My editing experience in a nutshell. Image by Kate via Canva 2022
Since the end of December, I’ve been working on my novel’s edits with the goal of querying in February. The past two weeksI sent each chapter (all 104 of them!) through ProWritingAid. (This isn’t sponsored, but imagine how much more enthusiasm I’d show if it was?) It was a grueling process, mostly because ProWritingAid takes time to load between each button, and each button reveals information to read and analyze.
The logo of ProWritingAid. I've had it for several years now and have no regrets about paying the lifetime fee.
The buttons I used most were style, grammar, overused, sentence length, pronouns, and consistency. Based on the feedback ProWritingAid sent me, I accepted 675 suggestions from the software in the last two weeks. Lordy. Grammar improvements took the forefront with 493 suggestions, and 182 suggestions were style improvements, like removing passive voice and overused words.
This is the tool bar of ProWritingAid. Pronouns, consistency, and other choices are under more reports.
My most overused words (that I culled) were: had/have, could, know/knew, think/thought, and was/were. According to the software, I only overused “just” in two chapters! That’s a huge improvement from my last WIP. I also reworked many sentences to cut down on how many pronouns began sentences. Luckily, I didn’t have many consistency issues or repeated sentence starts. My biggest issue in grammar was comma placement. I’m not surprised.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t blindly accept every suggestion. In fact, I rejected most of them. Incorrect assessments of commas, incorrect assumptions about word choice and spelling, and incorrect identification of passive voice were common suggestions I ignored. This is the other part of why this took so long! If I blindly accepted across the board, my story would be a mess.
The last leg of my editing journey is a final read-through. I’m not letting myself edit anything unless I’m removing words or fixing typos. I’ve gotten it down significantly from where I started, but I’d still love to lose another 4k. We’ll see if that happens.
Have you used editing software in the past? What have you noticed are your editing patterns? Let’s chat in the comments!
Clue did not think this book was thick enough to make a good pillow during his nap. Photo by Kate Ota 2021
Marcy Kennedy’s A Busy Writer’s Guide series has been on my radar for a while, though I wasn’t sure which one to read first. After getting some helpful feedback on my rejected Pitch Wars manuscript, I decided to read Deep Point of View.
All the Busy Writer’s Guides are short, and Deep Point of View (POV) is no exception, with the paperback clocking in at 150 pages. The book explains what deep POV is in a large sense, then chapters break down various specifics within the deep POV umbrella. The last section includes a step-by-step guide to check if your own writing is deep enough, including lists of words to search your document for that may indicate a shallower POV. The book also gives you access to a printable copy of the guide you can use again and again.
The book was a quick read. The downside is that I had already known most of it. There were a few sections where I highlighted some new info, but after going back through I see I only highlighted on five of the 100 pages prior to the step-by-step guide. Not great odds. Honestly, my writing groups talk about most of this stuff already. And yet, I’ve been told my POVs aren’t deep enough, so clearly, I needed the reminders.
Is It Worth It?
I think it is.
My paperback was $9.99 plus shipping, which seemed to be a consistent price across online indies and Amazon. There’s also an e-book option ($4.99) for those who don’t plan to highlight it or don’t want to wait for supply chain problems to resolve. I haven’t seen it in a physical bookstore anywhere (yet).
I think it contains good info, especially if you’re a writer who is new to deep POV, struggles with deep POV, or doesn’t have a writing group who can check your POV. The checklist at the end is a great resource as well, which stands out among other books who tell you what to do in theory and then just have you go try it solo.
It was an easy, quick read for—wait for it—busy writers. And there wasn’t a whole lot of fluff or padding, even in the examples. I appreciated that. I’ll probably check out other books in this Busy Writers series as well.
Have you read any of the Busy Writer’s Guides? Did you find them worth the price? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Is It Worth It? The Anatomy of Story
Wilbur loved The Anatomy of Story so much, he kept rubbing his face against the cover. Photo by Kate Ota 2021
I picked up a copy of The Anatomy of Story by John Truby months ago and let it languish on my shelf. I thought I’d read once I was done editing my current project or maybe when I started querying. However, as I started prepping for NaNoWriMo (during which beta readers will have my current project) I realized I should take a look to see if this book would influence my Preptober.
This approximately 400-page book is $18.99 for the paperback.
It’s like going from Save The Cat and The Story Equation and taking the next step in writing mastery. It includes character creation, setting, theme, and twenty-two story beats. There are numerous examples throughout as well as worksheets.
The story beats are a bit save-the-cat-ish, but those were hardly the best part of the book. I appreciated the analysis of character creation and scene setting that’s explained before plot gets brought up. The way different elements are discussed on a symbolic and thematic level was mind blowing. I even found I’d used some of the techniques on accident (probably from reading so much—hence why you need to read a lot!) and with some tweaking I could make it look very purposeful and deep.
I hadn’t seen many of the major examples (Tootsie, Casablanca, and The Godfather were most referred to, and I hadn’t seen The Verdict either) but they were clearly explained. I had seen some others (It’s a Wonderful Life) so it was helpful that most concepts were explained using multiple examples.
It’s a dense book. I tried to read it on my morning commute and fell asleep a couple times. You really need to be awake and committed to reading it. However, it’s dense with knowledge and supremely helpful.
Is It Worth It?
The price was great for the amount of information and length of the book, in my opinion. If you’re a person who likes to highlight and flag craft books, then the paperback is for you. If you aren’t a highlighting type of person, then go with the e-book version to save some money.
I recommend this book if you’re looking to up your plotting skills. If you aren’t a plotter, I recommend a little more clear-cut plotting book first (like Save The Cat). It’s also not about basic sentence mechanics (for that I recommend It Was The Best of Sentences, It Was The Worst of Sentences) and while it covers character, I think you need a baseline of character building first (such as understanding want vs need; I recommend The Story Equation).
I painted this wall during a mini-reno on my house. Why it's included will make sense by the end of the post. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
First drafts are often joked about and called things like dumpster fires or garbage drafts. They’re a way of getting ideas out of the writer’s head and onto the page. After all, you can’t edit something that doesn’t exist. First drafts will vary widely based on your writing methods. Plotters will have fewer problems than pantsers (usually), and some people would rather get it right on the first try than just get it down. However, with NaNoWriMo on the horizon, and many people about to write as many words as fast as they can, I thought I’d write about how I take problems spotted in the first draft and utilize them later.
A classic first draft problem, info dumps tell your reader all about the world or the character in one giant section. Not only is telling (vs showing) a potential issue, but info dumps ruin any tension that’s been built and slow the pace. Readers may end up skimming instead of absorbing the information. When you recognize an info dump as you edit, copy/paste it into another document where you keep your notes about the book (worldbuilding, names, etc.). I use Scrivener, so I have a whole folder where I keep this type of stuff. You can then bring back little chunks of info as they become relevant. I like to highlight sentences whose information I’ve added back, so I don’t accidentally repeat myself. Info dumps help you keep track of your world and get you into the mindset, so if you end up taking a break, you can read the info dump to get back into the manuscript.
Have you ever started a book with a cast of characters, but by the end you realize you haven’t mentioned one guy since chapter 4? Oops. It happens all the time. This means that character wasn’t as important as you initially thought. Maybe they aren’t needed at all, and you can take this mistake as a sign you should delete them all together. However, if they matter up front but clearly not later, you can also get rid of them in a way that adds to the story, such as acting as a red herring or increasing tension.
Much like pot holes, plot holes make for a bumpy ride in a book. You should try to fill as many as you spot in your edits. However, rather than just filling a hole with the first thing that comes to mind, or the easiest thing to write, take the opportunity to dig a little deeper and see how you can enrich your world, characters, or plot while also filling the hole. It’s like those home renovation shows where they discover bad pipes and they say, “we could just replace the pipes in this bathroom, but eventually the whole house will need to have it redone, and if we do that, it means tearing out all that ugly paneling to get to the pipes behind it.” The wise choice is to rip out the paneling and replace all the pipes, if they have the budget. Since enriching your writing doesn’t cost money, go ahead and rip out the paneling. And the shag carpet, while you’re at it.
Off Balance Scenes
Some scenes will have too much narration, others will have too much dialogue. This is something you’ll want to balance out, but worry not. This mistake has actually highlighted for you what matters in that scene. Is it all about the dialogue? Then the narration you add in the next draft should be focused on the characters reacting to the dialogue and be less about stage direction. Is it all about narration? Then the dialogue you add shouldn’t be distracting from that and should instead voice the most important internal realizations.
Perhaps your first draft clocked in at about 60% of the expected word count for your age group and genre. This tells you that something is missing; characters, sub plots, setting or other descriptions, internal narration, etc. It will vary for each writer, but once you notice a pattern in where you skimp, you’ll know what needs to be added. For example, my early drafts lack emotions and reactions, so now I automatically put that in my editing to-do list. It may take more than one book to recognize where you could use more words, but once you know your first draft skinny points, you won’t even need to look to know they’re there. These can then become strengths of your next draft, since you’ll be putting conscious effort into adding these items.
The opposite of the last problem, if you overshoot your genre and age group’s expected word count, you’ll need to do a little cutting. Ideally, you won’t just delete, but keep removed scenes/paragraphs/sentences in another file for later. You can always come back to these and bring back little pieces to supplement the next draft. It’s easier to squirrel a scene away than it is to delete it, and you may find this strategy makes it emotionally easier to cut words. Identifying what to cut is harder, but if you compare your story’s beats to an established beat sheet (ex Save the Cat) you may be able to identify plot elements that take longer than expected and start hunting for what to cut there. The main benefit of overwriting is that it’s faster to cut than add words.
Let's return to my home reno example from earlier. Basically, in a first draft you’re establishing what’s important. That’s setting the blueprint and foundation of the house. Building up the studs and deciding where walls go. First drafts are asking how big is the kitchen, how many beds and baths, is there a basement or a second floor. You don’t need to worry about which poster is going to hand above your desk in your home office. Sure, you can buy one if you see it and have it ready to hang, but the focus is going to be on bigger stuff first, by necessity. Yes, a home reno is messy with painter’s tape and loose nails and dust on everything. However, that’s because it’s not the final step yet. So don’t think of your first draft as garbage, think of it as the start of building a house.
How do your first drafts go? Are you a plotter or a panster? Do you over or under write? Let's discuss in the comments!
Point of view? What about this stunning view! Banff, Canada. Photo by Kate Ota 2018
Remember last week how I ended by saying that my next post would be about trimming words? Well, despite deleting a chapter, I’ve managed to add 1000 words to my WIP. So, I’m going to go ahead and say I’m not qualified to write a word trimming post just yet.
It’s been a while since I added to my Easier Editing series, so I decided to write about one of the things my first round of beta readers said I did really well. Let’s talk about how to make different POVs in the same book feel like different people. They’ll all have your author voice naturally, so what you need to do is make them feel distinct from one another. The goal is that a reader should be able to put your book down, then come back and know who the POV character is without flipping back to the last chapter or scene break. (Need a refresher on POVs in general? I have a post for that!)
Here are the top things I do to accomplish unique POVs in a multi-POV book.
Once I build my characters and understand who they are, I decide what kinds of words they’ll use. A laboratory researcher might use precise and scientific language. Creative characters would use more colorful language. Someone really into trains might make analogies that always go back to trains. Also keep in mind what words your characters might not know. Think of Disney’s Ariel, who called forks dingle-hoppers because she’d understandably never heard the word fork. Perhaps you have an older character who wouldn't know teen slang, or a teenager who would be less likely to know name brands of alcohol.
Whatever is driving your character is bound to be on their mind. Think of a conversation between two characters. If told from one POV, the interaction may be boring pleasantries ending with a refusal to hang out. How rude! When told from the other POV, we might learn how this character is desperately avoiding anyone coming over and discovering the dead body in her basement. Something that urgent is going to color the narration significantly. Less urgent goals should still have an impact, too.
I tend to choose if my characters are overall optimistic or pessimistic, and then what mood they’re in for each scene. I end up with things like angry optimist, happy pessimist, irritated pessimist, etc. It’s much easier to write a specific voice knowing that combination of world view and mood.
It’s easier to have a very wild, quirky character voice if they don’t come up often. It’s harder to sustain and use that voice to convey complex plot points. You don’t want to get so niche that this character describes something and your reader is left with no understanding of what just happened. Let’s use an extreme example. Think about Shakespeare being read in modern classrooms. You read that aloud as a class and then the teacher had to explain what that entire scene meant. Yes, it’s in English, but man oh man is that Elizabethan voice difficult to decipher for modern audiences. If one of your POVs was written so uniquely, they’d stand out, but not in the way you want. However, if you toss in a relevant sonnet every now and then, you won’t lose your reader because they’ll trust you to lead them back to the more digestible story soon.
That’s my basic strategy for differentiating POVs in my multi-POV WIP. Do you have different strategies you use? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Word Count Anxiety
If you get too anxious about your word count, take a moment to go outside and enjoy the weather. Unless you're in the current heat wave. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
I follow a lot of agents on Twitter and whenever they do an Ask Agent, they usually get a question concerning word count. Often, it’s very specific to what that author is writing and they are worried about over or under writing. “Will it hurt my chances of getting an agent?” they always ask. Sometimes they say “George R.R. Martin got away with it, why can’t I?”
Let’s look at typical word counts, why there are typical word counts, and what an agent will do if you miss the target.
What’s The Right Word Count?
I took the lowest and highest word counts offered from five different sources to find out the approximate window for the most common genres and age groups.
Sources: manuscriptagency.com, litrejections.com, self-publishingschool.com, bookendsliterary.com, writersdigest.com
Genre Word Count Window
Short Story: 500-8,000
Adult Commercial/Literary: 60,000-110,000
Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy: 50,000-150,000
Adult Romance: 40,000-100,000
Adult Historical Fiction: 80,000-120,000
Adult Crime/Thriller/Mystery/Horror: 40,000-100,000
Young Adult (all genres): 50,000-100,000
Middle Grade (all genres): 20,000-55,000
Picture Book (all genres): 0-1,000
Some of those windows are very wide because these sources didn’t necessarily all agree about how low or high you can go. Writer’s Digest had the most restrictive guidelines, while the self-publishing school had the broadest.
Why Do Word Counts Matter?
In this debate, people will always mention the exceptions. Harry Potter, Song of Ice and Fire, Gone With the Wind, and Lord of the Rings consistently went higher than recommended word counts for their genre or age group. You’ll also notice they made a lot of money or were written a long time ago. While you should believe your work can also succeed, you cannot bet on others believing that too before they read it. And getting someone to read a 90,000 word novel is way easier than getting them to read a 300,000 word one.
Readers expect certain things from books. They want a happily ever after in a romance, they want magic in fantasy, and so on. The same is true of word count, even if readers can’t name a specific number. They’ll see a book on a shelf or a page count online and make the decision right there. Their negative reactions could range from “That’s too short for how much the book costs” to “That’s so big I’ll never finish it.” You want to hit the sweet spot in between.
What Do Agents Do If You Miss the Target?
To have the broadest reach with your book, people have to be willing to pick it up—and that starts with agents if you’re going traditional. Agents don’t have an infinite amount of time to read, and the further outside your expected word count, the less likely they’ll read your book. If you are below the expected count, you may be in trouble too. Either way, the agent has to think about how much work your project needs before it can be sent to publishers. All that work is before anyone gets paid, and agents need to eat too.
Remember when including your word count in your query that you round to the nearest thousand. Even if that means rounding up and thinking you’ll get in trouble. There’s wiggle room in word counts. If you’re 1,000 words outside the ideal, they’ll probably be okay with that. That many words are easy to add or delete. Once you get beyond 5,000 outside the window, you may be in trickier waters. Agency websites may specify this more, so be sure to peruse the whole website before querying.
Right now, my WIP is dancing at the upper edge of the Adult SFF category count, so I’m looking at ways to trim words. I may need to kill a few darlings to feel more confident about my chances of landing an agent. Perhaps next week I’ll go over some word-saving methods.
Have you ever written wildly outside of an expected word count? What’s your favorite book that breaks word count expectations? Or maybe, what’s a book that broke word count expectations to the point you refused to read it? Let’s discuss in the comments!
What to Do with Feedback
This might be how your soul feels after a rough critique. Pick up those pieces and start editing. Photo by Kate Ota 2019
I’m in the editing phase of my book, which is always the longest, and I’m soliciting feedback from many sources. And then getting all that feedback. I’ve written about critique groups and how to critique, but never explained my methods for what happens next. It can be overwhelming to receive a lot of feedback at once and some people will set that aside and not use it out of a sense of dread. Here’s my method for tackling feedback.
Step 1: Take Notes During the Critique
If you are doing a live critique, take notes as people talk. Even if they will send you an annotated document later, they might say something spontaneous that you don’t want to lose.
You can decide if you want to write down who says what, if that matters to you. For example, if someone who shares the character’s identity says “I’d change X about how you portray Y about this character” I make sure to write down who said that so I give their opinion extra weight.
If people repeat the same comment, I add a little x2 or x3 to a comment to save time. When I see this, I know this is something I need to change.
If people disagree, I write who was on what side (ex. John said he likes this character but Betty hated him). This allows me to later say, aha so Betty hated this character and this other element, I wonder if fixing that element then changes her opinion on the character. Most of the time though, it may just come down to people's opinions and knowing who said what won't really matter.
I also take notes if someone says something that sparks an idea in my mind. I’ll mark this with “note from me” so I don’t later think someone else was being rather forward with ideas.
Step 2: Consolidate Your Notes
I take all the notes I receive and transfer them into one document. I use track changes and comments in Word and will edit the document with ALL of the edits sent to me, regardless of if I agree or not. This is not the time to judge comments, only copy them. I add my notes from the live critique to the relevant scenes/chapters so I don’t have to scroll to the bottom of the document. In the end, I usually have a very marked up document, but at least it’s only one.
Step 3: Prepare Your Mindset
One thing people have a hard time with when receiving feedback is how it feels emotionally. It can feel like people hate your writing or you as a person or both. You need to go into your edits with the following mindset: everything everyone has written is only to help you. This needs to be your mantra. I realize there are bad actors out there who will send hate through the internet, and that's a risk you take. However, especially if you take my advice about trying live (or virtually-live) groups, you'll find that other writers really want to help. Everything everyone has written is only to help you. They are trying to help you make this book better and every edit choose to take is doing that. One more time before you dive into edits: everything everyone has written is only to help you.
Step 4: Make the Edits
While I receive my edits in Word, I write in Scrivener. This is because I love Scrivener for novels in general, but it has the added bonus of forcing me to think about every single edit rather than just hitting the accept button.
I work linearly through the document, and will save big edits (such as over used words throughout or all of the dialogue needing tweaking, etc.) for the end. The exception is if I’m re-writing a significant portion of the scene, that is something I’ll do first, then edit anything that carried over.
Here’s the sticky point for some people: how do you decide which edits to take? To me, it depends on the category of edits:
The nice thing about getting critiques is that no one watches you make the edits. Don’t feel guilty for saying no to a comment, and don’t feel like you’re a bad writer for taking one. The key to editing is humility: we're all human, we all make mistakes, and we can fix those mistakes.
Step 5: Final Polish
Once I’ve finished transferring in my edits, I send it through an AI grammar checker. Mine is ProWritingAid, but I’ve heard good things about lots of other programs. Which program I use is not a hill I’d die on. This is just a final polish and helps me catch some smaller, subtler errors. Usually these are errors generated by the process of editing itself. It also helps me make sure I’m not too pronoun heavy, that my sentences vary in length, etc. I recommend these programs as a final polish, but not an initial one. You need humans for that!
There are a ton of editing resources out there. Checklists for individual chapters, beat sheets for entire plot lines, etc. If you find yourself returning to the same problems, keep some of those resources nearby. I like to keep The Emotion Thesaurus handy because I consistently don’t show enough emotion with my characters.
That’s my feedback wrangling process. Did it help you? Do you have your own method you’d like to share? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Sometimes it's a deluge of typos, other times it's a trickle. Photo by Kate Ota 2020
While I love my editing software, ProWritingAid, nothing is perfect. Despite running six chapters through it and getting them as perfect as possible, when I had people read it, they still noticed problems. Some the editing software absolutely should have caught, but others are harder for an AI to notice. Let this be a reminder that human critique partners are better than any software ever will be. And remember to forgive yourself (or other authors) when typos make it into the final product. Nobody’s perfect—human nor robot.
And now, please chuckle at some silly typos
It missed things that shouldn’t have been there:
John circled the around
It missed things that should have been there:
They need to hire someone
Yes, that works
And it missed harder to spot problems:
The word branch three times in two sentences (and yes, usually ProWritingAid points this out, so I was very surprised. Perhaps this was user error.)
A scene dragged on too long.
An entire paragraph of info dump that I’d already slimmed down and convinced myself was fine. Critique partners don’t let you lie to yourself.
What goofy typos have you or your software missed? Anything tricky that frequently sneaks past you?
It's officially spring time and that means Futurescapes 2021 is over. At least flowers are blooming! (Photo by Kate Ota)
Last week I finished my experience with Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop 2021 and I’ve gone back through my frantically-written notes to find some universal gems to share. I’ve broken it into categories, so if you don’t care about queries, for example, you can skip that section. Most of this information I got from my group leaders and discussions in those groups. Anyone who had other leaders at Futurescapes might have gotten a totally different experience.
I didn't include anything I learned from the classes before Futurescapes. Some are classes offered by those teachers elsewhere, so it felt like proprietary info. I'm not looking to get sued.
There’s a huge list of resources at the bottom. I wrote down any craft book, article, or website that was recommended to me. But be warned, I haven’t checked most of them out yet.
Don’t hold back with your ideas—editors want what’s fresh and new. There isn’t too far to stretch, just go for it!
In your first pages, the most important thing is to not confuse your reader. The second thing is to intrigue them. Do this by grounding the scene in a physical place before going into too much action.
First pages should hold enough worldbuilding to show this is a specific world (if this isn’t contemporary) but not so much worldbuilding that you need a world-bible next to you to understand what’s happening. Things should be familiar-yet-different.
The phrase “heart pounded” is overused in all of writing. This advice is pretty subjective, but I hadn’t heard this before, so maybe you haven’t either.
About Queries and Agents (especially Tricia Skinner)
Maintain your author-agent relationship with plenty of communication.
Tricia doesn’t require content warnings on queries. However, she’s not a fan of settings including slavery and concentration camps. (Especially for romance! I was shocked she even had to say that, but apparently that’s a thing.)
Query must demonstrate character, conflict, and STAKES. So many people forget the stakes.
Begin your query with some level of personalization for why you queried this agent. One sentence is fine.
A query should be as clear and marketable as possible.
In your bio, even if you’re unpublished, include anything that connects you to publishing. Things like attending workshops or writing groups count.
At the bottom, below your name, should be your contact info. An author website, even if only a single page, is ideal.
Tricia loves enemies in forced proximity as a trope.
A synopsis should either be written in a totally neutral voice or the voice of the novel. (Personally, I think it’s much easier to go neutral.)
If writing a multi-POV and struggling to write each character into the synopsis, consider introducing each new POV by mentioning where they are in proximity to the other characters (geography-wise). This cuts down on confusion, especially in a sprawling fantasy where characters may not be on the same continent or a sci-fi with multiple planets.
If worldbuilding adds tension, include it. If it doesn’t, and the synopsis makes sense without it, don’t include them there.
Emotional arcs should be included, and are probably more meaningful than including every plot event.
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
The Author’s Checklist by Elizabeth Kracht
Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
On Writing by Stephen King
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
Orson Scott Card website article on beginnings
Brandon Sanderson website on his writing process
How to Write 10k/Day
Sooz.com for in depth process and guides
Writing the Other website
Mapping software websites: Wonderdraft, World Anvil, Inkarnate, Universe Sandbox
The Ever Changing Book of Names (random name generator, which gives names sounding like other language origins but are not real.)
YouTube channels: Just Write, Razbuten, Hello Future Me, Nerdwriter, In Praise of Shadows (horror), Behind the Curtain, What’s So Great About That?, Storytellers, Abbie Emmons, The Closer Look, Make Stuff, Jenna Moreci
Have you tried any of these resources? Did this advice help you? Let's discuss in the comments!
Critiquing for Beginners
Every flower in this photo represents an instance of the word just in the first draft of my last manuscript. (Photo by Kate Ota 2019)
One of the biggest psychological hurdles in joining a new critique group is figuring out how to critique another person’s writing. This can be especially difficult when critiquing memoir or personal essays and you’re discussing events that actually happened to the author. Of courses fiction is just as much a writer’s soul, so it’s still difficult. Some people join and hold back on critique, but that's not why you joined the group. How do you critique? And do it in a way that endears you to the group, rather than ostracizes you? As a member of two long-running critique groups (one I’ve met in person and one only online, so far) and several one-off groups, I have plenty of advice for how to make this work.
Identify Your Strengths
Before you even look at their pages, consider what you think is your strength in writing. And don’t be humble here, you’re only thinking this to yourself. It can be big picture items, like noticing plot holes in your work (or published books you’ve read), or it can be very small, like knowing every comma rule. Your strengths can also come from other hobbies and jobs, like being able to shoot a bow an arrow (handy for fantasy and historical) or understanding anatomy (useful for crime, thriller, horror, or biopunk). Know what you’re good at, and have that be forefront in your mind as you go in to the work. Every person who critiques has a different strength, and will offer a different piece of the puzzle to the author.
Do A First Pass Without Critiquing
This isn’t always possible, especially in groups that live read then critique. But, if you can, don’t mark anything (unless it’s a huge, distracting issue) on your first pass. Then do a second pass. Things that may have confused you in the first read, you see may have had a purpose later in the story. Then you can mention in your critique that you know why the author wrote something, but that the way it was written was confusing for you. I recommend that because often a writer will see “this is confusing” and think to themselves, “the reader just needs to wait and see.” If you mention that you did wait and see and it still wasn’t as smooth as possible, the author may take your comment more seriously. If you have time, a third pass read aloud can help you catch smaller sentence structure items, accidental rhymes, repeated words, and over-long sentences.
You may be thinking that editing isn’t the hard part, it’s how to phrase your critique to the writer. No one likes being told their writing wasn’t perfect, and a writer new to critique may easily misunderstand good-intentioned feedback. Even a veteran, like me, can sometimes be having a bad day and feel more sensitive to critique. You never know how much emotional effort a writer has put into their work, how personal a fictional story might be, or what their life is like right now. Therefore, ALWAYS critique the words on the page and NEVER critique the writer. To be sure you’re following this rule, never write the word “you” in your feedback.
For example, let’s say there’s blatant sexism on the page. It’s too soon to tell if it’s the character’s voice, or the writer’s actual opinion. Hey, maybe this character’s arc is about becoming less sexist (hello Sokka from season 1 episode 4 of Avatar: The Last Airbender). But maybe you aren’t seeing that on the page in the sample given. Rather than saying, “hey, you’re being sexist here,” you can phrase it like, “The character is saying pretty sexist things in this paragraph. This made me uncomfortable. There’s a risk the audience may not root for him.” That comment cites the problem on the page (“the character is being pretty sexist here”), expresses your emotion as a reader (“this made me uncomfortable”) and gives a concrete reason why this is a problem (“the audience may not root for him”).
What to Critique
Need ideas for what to search for? Anything that catches your eye is good to point out, even if all you can say is “this confused me” or “I think this is wrong, but I don’t know what’s right.” If you want to stretch your muscles and look for specific items to critique, here’s a list of things I try to note:
Punctuation errors, especially around dialogue
Spelling errors or inconsistencies (especially names)
Too long sentences (generally if more than seven concepts are introduced at once)
Repeated words or repetitive phrasing
Overuse of common words: was/were, to, had, the, know, just, back, started/began, some, etc.
Characters (consistency, round vs flat, active vs passive, too many, too similar, etc.)
Voice (consistency, amount of voice, matching voice to characters, etc.)
Plot logistics (internal logic, plot holes, clarity of what the characters want)
Pacing (too slow, too fast)
Setting/world building (is it enough, too much, logical, etc.)
Consistent POV (1st/3rd/2nd use consistent, head hopping, etc.)
Vague terms (big/small, fast/slow, etc.)
Too many adverbs (can be replaced by description)
Dialogue (stiff vs natural, fitting to character, consistent use of contractions, proper punctuation, clear dialogue tags, too many non-said tags, etc.)
Telling instead of showing
The Most Important Part
Some people get so bogged down in what’s wrong, they forget to tell the writer what’s right. If you love a line, highlight it and let them know. Write a comment of lol, haha, or a smile next to what you thought was funny. And at the end of the document, write what you enjoyed overall, like the general ideas, the characters, the banter, really cool worldbuilding, etc. And if you were excited to read on, mention that too. This information is supremely helpful because the writer might feel like they need to start from scratch if they get a ton of structural feedback. If they know what they did well, they know what to save. Plus, it helps soften the blow of the feedback that suggests work.
If your feedback is all written, not verbal (like an online exchange), avoid sarcasm or too much joking in your feedback, as it can be hard to interpret on the page. Exceptions may be if you know the writer extremely well.
It’s okay to admit you don’t know a fix. For example, you may notice a sentence is very long, but you may not be sure where to break it up. That’s okay! You can point out issues and admit you don’t have a solution.
It’s okay to make big suggestions, but don’t get upset if the writer doesn’t take the idea. You never know, you may spark yet another idea for the writer and they’ll appreciate it.
Avoid phrasing feedback like it’s something the writer must do. I like the phrase “consider doing x.”
Always give advice to make the existing story better, never suggest trashing it or starting from scratch. If it’s not something you’d be willing to hear about your own writing, don’t say it.
Remember that critique is about improving. Only make comments with improvement in mind, never be cruel or mock the writing.
How did you adjust to joining a new critique group? What do you look for when you critique? Let's discuss in the comments!