maybe instant coffee isn’t worth much (what’s with that aftertaste
anyway), but an unsparing critique from the right resource delivered
the right way can be invaluable.
First, let’s define ruthless.
For our purposes, it means momentarily suspending pity to be honest,
incisive, direct—not cruel, as we’ll see, but candid. Since text
without context is pretext, we should also define critique.
I like Merriam-Webster’s take: “the art of
evaluating or analyzing . . . literature” and “the scientific
investigation of literary documents” for “origin, text, composition or
I like this definition because
it views critique as both art and science, includes analysis, which
means time and effort, and encompasses a work’s varied facets, which
means it’s not superficial. So, for our purposes, a critique is a
knowledgeable, well-thought-out, accurate, and articulate assessment of
a writer’s work (not the writer). I’d add that the most valuable
critiques have the writer’s best long-range interests at heart. Some
observations sting in the short run but can make the difference between
progress and being stuck in an endless loop.
There’s another crucial aspect
of the truly beneficial critique: it’s delivered face-to-face and
one-on-one. In this way, the personal critique is a world apart from a
critique group, where mass opinion and a herd mentality can quickly
warp even the soundest observation. Besides, it’s a lot harder to slog
through a ream of comments (and more demoralizing) than to bite the
bullet and have a person you trust, and who’s qualified, read and
comment on your work.
What should you look for in a
critique partner? Finding the right person is like dating. It helps to
know the must-have criteria. So, whom do you know who’s:
• Willing to put time and effort into analyzing and evaluating your work
• Well-read in various genres
• Familiar with and experienced in writing, preferably in your genre
• Knowledgeable about and pays attention to the various aspects of a
story (plot, tone, voice, characters, etc.)
• Able to address the critique as both art and science
• Accumulated some writing and/or editing credits
• Trustworthy and has your best interest at heart
A list like this can eliminate a
lot of options upfront, but several categories of people who may fit
this bill are readers, like book club members, librarians, and
If you feel there’s safety in
numbers, you may prefer the critique group, though more than six
members can get unwieldy. Groups offer the advantage of exposure to a
variety of writing; this can help develop your writing ear so that you
can recognize the same foibles in your work that you notice in others’.
you opt for a group, you can use the above list and consider the
Are the members generally open to suggestions?
• Is there a balance among the members, with different strengths and
weaknesses to learn from?
• Is the group moderated to maintain order?
• Is it closed or open—can anyone join anytime, or are a writing sample
and group acceptance required for admission?
Generally, critique groups, like
toddlers, scamper off after a year or two because the members have
learned to stand on their own. One way to tell whether your group or
mentor is helping is that your work is improving and being recognized.
As to cost, your friends
probably won’t charge you to critique, and most groups don’t, so be
wary of those who do, but professional mentors, should you go that
route, generally do. Still, they can be worth it, so if you’re
considering this option, ask the same questions you would in hiring an
• How long have you been doing this?
• With whom have you worked?
• In what genres do you specialize?
• What’s your professional background, and where has your work been
published? Writer-editor types usually have a good grasp of both sides
of the coin.
• What’s the fee structure?
A resume, bio and list of
writing credits should provide this information.
Tip: Regardless of your choice,
meet informally first, maybe with a sample page of your work for
review, and see how the session goes. Leave yourself room to opt out.
To pose an editing query,
contact Adele Annesi. To see my online writing workshop.
Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers