Ambit Creative
Adele Annesi

Adele Annesi is an award-winning editor and writer. She was a development editor for Scholastic, and is now a book editor specializing in business, culture and memoir. Her columns, reviews and stories appear in blogs, newspapers, magazines and literary journals, including 34th Parallel, The Fairfield Review, Hotmetalpress, Marco Polo Quarterly, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Southern Literary Review and Tertulia. Her "After the Sunflowers" essay is part of Press Pause Moments: Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers . Adele conducts workshops for libraries and other venues. She is currently working on a novel and a series of short stories. Visit her award-winning editing blog for writers, Word for Words , and her online workshop at Adele M. Annesi .

The Value of Instant Coffee and a Ruthless Critique:
An Editor’s Perspective

Well, 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 history.”

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 teachers.

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’.

If you opt for a group, you can use the above list and consider the following:

• 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 editor:

• 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


Press Pause Moments