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Ms. Newbie: To Critique Or Not To Critique?

By Joy Liddy and Shelley Munro

Hi! I’m Flora Newbie, and I’m a writer. A beginner if you will. As a beginner, I have loads of questions with the topic foremost in my mind at the moment-critiquing. Where do I start? What do I do?

I decided to ask critique partners, Joy Liddy and Shelley Munro my questions.

Thanks for chatting to me today. Firstly, can you tell me what critiquing is?

Joy: Pleased to meet you, Flora! A critique, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is a “critical analysis”. I prefer to think of it as the three C’s – caring concerned comments – a critique is a way to look at your work through ‘fresh’ eyes.

What are the characteristics of a good critique partner?

Joy: Tact, consistency, and someone who is continually honing their craft. You don’t necessarily have to be at the same level or writing in the same sub-genre for a critiquing partnership to be successful or helpful as Shelley and I have proven . All you need is a strong and sincere desire for mutual success.

What are the characteristics of a bad critique partner?

Shell: Hi, Flora! One who batters your confidence or makes you feel worthless as a writer. A partner who gives inappropriate advice or worse, no advice at all. Also beware the critique partner who tells you you’re brilliant and that every word you write is gold when the opposite is true. An unsuitable critique partner can be very damaging. You definitely don’t want one in this category!

Hmmm. I can see that there’s more to this than I thought. Okay, so how do I critique another writer’s work?

Joy: The thought that I keep foremost in my mind when I give or receive a critique is that I’m trying to help and uplift my CP – not discourage or erode her confidence. A critique is a tool for them to improve and should be given and received in that spirit. Just like writing, we all have a different style when we critique, but there are general guidelines we can follow.

Just as I would in a critique, let’s start with a couple of general comments. First, when I critique I keep in mind that I’m not trying to rewrite my CP’s story. Though I provide examples to clarify a comment, they are intended as a springboard for my CP’s creativity not to replace her own unique voice.

Second, I try to be sensitive to Shelley’s feelings. We all know there are going to be times when we have to hear tough comments about our work, but that doesn’t make them any easier to swallow. If a comment is made in a kind and tactful manner, then it’s a bit easier to ingest.

Remember: How something is said is important. If someone says to you, “Your breath is rank. Get out of my face.” You will probably not be receptive to anything else that person has to say. If she said, “I really enjoy working with you, but it seems you have a problem with bad breath. X-brand mouthwash works for me, have you tried it?” then you might still be disturbed by her comment, but you would be more willing to listen to things she might suggest.

Sincere praise is important. Many recommend the “sandwich technique,” which means beginning and ending the critique with a word or two of sincere praise. If you want to punctuate the passage with praise that’s even better – Shelley and I indicate kudos with green highlight – I really look forward to, and hope for, a lot of ‘green space’ when I receive a critique from Shelley.

It’s also a good idea to explain a ‘negative’ comment. For example, instead of simply saying, “I saw several examples of comma splicing,” point out an example because they might not realize what a comma splice is.

Let’s get down to the mechanics of a critique:

First, read through the passage without making comments. Hopefully, your CP gave you specific things to look for. Think about them as you read through the passage.

For example: What are your overall impressions? Did the opening scene grab your attention or was it confusing? Did the pace lag? Did the characters actions have believable motivations? Did the characters seem real to you? Did the conflict feel contrived? Was there enough description to set the scene without slowing down the pace? Are the actions, attitudes and dialogue suitable for the time period? Is there a good variation in the lengths of sentences and paragraphs? Are there any logistical problems? E.g. Are the characters opening the same door twice?

After that, you can deal with the ‘nitty-gritty’ with comments on grammar, punctuation, (especially commas ) and spelling.

The style of a critique is as varied as there are partnerships. If you use Word then you can use their revision feature to insert comments. Some people like to use capitals or a bold or colored font for their comments. Others prefer to use the highlight feature. After you work with someone for a while, you will develop a style that works for both of you.

There are a couple things to remember when you receive a critique. Remember, your CP is trying to help. If you are angered or upset by something they’ve said, then it’s probably a good idea to let some time pass before you respond. Think about it. They might just be right. No one wants to hear that our work might have flaws. After all, we’ve invested hours, perhaps even days or weeks on that chapter. If you give the comments some thought and still feel that they don’t suit your work, you can ‘decline’ using them.

Regardless whether you agree with your CP or not, don’t forget to thank her. She’s taken the time to offer comments on your work (even if you don’t agree with them. ) She was kind enough to invest time in your work and sincerely wanted to help you.

All right then, what should I expect from my critique partner?

Shell: Before you go into a critiquing relationship, it’s a good idea to discuss what each critique partner expects. And remember, you don’t have to stick to one critique partner. For example, you might belong to a group where several writers critique your work. Joy and I usually critique one chapter at a time. We’ll email chapters between us, sometimes specifying certain areas where we feel there might be a problem. With me it’s commas (Joy inserts a ) Decide how quickly you’d like your critique back, how often you’d like to exchange work or if there’s an urgent critique required because you’ve received a request from an editor or finalled in a competition. Set down the rules before you start, and then no one is disappointed. Be honest and do the best job you can.

Joy: Above all, I hope for two things: first, tactful honesty, I know that I want to hear bad news from my CP not an editor; secondly, their undivided attention. Don’t critique in a rush. If you don’t have time to do a thoughtful read through and make comments, wait until you do. Also, a good critiquing relationship doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time for trust and respect to grow.

What happens if I disagree with something my critique partner tells me? Do I have to change everything my critique partner tells me I should?

Shell: Definitely not! If you’re in a group where several people are critiquing your work, and they all point out the same area as having a problem, then it’s wise to consider their advice and probably make the changes. A critique is one person’s opinion. They’re doing their best to help you. Consider their comments, and if you still strongly disagree, go with your gut instinct.

Joy: This is where a huge dose of trust comes in. I trust Shelley’s opinion implicitly, and even if I don’t always change everything, I certainly give it considerable thought.

What happens if my critique partner and I don’t gel?

Shell: Sometimes that happens since not all matches are made in heaven. Different writers have different creativity processes. The best idea is to start out the critiquing partnership like a trial marriage. Specify a certain length of time or start off by critiquing one chapter first. If, after the time elapses and you feel the partnership isn’t working, say so. Don’t let your frustration fester. This is definitely a case where honesty is the best policy!

Do I need a critique partner who writes in the same genre as me?

Shell: The short answer is no. Joy and I write in several genres, some the same and some are poles apart, for example inspirational versus romantica. It all depends on what your critique partner is comfortable critiquing. Joy and I are both happy reading across the sensuality spectrum. This is something that should be discussed at the onset of your partnership. I also belong to a critiquing list. What we do is state at the start of the piece we’re offering for critique that there’s a torrid love scene coming up. That way, the reader is warned and proceeds at their own comfort level.

Okay. I think I have this straight. So where do I find a critique partner?

Shell: Here are a few suggestions. If you belong to any of the Romance Writers of America groups, some of them have critiquing groups. Two that I currently belong to are From the Heart Romance Writers at and also the Mystery and Suspense chapter, Kiss of Death,

There’s a yahoo group called RomCritters specializing in romance. The group address is where you will find details for joining.

You can also try Charlotte Dillon’s writing group, ( ) which is where I found Joy. You can join the specialty critique list at or . On the RWC loop, Charlotte used to post a list of people looking for critique partners each week.

And lastly, eHarlequin has a place on their community page where you can post requests for critique partners and maybe find one too!

Thanks very much to both of you for answering my questions. Critiquing sounds like a lot of fun as well as a tool to improve my work. After listening to your advice, I’m going to jump in with both feet and find myself a critique partner. Thanks!

Joy Liddy lives in Moncton, NB, Canada with husband, three children, and a psycho budgie. Her romantic suspense, FOOL ME ONCE, was serialized by their local paper as part of their “Sizzling Summer Romance” promotion last summer, and she is a semi-finalist in the Noble Theme Contest with her manuscript, FUGITIVE ANGEL.

Shelley Munro lives in New Zealand and writes contemporary and paranormal romance for Ellora’s Cave and Samhain Publishing. You can visit her website at