Peer critiques are a valuable tool in polishing up your writing, but it has to be done correctly to be effective. Writing is a lonely business, but publishing is a social world. You cannot go at it alone. Even the best writer can’t critique his/her way to perfection.
You may know what you meant to say, but the reader doesn’t. If you have to explain yourself to a critique group, you need to rewrite. A reader can’t ask questions. As you read your work, your mind fills in the gaps and gives you blind spots. Polishing your work requires help.
Don’t lose your voice
This is a challenge for everyone-but especially for new writers. Often crit groups point out differences in opinion and style. You must evaluate critiques and weed out the preference issues from the problems. Or perhaps the preference is a valid one. If more than one person points out a similar issue, that should be a red flag. However, you will get a lot of bad advice with the good. This is especially true if critiquers are aspiring writers.
As a new writer, I partnered with a group of other newbies. Bad advice abounded. For example, I had a scene where a character gagged from the smell of exhaust. A critter suggested, “She gagged like a dog stuck in a log with a skunk.”
Not quite the best advice. New writers mistake exaggeration as description. You must trust your gut and find your own style.
Prepare for the critiqueA crit group isn’t there to find your spelling and punctuation errors. Before submitting a critique, proofread your work to the best of your ability. No work should be critiqued until you feel it’s perfect. It isn’t, of course. You’ll discover this when people pull out the red markers. If critiquers start fixing poor spelling, they won’t be looking for the problems you need to find. You will have wasted a good opportunity.Be Cordial
Never argue with a critique. Never, never, never. You want people to help you. Don’t make people tiptoe around your feelings. No work improves under a rubber stamp. It has to be refined, tried, and refined again. In fact, your work will never be perfect. There is always something you will find. I think the letters move around when writers aren’t looking. If you don’t believe this, let your work sit for six months and check it. You’ll find something. Many things.
If you are critiquing, also be cordial. In a group I attended, a woman looked at someone’s work and said, “You know what I think of when I read this? I think, this looks like something an amateur would write.”
Don’t do this. Don’t insult the person or the work. Stay focused on the specific problem being addressed. You should be asking yourself, “How can I help this person improve as a writer?” Sprinkle criticism with praise. The writing may be awful, but keep in mind that everyone’s work is awful at first.
Philip Gulley was such a bad writer that his college professor passed him with a D if he promised to never write again. Years later his interest in writing was rekindled when he started writing short essays for his church bulletin. Today he has eight published books and is a popular humorist.
Bad writing is the gravel road we must pass over to reach good writing. Keep this in mind. The person you critique needs to be encouraged to persevere as you point out ways to improve. Think of critiquing as a ministry to others. Your goal is not to evaluate their worth as a writer, but to mentor them into better writing.
Find a crit partner
Short critique sessions has a pitfall. Even if your group is small, most sessions only permit 3-10 pages. By the time you reach page 200, you have no memory of the beginning of their book. For this reason, crit groups rarely catch plot holes, contradictions, and other ‘big picture’ mistakes.
Develop a writing relationship with someone on your skill level or higher. It should be someone who is willing to read your manuscript from beginning to end in a short amount of time. This is necessary in order to identify plot problems, redundancies, and other things your eyes cannot see. Critiquing in small blocks helps to line edit and clarify language, but a crit-partner can take you to the next level.
Now you’re ready for an editor. :)
Eddie Snipes is president of the Christian Authors Guild and founder of Exchanged Life Discipleship, a teaching and discipleship ministry. He has served as a pastor and interim pastor. Eddie also contributes to several online resources including OnePlace.com. He’s also a member of ACFW and the Atlanta Writers Club.
Over the last two years, Eddie has won five writing contests and in April, his first novel, I Called Him Dancer was released. I Called Him Dancer is a story about how one woman's enduring faith and unconditional love drives her to reach out to a homeless man who has given up on life. He has two other books in the process of being published. Watch for an upcoming release called Simple Faith.