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Forest Through The Tees / Critiquing

June 1, 2011


Why is it that we learn all the “rules” of writing, yet we still cannot write perfectly? That is a question I hear more and more from new writers. No matter how hard we work to edit and perfect a sentence, paragraph, or whole story, we never get it quite right without external input.

The simple reason is that we are too close to the story. We can’t see the forest through the trees. As tired as that old cliché may be, it is still the truth. When we are too close to something, we see what we are thinking rather than what we wrote on the page. Even professional writers are wise to have a second set of eyes look over their work. The longer the work is, the more chances there are that they will get something wrong.

The point is this: do not beat yourself up for getting something wrong. Whether it be a misplaced comma, a tautology, or a passive phrase, just fix it when someone else points it out. No big deal. No matter how much you write, you are going to make mistakes. For those of us that have been at this a while, it’s a fact of life. You cannot have an ego when it comes to writing!


As a writer, if there is any way possible, I highly recommend that you seek out a writer’s group. A writer’s group can be two people or fifty. The key is that these people must be nice people! The point of getting together is to help each other out. Helping is giving good advice, opinions that will help you and your fellow writer improve their craft. This does not mean demeaning them, intimidating them, or embarrassing them. I have been-there-done-that. It is ugly, and doesn’t help. The “tough love” argument is just an excuse to be mean.

Some of you have heard my example of the writer’s group from hell. It is ultimately unproductive and destructive to be part of a group like that unless you are a masochist. I have yet to meet a successful agent, editor, or publisher face to face that is that mean and cruel. I have met a few, mostly through the mail, but they don’t make it far in the business and as the more successful ones know, it is just plain bad for business. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that being a “tough” critiquer is the way to go. I hate to quote another cliché, but you get more with honey than vinegar.

Critiquing should be objective, not subjective. Critique the work, not the person. Sometimes, it can be tough, especially if you find the material objectionable. If it is that bad, maybe it’s best just to defer rather than say anything. There was one case where a lady read some material that really got under my skin and I wanted to shout out “bull!” But I held my tongue. I thought about all the times I read some of my icky bug, a genre where I use a lot of “colorful metaphors” and a bit of gore and violence. Some members of our group are a bit religious yet they gave me objective critiques. I kept that in mind as I sucked it up and gave her an honest critique of her writing instead of her content. Luckily, she did not come to too many meetings, so I didn’t have to bite my tongue. You may run across this in a group, but that is just part of the deal. Not everyone is going to be a fan of your stories. Critique the work, not the person!

When you read before a group, you are presenting many new eyes and ears with things you can’t see, no matter how many times you’ve read and re-read your story. Trust me on this. You are too close to it. Your jaw is going to drop when someone will point out something so obvious. For instance, your villain pops a few shots at the hero with his silenced revolver, misses and steals away. Screech! Halt! Any gun enthusiast will tell you, you can’t silence a revolver!

That was a rather blatant example, but you get my point. Your audience will catch repeated words, run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers, characters names changing from one section to the next, the list goes on.

Next we’ll talk about manuscript, or beta readers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011 1:06 am

    Excelllent article on critiquing, right to the point and correct. I’ve gone to them for 18 years and that’s where I received my education in writing. I was lucky, most of the people present were talented and kind. But a few bad apples showed up once in awhile, but thank God not very many times.

    After I wrote my novel “Diary of a Young Musician, Final Days of the Big Band Era,” I let it sit for a year because the last few months of writing it affected my psyche. When I reread it the following year I was stunned. I spent many months rereading the story more than once to fix the glaring errors and it made all the difference.

    • June 6, 2011 3:22 am

      Spoken from someone with direct experience! Couldn’t have said it better myself. That is exactly what I’m talking about. You rock, Felix!

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