar, etc.

    At that point, and not before, I involve TRUSTED critique partners by soliciting their advice and input, one chapter at a time, assimilating only the changes that I believe fit me and the work…which tends to be most of their suggestions. After another 2+ week hiatus, I review the work as a single unit, making any necessary changes. Finally, assuming that I personally like and approve of the critiqued version of the MS, I send it off to a different group of readers hoping to get novel-level feedback, rather than an in-depth critique.

    Mark Adair



  22. Josephine Damian on April 23, 2008 at 1:32 PM

    >I think there’s a learning curve for writers. Critique groups are at the start of the curve.

    When you’re starting to write, a group may be just what you need to spur you to produce pages on a regular basis.

    But…. sometimes (ok, a lot of time), you get so many differeing opinions your head starts to spin. Or worse, you join a “puff club” where everyone high-fives everyone and praises bad work – which is why nobody in this type of group gets published or improves.

    Agent Ann Rittenberg cautioned against joining any group that does not have published authors – sometimes these all non-published groups are merely “the blind leading the blind.”

    For me the most important quality any writer can develop is the ability to self-edit – to get their work polished well enough so as to not be rejected by an agent, who will no doubt have their own suggestions, as will the ultimate editor of your book – the one the publisher provides – which are the only kind of cooks any book will ever need.



  23. Anonymous on April 23, 2008 at 12:04 PM

    >Rachelle,
    You have no idea how appropriate and welcome this advice is to me right now. I just went through a season of “too many cooks” and lost all confidence in myself and my writing. Now I’m trying to just stay focused on my story and, as much as I love all my writer friends, I am being very selective as to who I let read my unfinished work.
    🙂



  24. Walt Mussell on April 23, 2008 at 11:33 AM

    >Great advice! My best critique partner is also my worst: my wife. She is great at telling me when my writing isn’t clear. However, since I write personal essays, she gets hung up on details that she disagrees with. I won’t let her read my first drafts as it takes at least a rewrite or two minimum for me to present my thoughts succinctly.



  25. Nicole on April 23, 2008 at 9:33 AM

    >I think first time writers rely too much on others’ opinions who when told to give their “opinion” think they’re being nominated to criticize and find fault rather than to listen to the story and voice and answer the question Mark proposed.

    Some people whether they’re professionals or average readers will not like our stuff. This is subjective all the way. However, if we don’t captivate them with our story, we have to determine if what they have to say is based on our poor writing or them not being our target audience.

    I think the majority of the story should be written first before others are summoned to give their views. I also think whoever is involved in giving their opinion of the story should be someone the writer knows would be a potential reader of the kind of stuff he/she writes–not someone who thinks they’re qualified for one reason or another to tear the thing to shreds.



  26. Kathryn Harris on April 23, 2008 at 9:32 AM

    >I ask for feedback on rough drafts from my niece, my daughter, my cousin, my husband and my former bass player. They’re all avid readers, and I trust their opinion on character establishment and pacing.

    My final draft feedback comes from my co-workers. There are definitely benefits to working for a newspaper. (Although I’m not sure any of us ever easily remember the proper conjugation of the verb to lay. Curse those irregular verbs!)



  27. Mark H. on April 23, 2008 at 9:22 AM

    >Makes a lot of sense. I’m not in a group, but whenever I show my work to someone, I usually just ask one question: “Would you keep reading?”



  28. Pam Halter on April 23, 2008 at 9:15 AM

    >I am in three writer’s groups. All serve different functions. But my writing partner and I have been talking about how we edit and have come up with the same conclusion as you said here. We don’t want someone to edit us in such a way that we lose our voice.

    So, I don’t show my stuff to everyone anymore. I work closely with my writing partner, and my 15-year-old daughter is my middle grade “expert.” Like Kim’s son above, she tells me what is working, confusing and boring.



  29. Catherine West on April 23, 2008 at 8:47 AM

    >This is interesting advice and quite different from what I’ve heard before. I can see now that you are right though. I am my worst enemy when it comes to editing a book before it’s time… I keep going back over what I’ve written before moving on to another chapter. Fine if I’m just reading it to see if it flows, but I end up picking it apart. Maybe I need to train myself not to do that.
    At the moment I have a few critique partners and we usually swap a chapter at a time. I’ve always found it helpful although sometimes I’ve run into problems because they don’t like the way I’ve written something and try to change it, when in my opinion, it doesn’t need to be changed. I think I benefit from critique partners but I also think I need to trust my own voice as well.
    It’s a learning process!



  30. Lisa B @ simply His on April 23, 2008 at 8:25 AM

    >Excellent advice and timely at that 🙂 I have not been in any groups or worked with anyone else yet. I have been struggling with who to look for. I would like to write a few articles and have someone look over them and offer advice on how to better my writing. Whether that’s a coach, mentor or editor, I don’t know.

    I hope you don’t get too bogged down in email and your other work to stop writing here. You are sharing such wonderful advice and I thank God for you 🙂



  31. Matthew C Jones on April 23, 2008 at 8:24 AM

    >I’ve been waiting for a list like this of what to ask for from first draft readers. Thank you! It seems everyone I give pages to points out missed commas, misspellings, or choice of words, and it frustrates me because no one thinks to just tell me if the story is working. I’m sure I’m guilty of the same thing and will endeavor to do differently. It’s difficult to not become hyper-analytical of writing style instead of simply reading a story for flow and immersion.

    Thanks again for the list and the advice. I might need some new readers.



  32. Susan Helene Gottfried on April 23, 2008 at 7:05 AM

    >The only person who sees my first drafts is the Tour Manager. And that’s mostly so he knows what I’m talking about when I bounce things off him. He doesn’t have a lot of comments.

    After a first revision to make sure things make sense, THEN I turn to my readers.



  33. Richard Mabry on April 23, 2008 at 12:32 AM

    >Excellent advice, re both the need to “first get it down, then get it right” and the potential to get into trouble when there are others who give too much help. I can tell you from my own experience that it’s possible to develop “writer’s laryngitis” (losing one’s voice) from well-meaning help offered by an excellent writer who sees things differently than you.



  34. Kim Kasch on April 22, 2008 at 11:49 PM

    >My son listens and says, “All right go on.”

    Or,

    “Boring.”

    And then I know if I’m on the right track.



  35. Anonymous on April 22, 2008 at 10:25 PM

    >You’ll get no challenge from me. This is brilliant advice, Rachelle.



I love words.

I love books and publishing and talking incessantly about them.

I love authors and all the intricacies of managing a writing life.

I sell. I negotiate. I coach. I brainstorm.

SIGN UP HERE TO OCCASIONALLY RECEIVE THE VERY BEST INFORMATION AND RESOURCES FOR AUTHORS
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.