The Art Of The Critique


The critique process

     Today I’d like to discuss what it’s like to give or receive a critique. This is a long topic to discuss, so I’m going to break it up over several blogs to keep you coming back. The more times you come to my blog, the more often I can slip in shameless plugs for my material. Hey! Look at that Mapleberry ad on the right. Wouldn’t you just love to spend a half-hour before bed reading a short story while at the same time getting the heart-warming squishy feeling from helping out a fellow author? You know you want to. Free for Kindle Unlimited readers.  

Personally, I like passing chapter drafts around with other writers to see what type of response they give me. Some people seem terrified of getting a critique and for some inexplicable reason, unqualified to give one.



     As for being scared of showing your work to other people, I don’t think I can help you. But if you’re planning on eventually putting material out into the world, you should probably bite the bullet and start doing it. Nobody is going to improve if they don’t know something is wrong. Self-evaluation only goes so far. You have this wonderful, horrible, uplifting, or other story in your head, and at some point, you need to find out if the same story is showing up on the paper. Through the wonderful world of the internet, we can now do all this while hiding in a closet so the evil monster who says mean things about our work are far away and anonymous.

     The issue of not being qualified is bullshit. If you can read the same language the material is written in, you’re qualified. This assumes we’re talking about material that doesn’t require some specialized knowledge. Your job as a critique partner isn’t to be an editor. You don’t have to fix the work. You don’t have to use fancy English Major words explaining why some {insert a fancy English Major phrase here} is wrong.

Nobody should expect something like this from you:

In Latin grammar, the ablative absolute (Latin: ablativus absolutus) is a noun phrase cast in the ablative case. More specifically, it consists of a noun or pronoun and either a past participle, a present participle, an adjective, or an appositive noun, all in the ablative.

Okay … I only understand a few of those words. That comes from the Wikipedia page on Latin grammar if you’d like some easy reading.

When someone gives me a chapter to look over, I focus on certain areas. Another writer with different skills will do a critique focusing on parts that never cross my mind. This is one of the advantages of having multiple people reading the material for you. If you give a chapter to five people and three of them mention the same problem, you should probably look into fixing it. If only one person mentions an issue and you think they’re wrong, then let it go and move on. Or ask one of your other critique partners what they think of the problem.

So what do I do when someone hands

me a chapter to read?


No, don’t do that. It can be fun.

     Glad you asked that question imaginary-person-in-my-head.

     I can only explain what I do. First, I start by reading it. I try not to make any comments until I’m done just in case something that befuddled me gets explained in the next paragraph. Sometimes I cheat and make a note to myself if something popped out at me and I don’t want to forget to mention it when I go back.

     When I read material for a critique, it’s not the same as when I read for pleasure. I force myself to slow down. Sometimes I even read it out loud. I find it a little annoying when someone sends me a critique that mentions a problem that only existed in their head because they didn’t pay attention to what I wrote. However, keep in mind the final product will be read by millions of your adoring fans and many of them will read it with this same absent-minded focus. If it’s something important, you may need to mention it more than once (hopefully not in the same manner.) Reading comprehension really sucks for some people.

     The most common excuse I hear from people about doing a critique is, “I’m not comfortable giving SPAG advice.” (That’s Spelling & Grammar) Well, who cares. You aren’t an editor, and maybe someone else is better at giving SPAG advice. You still have something to offer. Focus on what you can do. If I spot an obvious SPAG issue, I’ll point it out, but I warn people not to expect me to fix all their commas. I leave enough of them on the floor. I think I just stepped on one.


Have you ever needed to reread a sentence or paragraph more than once to figure out what the author meant?

     This problem is a simple one for you to mention to your new best friend critique partner. Anytime you needed to reread something because it was awkward or didn’t make sense on the first (or second or third) pass, tell the writer. Sometimes I give a long explanation of why there was a problem. Occasionally I offer a simple solution. Most of the time I highlight the section and mark it with — “This read awkward to me & I needed to reread it to understand.” This could be an issue of flow or word choice. Perhaps in the dialogue, I wasn’t always sure who the speaker was.


     Do you speak? Are you a human? Have you spoken to another human? Have you ever been around people having a conversation?

     I know those last two are becoming rare in our society with all the texting and swiping, but if you answered yes to those questions, you can probably spot unnatural dialogue. Have ever read a story or watched a TV show (Yuch. Don’t waste your time with TV.) and felt yourself cringing at the dialogue? Sure you have. We all have. Some writers are great with dialogue and others just plain suck at it struggle to get the right words out.

     Is the author overusing “said” tags to the point where it’s noticeable and annoying? Mention that. On the other hand, perhaps there are no “said” tags and it started to confuse you who was saying what. Sure I mentioned this earlier, but it’s important, and there’s that whole reading comprehension problem, so I’m saying it again. Are you feeling any emotion in the dialogue? You can suggest changing the simple he/she said tags into a descriptive beat instead.

Frank said, “Screw you! My writing is awesome.”

“It’s not that the story wasn’t good,” she said. “It’s just that your dialogue didn’t make sense.”

Interrupting the private conversation, Mary said, “Calm down. It’s not the end of the world.”

We can change that to some beats.

“Screw you! My writing is awesome.” Frank ran his fingers through his hair. He was getting frustrated.

Cindy walked over to comfort him and put an arm on his shoulder. “It’s not that the story wasn’t good. It’s just that your dialogue didn’t make sense.”

Mary, the busybody whore who wanted to take Frank away from Cindy, came out of nowhere. “Calm down. It’s not the end of the world.”


So what’s next?

     I asked a few people to volunteer up a sample of material for me to critique. I will be posting those samples along with my critiques over the next few blogs along with more areas you can critique without an English license.

     For now, I’m going to post a partial chapter from my WIP and show you the advice one of my writing buddies gave me. I’ve changed the chapter since this version, but I think this will show you what a critique partner can do for you.

As a side note, I guarantee that once you get in the practice of critiquing other author’s material, you will start to notice problems when you write your stories before they blow up into a chapter that needs to be rewritten from scratch. Helping others will help yourself.


     Luis Cardozo dressed as his wife jumped into bed after working all night. It was taking him longer and longer to take care of himself these days. Even with the exoskeleton around his arms and legs, without proper medication, his control of those devices continued to deteriorate. His equipment was also getting old and in disrepair. Luis could fix the exoskeleton if only they could afford new parts.

Suggestion, adjust two of the sentences to this:  It was taking him longer and longer to take care of himself these days, even with the exoskeleton around his arms and legs. Without proper medication, his control of those devices continued to deteriorate. His equipment was also getting old and in disrepair.

“Do you need help?” Might be helpful just to denote who’s speaking here.

“No!” Luis snapped back, then softened his voice. “One of the servo motors is working sporadically. I’ll look at it later.”

“Have you been taking the medications Dr. Applegate prescribed?”

Luis’ new doctor had him trying a new combination of drugs. The company that used to manufacture the medication, specific for his disease, stopped production when most of the MJD patients died in the Portugal disaster. Deleted unnecessary commas.

“Don’t nag!” Luis knew he shouldn’t be hostile, but he couldn’t help it. “Sorry. I’m only taking it every few days. We can’t afford it.”

Tereza nodded. “Could you at least keep taking the acetyldopa. It should help with the mood swings.”

Luis glared at her, continuing to struggle with his outfit. “Enough. I’m fine.”

Tereza got out of bed and started to help him. “Please take it before you go. It will keep you calm and focused at the interview.” She kissed him. Right here, maybe change the action focus. “He grimaced while she tugged at his jacket and brushed out the wrinkles. She kissed his cheek. ‘Please take it….’ “

He knew she was right but lied to her. “I took it an hour ago.” She gave him a doubtful expression. He sighed. “I’ll take it now.” I’m guilty of using too many words when one will do.
Try, “She glared.” Or “She raised an eyebrow” It’s a little more show than tell.

“Speaking of medications, did you get anything back about our request for Eneida?”

“I spoke with someone at the refugee office. They’re still processing the application. She said it could take a few months.”

“A few months. Tereza was disgusted. “How do they make a little girl wait for medical aid?” If interrobangs were appropriate punctuation, I’d suggest that. But go with an exclamation point here.

“They said it’s not an emergency. MJD is listed as a chronic problem.”

Tereza climbed back into bed. “Do you have everything you need? Are you prepared?”

“Oh please. This is an entry level position. I could run this project for Aridlock.”

The company building the Tucson floodwalls had posted a job opening well below his qualifications. However, Luis was desperate to find any job that brought in money and provided benefits.

Luis picked up his AI-com. He noticed he had left the Frontier Marine information site on the screen and wondered if Tereza had seen it. It took Luis several tries to get his AI-com into his jacket pocket. His research on the FM requirements for engineers and nurses had provided ambiguous answers. MJD wasn’t listed as a medical condition that could get a waiver, but there were a few other neurological diseases that were listed as allowable.

Luis was sure that he could find a way to revive his career through the Frontier Marine. Any colony would need engineers. He considered that hopeful, less hopeful, was Tereza’s view on the subject. Luis gave Tereza one last kiss. “Wish me luck.” Change to: He considered that hopeful. Less hopeful was Tereza’s view on the subject. He gave her one last kiss.

“Good luck. Don’t forget to drop Eneida off at school.”

“She’s already eating breakfast and won’t let me leave without her.”

Luis almost asked Tereza how she felt about joining the Frontier Marine. Tereza was raised a strict Catholic. For the past three hundred years, the papacy maintained the view that, voluntarily putting oneself into cryostasis was not only close enough to suicide, since you couldn’t be sure of ever being revived, but also blasphemous, because you were trying to alter God’s plan for your lifespan. Ever since the seed ships started leaving Earth, the Church backed off on the second point claiming that since God knows all, He would know about your life span adjustments and would have included them in His plan. However, since you were not so omnipotent, you had no way of knowing if any of those ships would ever find a new home. Therefore, it was still close enough to suicide making cryostasis a sin.

Maybe move this part down to the sentence where Luis asks Tereza’s opinion on the Pope’s declaration.

Not a huge fan of this paragraph. It’s a little clunky. I think it’s the slip to 2nd person – use of you. Also, this would be a great place for Luis to interject his thoughts, make it more personal.

“What?” She asked.

He realized he had been staring at her. “I.” Luis tried to find a way to broach the subject. “Sorry, lost my train of thought.”

“Take the meds.”

“Yeah. Sure.” He went over to his dresser and shook out a couple of tablets. “What did you think about the new Pope changing the ruling about cryostasis?”

“Where did that come from?” She asked inquisitively.

“I saw a news report yesterday.”

“Some news. I think that was almost two years ago. It’s only allowed for medical emergencies. To allow time to grow organ replacements. Why?”

“You’re the Catholic in the family. I was just curious.” Tereza didn’t follow her strict upbringing. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have married a lapsed Protestant, but she was still sensitive to Catholic doctrine. They never discussed the topic with any seriousness. Luis dreaded bringing it up, because if she felt strongly about not going into cryostasis, he would have to drop the whole idea of leaving Earth for colony life. He wasn’t sure he could oppose her on something of this magnitude.

“I haven’t given it much thought. You’re going to be late.”

He left the cramped bedroom and went to get Eneida. One of his knee servos kept clicking as he moved. They lived in a two-story townhouse that was converted into five apartments. Their bedroom was a former child’s bedroom, Eneida’s was made from a converted master bathroom, and the kitchen/living area could comfortably hold the three family members, as long as nobody ever visited. They needed to share the bathroom with one of families upstairs.

You could cut this and maybe shorten it to say something like:

They lived in barely 400 sq ft of space, 2 bedrooms and a combined kitchen and living area. They shared a bathroom with a family upstairs.

OR…if this isn’t that important, you could cut it. Also, you could passively mention they lived in a cramped ghetto where x number of families shared apartments intended for one.

When he walked into the kitchen, he froze. Eneida sat at the table, back to him, finishing her breakfast. Her left arm was down at her side, and the wrist twitched repeatedly without her noticing.


She turned and jumped out of her chair. “Daddy! You ready?”


There you go. The fires of hell didn’t swallow me when she told me about those problems. I learned. I rewrote. I think the chapter is better now. There were six other authors who reviewed the same chapter, and I found something helpful from each of them.

If anyone is interested in sending me a small selection to critique and post. I’d love to do it. I already have a few people interested. I can work out the details with you through email.

In the meantime, keep writing, have fun, and read something for enjoyment.

May I suggest






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