Giving Critique to Others

Today I will be interviewing author and book critic, Sandra Dallas, for a post on Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog. The interview will be published on Friday. Ms. Dallas has several books in print and impressive awards won. She used to be a bureau chief for Business Week. Her book reviews often appear in the Denver Post. The focus for our interview will be about writing book reviews. This also made me think about how I review work, and so I thought I’d share my process with you.

Critique notes on my latest chapter

Group polishing efforts by my critique friends


You may wonder why I don’t tend to write reviews for Goodreads or Amazon etc. To me, these public forums are where you can build a reputation for critiquing. Unfortunately, because I’d like to be honest when I review work, I wouldn’t give a lot of my friends the five stars they want and need.  I would reserve such high praise for books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jaws, or Gone With the Wind. I gave a friend three stars once, and I think I really hurt her feelings.  As my mom used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” So, I don’t tend to review books publicly.

Privately, I can be more open with my writing friends. Here’s how it works:


When I started writing, seriously writing, I was in my twenties, and majoring in journalism or Mass Comm in college.  I wrote for each of the university newspapers where I attended and typed out assignments with a wonderful electric typewriter one of my family members gave me for a high school graduation present.  Those were the days!  But while everything I wrote was published (the papers were desperate to fill their columns), little editing was done, and no rewrites were required. Kind of like blog posting today.  This isn’t the way to improve writing.

When I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, more than ten years ago, I was certain that everyone would be impressed with my writing and encourage me to go straight to the publisher with the next Great American Novel . . . WRONG!

I think I cried (well, at least sniffled) on my first reviews, and several times since. But with the tears came greater and greater knowledge of how writing works. Lesson: don’t write in a vacuum. Feedback is so important if you want to get publishable work done.  My friends (and yes, I consider my critique group full of friends) taught me grammar, punctuation, story structure, character building and so much more, all through the gentle prodding and questions about my work. I would not be publishable without them.  Here are some other lessons about reviewing others’ work they taught me:


Oh yes, there are terrible submissions out there, but there are no reasons or excuses for being rude to a writer.  So, when I review another’s work, I start by looking for something good to say. Even if you can only say that the page was well laid out, find the good.  It’s easier than you think (unless the dog just barfed on your carpet, you’ve had a fight with one of your loved ones, and dinner got burnt.  On those kind of days you may want to keep your karma home).


This one is trickier. The way to avoid hurting the author more than you have to, is to avoid the words “you should.” Instead of saying “You need to work on your attributions,” I try to phrase the criticism more like, “Josie seems like a good character. What if when she talks, you were to put a period at the end of her words, and then write a sentence about what Josie is doing while she talks?” It may take a little longer, but the feelings saved are well worthwhile.


This is the word I write on the reviews I do. “Challenges” to me indicates that the author may have some opportunity to polish work without actually saying “there’s a problem.” A challenge is an invitation, a problem is a condemnation. At least this is so for me.

And I try to avoid writing out more than three or four challenges.  In football, when a better team crushes their opponent, it’s called “piling on” and the team that does that is not necessarily thought well of.  Same is true in writing.  You can find fault just about everywhere you want to find it, but are you doing anyone any good, by pointing out every flaw?


Writers tend to have fragile souls. We pour out our emotions with bravery onto the page. Very therapeutic at times.  But when others see your work and comment on it, it’s like standing naked in front of a crowd. No need to embarrass a writer by only pointing out the flaws in their stories and emotions.  End on a note about them as a writer.  Things like, “I see a lot of talent in you,” or “your work shows great promise,” are seldom anything close to a lie, and helps your author walk away saving a little self-dignity.

What about you?  What’s your favorite tip on reviewing others’ works?


I’ll be taking a little break next week for a short summer vacation, and will return Wednesday, July 9th.  Thank you for hanging in with me all these Wednesdays, and I’ll talk with you again soon.

Ouch! Dealing With The Tough Criticism

Last night I went to critique group with a very short chapter to read aloud. It wasn’t my best effort, but technically, I thought it worked.

Boy, did I think wrong!  I mean, talk about your blunt criticism. Plenty of not-ready-for-prime-time feedback there. It was enough to make me drive home with an angry headache and the determination to blow off my group forever–well, at least until next week.

So how do you handle critiques that don’t go your way?  Should you crawl into a hole of embarrassment and never show your face again?  Should you cry and stomp your feet?  Should you rip back at those people who are “only trying to help?”

Okay, so I didn’t sleep so well after that.  I’ve been up since two-thirty or three, playing Sudoku and licking my wounds.  Now it’s time to get back to being a pro about my work.


I have to realize that not everything I write has a golden touch.  Hard to believe, I know,  but true.  Even Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been known to produce the occasional “oops.” I’m allowed a bad night at the keyboard.

But, I also have to believe that when I receive opinions from others, those are simply other people’s knee jerk reactions to my work, not carved stone tablets. And one thing I’ve noticed is that if my first critic is harsh, the rest of the group tends to pile on.  That’s why our group’s rule is to SAY SOMETHING NICE before ripping into the person you’re reviewing.  This may not have happened, but that was my critic’s problem, not mine.

The key is that if multiple critics focus in on the same challenge points, there’s where you start looking to improve.


One of the best things about having others read your work, is that it allows you to step back and see it from a reader’s perspective.  And when you have three, four, or five other sets of eyes on your work, you’re definitely going to get some very different perspectives.

Last night, my story was challenged on two levels: the pages had “no conflict”–an absolute no-no in story telling–and my main character–my Daisy, for heaven’s sake!–was too wimpy, not loyal enough to Gabe, and a doggone victim! Ouch, ouch, double ouch.


After the sting wears off, I try to step into my critics’ shoes.  At this point, I allow myself to agree and disagree with the comments, and think through how I might adjust a chapter.

Was there truly no conflict?  The conflict was there, but so soft and internal that it made for dull reading.  Do I have to have a flaming argument to make the point?  No.  I was using this chapter to set up Daisy and Gabe for an explosive disagreement a few pages down the road.  However, if I don’t shove those two into battle on these pages, then I can’t allow Daisy to wimp out entirely.  Maybe she can snap at others around her, trying to diffuse her own anger. Or  maybe she does confront Gabe, but in a dump-the-guilt-on-you kind of way.

Was Daisy too wimpy? Yes.  I saw that immediately after, of course, it was pointed out to me. I can’t have her hide from the situation, even though she may want to.  Daisy definitely needs backbone surgery in those pages.

Should Daisy be more loyal to Gabe? Here lots of people will disagree with me, but I think these days, women are allowed to have thoughts about other men, even when they’re in a committed relationship. It may be fun to become all consumed with love, but that’s for junior high school and cheesy made-for-TV movies.  You can love and be loyal to one man, but you can’t ask your eyes to stop working.

One of my critique friends is writing a romance.  Her hero and heroine always seem to have eyes for no one else, so their internal conflicts tend to be more along the lines of “am I good enough for this other person, or will the guilt of my past life come in and stop all this fun I want to have?”  Sorry, but as a grown-up, I like to have a more exciting internal conflicts–do I want creme brulee or will I stick with an ice-cream sundae?  What’s a woman to choose?


Just like with everything else in life, your attitude determines how you’ll grow from an experience.  If you can’t handle the occasional off night, then maybe writing isn’t for you.  Me? I’m going to treat myself to a bunch of sweets today for having earned a bad critique, and jump right back into writing.  I can do this!

Now it’s your turn.  How do you deal with harsh criticism?  How do you grow from the experience?

Write well, my friend, but if you don’t, at least have fun with your words.