By: Jeanne Marie Leach

Critiquer extraordinaire

Image: Rawich /

I think a critique group is one of the most helpful tools a writer can have. When I joined one of ACFW’s first critique groups, I didn’t know much more than where to put a comma. I became the “comma queen.” Slowly, I learned the techniques that take a nice story and turn it into something that people will want to keep reading in one sitting.

Because of that critique group, I learned that I enjoyed the editing process every bit as much as I loved writing, and maybe even a bit more. That’s why I decided to become a professional freelance editor.

Most of you have probably either said or heard someone say something like,
 “I don’t know how to critique.”
“I don’t know what to look for.”
“I don’t think anyone would learn anything from me.”
“I don’t know how useful I would be to a critique group.”

The ACFW critique groups have evolved down through the years, and are far more streamlined than those earlier groups. When they decided to make those first changes, someone sent a question out to the main loop, looking for answers on how to critique in a group of writers.

I sent them this list of guidelines I had learned in my five years as a participant of the ACFW critique groups. They started the new groups based on these principles. I don’t know how much of it they still use today, but my original list is below. You can apply this whether you are in a group or have only one critique partner.

Remember what the Bible says about critiques in Proverbs 15:31-32

 31 If you listen to constructive criticism,
you will be at home among the wise.

32 If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself;
but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding

So, let’s get started with some handy hints to a successful critique.

  • Always pray before starting a critique.
  • I’ve published 4 books, and one compilation, and I’ve NEVER submitted a perfect chapter yet. Everyone in the group should strive to write the perfect chapter, but they must also realize it may not ever happen.
  • It is not the function of the critique group to do your editing work for you. The group exists to point out errors you make on a consistent basis due to a lack of knowledge or understanding of that component of writing fiction. We will teach you some new techniques and help you make your work the best it can be, but it is up to you to take what you learn each week and apply it to the next chapter BEFORE you submit it to the group. The result should be that we will see your writing skills improve before our very eyes as you submit week after week.
  • If you are going to be out of town or you find yourself behind in critiquing the others’ manuscripts, don’t panic. Just let us know what the situation is and then catch up when you can. We will continue on with our submissions and critiques, and you can save them to a file and work on them as you can. If at any time you find yourself in over your head, please feel free to discuss it with the group.
  • ALWAYS find something good to say and point out things you like or things that work well.
  • NEVER rewrite someone’s work. Only make suggestions as to how to make their writing even better. And I’m not talking about changing the word “blue” for “azure”. That’s not worth your time and trouble. Don’t try to make someone else’s work sound like yours. Each author has a style and a voice that develops as they write. That’s what makes each person’s voice unique. That’s how you can read something by John Grisham without knowing who wrote it, and you think to yourself, “It sounds like John Grisham wrote this.”
  • Check the other person’s work carefully for punctuation, usage, grammar, spelling and style.
  • Check if their plot line is moving along well, or if it’s going way too slow. One time, I finally had to say something to one lady because it was chapter 22 and the hero and heroine were still not acquainted with each other enough to say more than hi and how’s the weather. That’s too slow for any book.
  • Check their dialogue. Make sure the dialogue fits the character. If you’re writing a western, it’s certain some of your characters may use “ain’t”, but if you’re writing about two Harvard graduates, they most likely won’t use “ain’t”.
  • Check if the other writer is using every opportunity to layer in the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Instead of saying, “The smell of breakfast wafted up to her room.” Say something more vivid like: She awoke to the hearty smell of bacon. It reminded her of back home on the farm. And instead of saying, “She put on a blouse that complimented the color of her eyes,” say something like: Pulling the Kelly green blouse over her head, she smoothed it down her slender body. She loved this color. It complimented her chocolate eyes.
  • Check for passive vs. active, and showing vs. telling
  • Check for overuse of words: She got into the car. Then she turned the car’s motor on. Soon, they were speeding down the road in her car. “This car is fast,” she said to herself.
    You can see how the overused word becomes annoying, and the work slides downward to a second grade level.
  • Check for characterization. By the end of the first chapter, you should know the main characters pretty well: what are their hopes and dreams and what is keeping them from achieving those goals, a basic idea of what they look like and how old they are, etc.
  • Check for character emotions. Are there enough emotions in the story to give us a good idea of how the character feels in that particular point in time? Do the emotions fit the character? Do you have a huge lumberjack of a man crying because he spilled rice on his favorite shirt? Does a woman who put out a hit on her own family members suddenly fear having to talk to the guy she hired to do the job? Nobody would believe either situation.
  • Keep your eyes on the core conflicts. What are the main characters’ inner conflicts and external conflicts? Is the conflict believable and enough to keep moving the story along? Is the only reason there is conflict because the heroine misunderstood something the hero said? That’s been done to death and isn’t enough to hold the reader’s interest. If you took out that one scene, would the story still stand up on its own? Is there sufficient conflict and motivation to keep the story interesting? By the end of the first chapter, the reader should know what the main conflict of the story is or at least have an inkling of what is to come.
  • Pay attention to the setting. Do you have a good feel for the setting? If the character walks from the library to the kitchen, do you actually “see” how they got there, or did they just magically appear from one room to the other without the reader understanding the layout of the house? Do you get a feel for the woods as the character walks through them on her way home? Make sure the setting is vividly described, yet don’t use a whole paragraph just to explain what a single tree looks like.
  • Watch out for too much explanation. If you have your character say, “I’m frightened,” don’t use a beat that explains it like: “I’m frightened,” she said, scared. Duh! You don’t have to TELL us she’s scared because the readers can figure it out for themselves based on what she said. .
  • Does the writer’s research show through well, or does it take up paragraphs in a row just to show off the amount of research done? A majority of everyone’s research may actually not end up in the book, but will become an underlying element that gives credence to the story.
  • Point of View (POV). Is the POV consistent, or does it hop from inside one head to another?
  • Tense: Does the writer start out in third person past tense and then suddenly switch to third person present tense in the same scene? This is a no-no.
  • Back story or flashbacks. Are these used sparingly, or do they take over a scene by taking the reader out of the present story and force them backward in time for longer than a couple paragraphs?
  • Clichés – Are these used in dialogue properly? Any cliché used in the narrative, unless in first person, needs to be rewritten in a fresh way.

If you keep this list handy when you find yourself in the position of acquiring a critique partner or joining a critique group, you won’t be in danger of getting a name like I did When I first joined. You’ll be critiquing like a pro.

If you’re interested in a critique group in your area please check out the ACFW Colorado Chapters page.

God bless you in all your critiquing endeavors.

Jeanne Marie Leach
Author * Speaker * Freelance Fiction Editor * Writing Coach