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Critiquing: Why?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Maybe the question of why to get into a critique group should have been the first question I tackled, but is, nevertheless, an important part of this discussion. Before I ever got hooked up with my first two critique partners, I was scared of the prospect of letting someone else read my writing and point out all of my mistakes. I wouldn’t even let my grandmother or mother mark grammatical corrections when I first started letting them read my stuff.

Then I entered my first writing contest.

Well, let me go a little further back. As I’ve mentioned many times, I attended my first writing conference in 2001, the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference at Ridgecrest, an early 30th birthday present to me from my parents. The fact that I was excited to go spend four or five days surrounded by strangers, not to mention sleeping in a hard bed away from home, told me this was going to be an important milestone in my life. And it was. It was the first time I’d ever heard about contests for unpublished authors or “critique partners.” It was also the first time that I sat down and read aloud my writing to people I barely knew and received some feedback from others who knew what they were talking about. They’re also the ones who encouraged me to join what was then known as American Christian Romance Writers (which grew to encompass all fiction genres in 2004 as American Christian Fiction Writers).

When ACRW announced the first annual conference would take place in October 2002, and along with it a contest for unpublished authors, I was excited about the conference—to meet face-to-face all the ladies I was getting to know through e-mail—but didn’t give the contest a second thought. I’d started working on what would be my first completed manuscript, What Matters Most, but had barely worked up the nerve to print the first half of it to give to my mom and grandmother for Christmas. As the deadline grew closer, I couldn’t get the contest out of my mind. Finally, on the day which the package had to be postmarked, I made the decision to enter the ACRW Noble Theme contest. (Thank goodness for a 24-hour post office!) I expected to feel sick when I handed “my baby” over to the postal worker. But instead, I was elated. And I turned out to be an honorable mention finalist, too!

In 2003, I entered the first chapters of The Best Laid Plans, which I’d finished shortly after the 2002 conference, and Love Remains my work in progress at that time. Neither finaled, and I got some pretty strong critical feedback on them—and I realized that, after the initial shock and feeling of despair wore off, I needed to find some critique partners if I ever wanted to improve my writing. By the time I arrived at the 2003 ACRW conference in Houston, I had already started working on Happy Endings, Inc., and God blessed me by putting me together with two of the most wonderful women I’ve ever had the honor to know, Marci Burke and Cindy Woodsmall. Although we had each considered signing up to be put in an “official” ACRW critique group, the three of us decided to form our own. What followed was a year of discovery, of learning, of growing as writers. (Cindy’s first book comes out TOMORROW! Please buy it: When the Heart Cries.)

Not only did my writing improve by leaps and bounds as I worked with Cindy and Marci, but I learned several important lessons.

Critiquing helps us look at our own writing with objectivity. By objectively critiquing someone else’s work, we learn how to look at our own work through the eyes of a critiquer, and not as a “Mama” or “Papa” so proud of our “baby.” Then, once we get into the revision process, we are able to make changes or cuts without feeling like we’re cutting off an arm. The revision process can be looked at more like getting a manicure, pedicure, and haircut—yes, we’re losing bits and pieces of ourselves, but will look and feel so much the better for it afterward. Then, once the manuscript is sold, it will make working with an editor that much easier—we already know how to receive criticism of our work, as well as make revisions to it.

Critiquing clarifies our writing. By receiving feedback from multiple critiquers, we learn whether or not we are communicating our story the way we want to. If my critique partners just don’t get a passage I’ve written set aboard ship where my characters are using language appropriate for the setting and time period, although I love it because I know it’s authentic for the way they would have talked because of the research I’ve painstakingly done, it doesn’t enhance my story—in fact, it detracts from it. That doesn’t mean I need to get rid of the colorful, period-appropriate terminology, it just means I need to delve deeper in the narrative surrounding the dialogue to show actions that will explain through context what they’re talking about. It makes my story more enjoyable for my readers and enhances my skills as a writer.

Critiquing makes us better writers. In the last three years, I have worked with ten different critique partners (mostly because of having different partners each semester at grad school), each with different skill levels and talents for writing from my own. Marci helped me bring out the personalities of my characters. Cindy helped me with developing scenes that would reveal the characters without taking away from the plot. Kim helped bring out the humor. Penny made me see how to bring out the underlying tension and sensuality. Melissa helped me see how to keep my writing historically authentic while also writing it so a modern reader with no background in the era could understand and enjoy it. In critiquing their works, I’ve learned deep POV, showing rather than telling, mounting tension, plot movement, amping up the suspense, and much more, by researching these subjects so I could give constructive feedback.

Writing is a constant act of making choices. And as our creativity leads us down certain paths, having a voice of reason, someone to question our choices, or to cheer us along the way and make us stronger is one of the most important tools a writer can acquire.

  1. Kelly Klepfer permalink
    Tuesday, September 19, 2006 10:07 am

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Sorry to hear that you have to deal with crazy drivers, too.

    Maybe I’ll meet you in Dallas.

    Have a great one, I’ll have to visit your blog again.


  2. Patricia permalink
    Tuesday, September 19, 2006 5:44 pm

    Thanks for the blog visit and encouraging words. I am going to print out your critique info–very good stuff. Hope to see you in Dallas.



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