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Thursday, June 13

How to Guide a Critique

By Sarah McGuire, @fireplusalgebra

Part of The Writer's Life Series 


JH: Critiques are part of writing, and Sarah McGuire is back this month with tips on how to guide your critique to best get what you need out of it. Which is perfect timing since I'll be opening up my Critique Connection Yahoo Group on July 1 for the summer session. If you've been looking for a crit group, keep your eyes open.


Sarah McGuire is a nomadic math teacher who sailed around the world aboard a floating college campus. She writes fairy tales and would be just fine if one day she opened a wardrobe and stumbled into another world. Coffee and chocolate are her rocket fuel. She wishes Florida had mountains, but she lives there anyways with her husband (who wrote this bio in less than three minutes!) and their family.

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Take it away Sarah…

Sarah McGuire
Anyone involved in workshops or critique sessions has been told to listen—and rightly so. It’s vital to listen to feedback without deflecting or discrediting it. Even when it stings. Especially when it stings.

(Here's more on 7 Things to Remember When Giving (or Receiving) Feedback on a Manuscript)

Yet critiques aren’t always about listening. Groups can waste time on something that could easily be resolved if the author spoke. Take a moment and read Beth’s Nguyen’s Unsilencing the Writing Workshop. Really. I’ll wait.

A few weeks after reading Beth’s fabulous post, I had lunch with an agent and friend who’d been giving critiques at a workshop. When I asked how they’d gone, she told me she wished more of the people had asked her questions.

Clearly, it’s important that we do more than just listen during a critique. But how? I suggest that we need to learn to guide a critique.

What Guiding a Critique Isn’t.


Guiding a critique is NOT rejecting or deflecting feedback you don’t want to hear. It isn’t blaming that reader for not getting it. Its goal isn’t to make the critiquer like or understand your work. You guide a critique by providing information or asking questions that let you get to the heart of an issue.

Guiding Critique


Here’s an example: My debut novel, Valiant, had a slow-burn romance between two characters who cared more about saving their city than swooning over each other. But the tension between the nobleman hero and commoner heroine wasn’t working. My wonderful editor Alison Weiss had mentioned it in the editorial letter, and now we were on the phone talking about how to address it.

Alison (who loves Jane Austen as much as I do!) suggested that my hero should act more like Darcy: Haughty. Disdainful. Aware of the heroine’s common background.

My mind spun, and I got really quiet. I knew the tension was off, and I knew there should be tension. But Darcy wasn’t the answer. My hero couldn’t care less about someone’s lineage when the safety of his city was on the line. He’d be annoyed that the heroine got in the way, not that she was a commoner. When I realized that, I was finally able to say, “But he isn’t Darcy. He’s Knightley.”

Knightley, who was so practical, whose criticism of Emma was based on respect and love.

It was a lightbulb moment for both of us. Alison didn’t say that everything was okay after that. She hadn’t been able to tell that I’d been shooting for Knightly in the first place. But once l could guide the critique, she gave crazy-helpful pointers about how to make the hero read more like Knightley.

Guiding Critique in Your Crit Group


You can guide a critique group by prefacing your submission with what you need. For example:
  • This is a draft of the first chapter. What’s working and what isn’t? What sort of story do you think this will be? (You might be writing a thriller, but if the first chapter reads like a cozy mystery, you need to address that!)
  • I need help with writing in this POV. Is it working? Why or why not?
  • I’m satisfied with the plot in this chapter, but I’m not sure if the dynamic between these two characters seems genuine.
  • Where there any places where the story seemed to lag?
  • Time to be a grammar Nazi! Help me get this ready to send out!


Guiding a Misunderstood Critique


Sometimes, the critiquer misunderstands an issue. If you don’t give them more information, you’ll only hear more about what isn’t working, not why it isn’t working. There are a few ways to tackle this:
  • You can tell them what you were shooting for and ask what you could have done in the manuscript to lead to that point or conclusion. (Like I did with Alison when I said my hero was a Knightley.)
  • If you don’t want to give away what you were shooting for (maybe you want to try again to see if you can pull it off) try to discover which writing signposts misdirected them.. For instance, I could have said I didn’t think my hero would behave like Darcy, and then asked what parts of the story made Alison think he was like Darcy?

How to Guide a Conference Critique.


I almost didn’t include this. Whether we admit it or not, part of us hopes for a book deal after a conference critique. (Which is fine!) However, the goal of guiding a conference critique should not be making someone want your work. Instead, work to uncover helpful feedback that you can use to write the best piece possible. Here are some suggestions:

  • Include questions in the actual pages. Most conference critiques allow 10 pages. Consider including 2-3 questions at the end of 10th page. Don’t even think about putting it on the 11th! Most of the time, it’s worth a paragraph’s worth of space on your last page so that your critiquer can read with those specific issues in mind.
  • Come armed with a list of questions. If you are as awkward as I am when you’re nervous, write them down and have the paper in your hands when you start the critique.
  • If your critiquer misunderstands an aspect of your work, ask questions! Listen first, but if they really don’t get something, feel free to ask them why that came to that conclusion or what you could do to avoid confusion in the future.

I hope these tips help! I’d also love to hear any suggestions you have for getting the most out of a critique!

About The Flight of Swans

Princess Andaryn's six older brothers have always been her protectors--until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn's attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers' lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she'd have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen's spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she'd have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.

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