Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Benefits From Critiquing Are Not Just in the Feedback Given and Received

By Ann Meier 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I was chatting with one of my critique partners the other day, and she told me about an experience she'd had while reviewing a mutual friend's work. "You ought to write about that," she said. "No," I replied, "You should tell that story," and she agreed. So please help me welcome Ann Meier back to the lecture hall today to share how her writing benefited from doing a critique for someone else.

Ann lives in Orlando and writes mysteries with a theme park smile. Her books’ parks are fictional, but she was a manager on the Universal Orlando Resort opening team. She also worked at Walt Disney World. She’s received five Royal Palm Literary Awards from The Florida Writers Association for her manuscripts. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the Society for Children’s’ Books Writers and Illustrators, and Florida Writers Association. She has co-authored a college textbook, written journal articles, and worked in human resources for a Fortune 100 company. She earned an undergraduate degree in English from Ball State University and a Ph.D. in psychology with specialization in child development from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Take it away Ann...

You may wonder if the hours you spend reading someone else’s manuscript when you could be working on your own are worth it. The answer is yes. With the right mix of critique partners, the benefits can far outweigh the loss of writing time. Choose partners strategically.

1. Should you stick with writers in your genre?

Yes and no. When you’re learning the tropes and craft, it helps to have a partner who can keep you from making big rookie mistakes. But—and one of my critique partners said just this week, there’s always a but when I speak—the exposure to different genres may lead you to a new and wonderful place.

I write comic mysteries for adults, but Janice has been a critique partner for as long as I’ve been writing. She writes fantasy and her first three published novels, The Healing Wars, are for kids. Still, her ability to see plot issues and character motivation problems has helped me write stronger mysteries. And I enjoyed critiquing her manuscripts and listening to her talk about school visits.

Her enthusiasm made me want to do school visits, too. They sounded like so much fun. Then Janice started—and there’s no other word for it—nagging me to think about writing for kids. Me? Not a chance. It’s been eons since I’ve been a kid. But she didn’t let it drop. So when I started a new manuscript for my series, I threw in a family with two kids just to see if I could write a believable kid character.

I could. Who knew? I didn’t, but Janice had seen something intangible in my writing. I enjoyed the kid characters, and the roles they played in my adult mystery grew larger than I expected. When I finished the manuscript, I decided to rewrite the entire story from the eleven-year-old boy’s point of view. I had a blast and completed the manuscript rewrite very quickly. When I gave it to Janice to read, she pointed out my big rookie mistakes. I fixed them and fired the story off to my agent who fell in love with my kid.

2. Can you productively critique someone who writes stylistically very differently from you?

This one is trickier. If you understand what the other writer is doing and believe it works for their story, yes. But if you can’t appreciate what the other writer is attempting and their style leaves you cold, exchanging feedback will frustrate you both. Find a gracious way out.

Knowing your weaknesses and strengths can make partnering with someone with a different style work.

I struggle with going deep into the emotions my characters should feel. Because I write funny mysteries, it’s easy for me to convince myself the lack of emotional depth is fine—even expected. My middle grade mystery is set in a theme park with an eleven-year-old boy protagonist. He’s as open and happy-go-lucky as a kid can be.

Bonnie Randall, author of Divinity and the Python, is also a longtime critique partner. She is currently writing an adult paranormal romance that deals with soul shattering secrets. Our writing styles couldn’t be more different.

Critiquing her work helps me because she excels in exploring emotions. I marvel at how deep she dives and how she makes me feel her character’s pain or passion. Her current manuscript had me in tears—in all the right places. When I finished my critique and sent her my notes, I returned to my own work. Here’s what happened.

In my WIP’s most recent scene, my protagonist asks his best friend to do something to rule out his stepdad as a possible suspect. The conversation doesn’t go well. The friend lashes out with a comment that deeply hurts my protagonist. They’re riding in a sky basket and are stuck with each other until the ride ends. In the next scene, my protagonist will move on to Plan B, and I was anxious to get to the ‘good stuff’. My first inclination was to write something like this:
We scowl at each other for what feels like ten years. Finally, we reach the unload platform, elbow each other to make it to the stairs, and then bolt. I couldn't care less if I never see him again. He was the worst best friend—ever.
It’s bad and emotionless. But with Bonnie’s manuscript fresh on my mind, I stopped myself from skipping the emotions. Here’s what I wrote instead:
The rest of our ride to Lullaby Land passes as quiet as the dream ships whooshing through the cooler evening air. Sebastian’s words rattle around in my head banging into and busting good memories. Whoever came up with sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me is a moron. I can’t look at Sebastian. And when I do, ‘cause no matter how bad I hurt, I’m still a curious kid, he’s staring at the funny-fake sail above our dream ship. I snuffle up sadness snot, knuckle my eyes, and watch the rooftops, but I’m seeing the image of my dad I keep in my heart.
When we reach the unload platform, we scramble from the dream ship, elbow each other to get away first—I win—and race down the stairs at warp speed. In the time it takes to run through Lullaby Land, past the Sea of Dreams and the bamboo forest, to return to the County Fair, the wet stuff from my eyes mixes with the sweat on my face. I’m hoping my eyes and the end of my nose aren’t too red. I don’t want Fat Harold and Emma to know, I might have, sort of cried. 
Bonnie didn’t critique this and point out where I could go deeper emotionally—although she can and probably will when I give her this manuscript, her work influenced me because I know she’s strong where I’m weak. The style is still very much mine, but it’s better because I invested time in critiquing and learning.

You can learn a lot from doing a critique.


  1. Tremendous article, Ann! Lots of great insights, especially the part about the importance of knowing our own strengths and weaknesses as writers before critiquing someone else's work.

  2. There are so many dividends from critiquing - from seeing what works (or doesn't) when employed by another's style / voice, to the deep relationships developed between crit partners who become dear friends. You touched upon how much we can learn from each other when we invest time and energy in one another's work. Super article!