"It's impossible to discourage the real writers; they don't give a damn what you say." Sinclair Lewis

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dreaded Critique

If you are lucky enough to belong to a writer’s group, you are no doubt familiar with the critique process. The critique offers the author an early impression of their work and ideas for improvement before it finds its way to a persnickety editor. However, submitting your work in person to a group is like baring your soul, taking the risk of being made painfully aware of your creative shortcomings. But the critique need not be a dreadful experience if a few simple rules are observed by the reviewers and the author.

First, before submitting your pride and joy to the group, be sure it is well polished and edited. No first drafts please. On occasion the author may seek comments on a synopsis to flush out plot problems, or may ask for brainstorming on ideas for plot improvement.

The critique should overlook trivial problems with grammar and punctuation, but rather view the bigger picture, offering help on plot inconsistencies, poor dialogue, factual problems, shifty point of view, loose ends and the story killers of too much passivity and “telling” not “showing.”

To start the process, the author may provide a short background on the piece being presented along with suggestions on areas where they wish the group to focus. The author should read (or have a colleague read) their text out loud without interruption. A maximum of five pages is suggested. Handouts are ok, as long as reviewers can resist using the text for line by line editing.

After the reading, comments should start with a person next to the author and proceed around the group in order. Each reviewer should offer positive comments, followed by a single, constructive thought, the most important of his/her observations, and one not noted by a previous person. Less critical points and grammar/spelling/punctuation issues can be passed on to the author afterward, perhaps jotted down on the handout.

During the critique, the author should absorb the comments without argument or explanation, but instead listen, take notes and ask questions for clarification. Later, locked in his/her lonely garret, the author should decide what to do with the feedback, remembering that the story is his/her own, and not all comments are going to necessarily improve the work.

--Richard Earl Rice

Richard grew up in Southern California and received his BS and MS degrees in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. In an exciting three-decade technical career, he was involved in NASA’s space program and in nuclear energy and novel energy production research for the Energy Department. He traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and Asia, presenting the results of his work and collaborating with other research institutions. Richard began writing as a teenager, covering high school sports for the local newspaper. He continued writing throughout his career, producing a number of technical papers, articles and reports. He recently decided to end his engineering career and write full time. Since then, he has produced two novels and has started his third. He has also written several short stories, two of which were accepted by the Idaho Magazine. Richard lives with his family on the Snake River in Southeastern Idaho.


  1. Thanks for this post, Richard. A good critique group is invaluable to both beginning writers and published writers. For a group to remain intact and for writers to go home feeling good about what they've written and dared to share with others, the group's members have to have sense and sensibility when they give critiques. (Linda Sandifer)

  2. I agree with Linda. And the Blue Sage Writer's Group has that sense and sensibility.

    Good job, Richard!