A GOOD Critic

I’d like to start this blog with a short, rather funny story. A long time ago I had a friend, Tom. Tom had just purchased a crumbling old Victorian in a not-so-nice part of town; he and his wife were beginning that hard process of returning the lovely old row house to its original glory. It was a time in Pittsburgh where everyone was doing it, young yuppie couples wanted to live closer to the city and turn the North Side into a beautiful community. Eventually, they accomplished just that, some refurbishing house after house, flipping properties and moving from block to block in their determination. It gave them a sense of accomplishment and they became experts in the Victorian era in what was once known as Allegheny City. Tom’s house was in an area called the Mexican War Streets and it was … shall we say … a rather shaky place to live at the time.   

One day Tom was walking home and he noticed a small, elderly man in rags struggling to carry a huge, heavy cardboard box. Being the good guy he is, Tom kindly offered to help and took the box from the man’s hands. As they chatted my friend glanced into the box only to see his own things! An antique dome clock, his wife’s jewelry box, several expensive items he’d planned to decorate his new home with when it was finished. Needless to say, poor Tom was helping that man rob his own house! It all turned out fine. With a few words the dude ran like the thief he was and Tom managed to keep his treasures. It was hysterical, since things like that always seemed to happen to Tom. He was that kind of guy. 

Remembering this story, I suddenly noticed the similarities and contradictions between that situation and the fears a lot of new writers have; that terror that someone, somewhere is planning to steal your ideas, your writing, all your hard work. Unlike Tom who without thinking offered a hand to a struggling old man, many new writers are so busy holding their creative efforts close to the chest, they’re afraid to let anyone look at it. I see this a lot. I belong to several critique groups and have created a few too. The fear of being stolen from is as bad as Tom’s total oblivious nature. 

Yes, your work is your work, it’s your heart and soul and anyone who’s written ten consecutive sentences can understand the blood sweat and tears that goes into doing it. It is a courageous thing to let it out there. But more than that, IT’S A VITAL THING TOO. 

See, we all need critics. We need people to view our writing and tell us if we’ve actually told the story we think we’ve told. We need readers to be swept into the emotions of our work and writers to catch every misspelled word or misplaced comma.  We NEED critics. 

Many writers are afraid of critics. Having been a chef, I can tell you it can be an even worse experience when a critic tosses a plate of food at you then a fifty page excerpt. It’s messier, but hurts all the same. It isn’t so much a fear of having our writing read and hated. I honestly believe that what all writers really fear is facing the wrong critic. 

Here are the facts. 

1)      No one wants to steal your ideas. Everyone thinks their ideas are much better than yours so open your clenched fists and get some good critique.

2)      You need constructive critiques, not cruel criticism; support, not coddling; direction, not roadblocks. You’re an intelligent human being, after all you wrote a book. So, when you feel too abused or too pampered, it’s time to either restructure the relationship with your critic, or find a new one.

3)      Lay the groundrules up front for a good critic/writer experience. Tell them what you’re looking for, what you want them to focus on. Then listen carefully when they point out a different area they may have noticed. It’s like a mini marriage, you gotta have trust. They want to be listened to and you want to have a say.

4)      Try several critics. Join several critique groups. Play the field. After all, it may take a while to find the right match. Once you find it, whether it’s one or two critics, stick with them.

5)      Finally, it’s your book, not anyone else’s. Pay attention to the critiques and take them to heart but always … ALWAYS … remember it’s your decision to use the suggestions or not. 

My friend Tom was a good, kind and trusting man and karma stepped in to protect him that day. As writers we too must trust karma. There’s a yin for every yang, a bun for ever burger, and a critic for every writer. Open and trust and see how lucky you can get. 

In the meantime, remember to copyright your work and lock your doors.

About Deborah Riley-Magnus

Deborah Riley-Magnus is an author and an Author Success Coach. She has a twenty-seven year professional background in marketing, advertising, and public relations as a writer for print, television, and radio. She writes fiction and non-fiction. Since 2010, she had two novels released. In 2013 her nonfiction, Finding Author Success (Second Edition), and Cross Marketing Magic for Authors were released. Her newest book, Write Brain/Left Brain, focuses on bridging the gap between the creative writer and the marketing author. Deborah produces several pieces monthly for various websites and online publications. She writes an author industry blog and teaches online and live workshops as The Author Success Coach. She belongs to several writing and professional organizations. Deborah has lived on both the east and west coast of the United States and has traveled the country widely. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and recently returned after living in Los Angeles, California for several years. View all posts by Deborah Riley-Magnus

17 responses to “A GOOD Critic

  • Elspeth Antonelli

    Very sage advice. It’s always good to have a non-involved eye look at your work. I shall try to remember this when I’m ready to throw my WIP against a wall.

  • Deborah Riley-Magnus

    I promise, with the right kind of critique, you won’t be throwing anything anywhere. It will help, honest.

  • Rob Charron

    Hi 🙂
    Thanks for a fun & wise blog post.
    A fresh look at one’s writing is helpful – if it is the RIGHT set of eyes, not, say, one’s mother, or sister, or father, etc, etc.
    Finding the right critique partner is a great thing …… I’m still lookin’.
    All the best,
    twitter: @RKCharron

  • sulci

    Don’t think I have to involve karma in my carnage. I think my work is abstruse (solipsistic?) enough to perform the equivalent of banks who mark their currency notes in an invisible dye that will explode and stain the notes indelibly if they fall into the wrong hands…

    Critics? Bring ’em on I say.

    One of my 11 year old twins is showing his friends my guerilla lit videos and has pronounced me a “Lege” (short for legend) which apart from being very flattering, he says is due not to my writing but to my acting abilities. Sigh…

    • Deborah Riley-Magnus

      But you ARE “LEGE” Those boys know. And I agree, your acting in the YouTube vids is award winning (LOL)!

      Your work deserves an extremely thoughtful critic, one who can envision where you’re going and what your saying and see it in living color. I think people who don’t get your work are simply not paying attention. To discount a writer like you is to be blind.

      (Readers, I’m a major fan of Sulci’s – Marc Nash – work. To read and see more, go to http://sulcicollective.blogspot.com/ )

  • Abby

    Found you through Christine Fonseca.

    Great post! My crit buddies are some of my favorite people and without them, my ms wouldn’t even have a chance.

  • Ray Garton

    Interesting. I always strongly encourage young writers to avoid critique groups because they end up writing for the people in those groups, and because languishing in critique groups and workshops is a good way to avoid submission and publication. It creates a false sense of comfort and accomplishment. But that’s just me.

    • Deborah Riley-Magnus

      Good points all. But writing and getting published certainly isn’t a “comfort” activity and I think we often need to stick a pin in the baloon, get a big noise and wake ourselves up. Mainly, I encourage writers to seek a good critic because it shakes things up and shines the light on their work from a different angle; hopefully one that leads the way to submissions and publication.

      Thanks for the comment, Ray!

      • Ray Garton

        Oh, yes, I agree. But “a good critic” is very different from critique groups. I have a couple of people I always show my work to first because I know they’ll be honest. When you’re in a group, it’s different. I’ve seen writers fall into the trap of trying to please the group. And pleasing everyone, as Bill Cosby pointed out, doesn’t work. I think criticism is essential, and it’s important to develop a thick skin and be able to listen to criticism. The thick skin is very hard to create for a lot of writers. But critique groups are too many cooks in the kitchen. I didn’t say writing and getting published are “comfort” activities — I said critique groups provided a false sense of comfort and accomplishment. I didn’t get where I am by being comfortable, but I didn’t do it by spending time in critique groups, either.

  • frankmundo

    I think critique groups are important because our friends and family, as great as they are, they really don’t tend to share their true feelings because they us and want to support us. It’s good to have a group of people who you trust that help you shape your ms, not write it. Thanks for the post. I added you to my blogroll.

  • Patricia Stoltey

    This is excellent advice, Deborah. In my opinion, the more feedback we receive, the better. It makes us think.

  • mohappy

    Deb, you’ve made good points, especially #2. Being the sensitive writer that I am, one of the reasons I joined my critique group was to “thicken my skin.” After all, if I can’t take the critiques and comments in a small group, how will I take them from agents and publishers? Thanks to my group, I have grown accustomed to other people reviewing my work, and have learned to use their input to strengthen and enhance my words.


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