10 Tips for Using Critiques to Improve Your Novel

by Tamera Lynn Kraft

Many writers of fiction wonder if they should have critique partners. Critiques can cause beginning writers problems, but they can also be helpful if they’re used right. Even the most experienced authors can benefit from a critique of their work, but bad critiques or using them in the wrong way can become your worst nightmare. Here are 10 tips help you benefit from critiques.

Don’t get a critique too early. Finish your first draft before you even consider getting a critique. In fact, you should write your first draft before you ever show it to someone else. There are some reasons for this. In the first draft, you are working out the story on paper. You don’t need someone telling you they don’t believe your characterizations or where your plot is going. You work those out as you discover your story. The novel evolves as you write it, and if you share it too soon, it will no longer become the story you have because other people’s opinions will affect the way the story evolves.

You can get help brainstorming during the first draft. Brainstorming is different than critiquing. When you are struggling with a plot point or have written your story into a corner, brainstorming can help. Remember that brainstorming consists of getting a lot of ideas about a certain plot plot. It doesn’t discuss how to write the novel or cover more than one plot point. Once you get a variety of ideas, one of them might spark a totally different idea to lead your story in the right direction.

Edit your own first draft. After you finish your first draft, put it in a drawer and ignore it for at least a couple of weeks. This will help your objectivity and make it easier to edit. Now do your own editing. You’ll learn your craft by laboring over your first and second drafts working them to become great. A book I recommend for this stage of the process is Self Editing for Fiction Writers. There are also a number of editing checklists free online. Do the hard work. Don’t expect others to do it for you.

Find critique partners. After you’re sure you’ve edited and rewritten the best you can, go ahead and show the story to a few people who love the genre of fiction you write. You’ll want different people in the mix. If you know a grammar expert, definitely recruit that person as one of your best resources. Also, find a couple of people who love to read but don’t necessarily write to point out where characters or plots seem unbelievable or where the reader loses interest. Last, find a couple of writers well versed in the craft who understand your voice and style of writing.

Be careful who critiques your novel. I’ve lived through a number of horror stories in my early days of writing because I chose the wrong critique partners. Once I had a group of critique partners who wrote contemporary category romance. I write intense historical fiction. It didn’t work out well. Another time, I chose a novice who though she knew everything about writing. She kept wanting me to phonetically spell out all my accents. When I wouldn’t do it, she almost had me in tears. Later, after I’d studied the craft more, I found out I was the one doing it the right way. Many times finding a good group of critiquers is trial and error. Keep working at it until you find the team that helps you the most.

Don’t Get Discouraged. When you get your critiques, don’t be discouraged by varying opinions. Remember they are opinions. Also, after you read a critique, don’t change anything right away. Let the critique set a day or two to digest the information and help you look at it in a fresh way. Sometimes a critique will be spot on, but it stings so much, we can’t see it at first. Other times, the critique partner is adding too much of her own style and would ruin your voice if you took the advise. You are the expert on your novel.

If there is something you struggle with, inform your critique partners to look for it. You may have a difficulty with setting or you’re not sure the character motivation is right. Tell your critique partners, and they may be able to help you in those areas.

Don’t let a critique partner change your voice. Take everything critique partners say into consideration, but don’t let them change you voice or your story to suit them. At some point, you may need to back away from critiques to make sure you’re writing the story your way, or you may need to find different critique partners. Do what you need to do to maintain the integrity of your story.

Get different kinds of critiques. This is where having different types of critiques helps. Sometimes you will want to tell each person what type of critique you want. Some critiquers will look for holes in plot or character motivations. Others will notice the “rules” for writing and let you know when you’re head hopping or when you haven’t resisted the urge to explain. Some are sticklers for word choice and will alert you when you have worded something clumsily. The last kind of critique you want before you submit your manuscript is a beta read. A beta reader will look for punctuation, spelling errors, repeated words, weak verbs, etc, and will let you know if your character changed eye color or shrug too many times. Even if you don’t get the other critiques, every author needs a beta reader.

 Don’t get too many critiques. More than ten is excessive. You probably don’t even want that many. If you have too many opinions about your work, you might be tempted to second-guess yourself. It’s your story. Always remember that.

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