Thursday, June 21, 2012

If you don't want the answer - don't ask the question! AKA Working with Crit Partners.

By: Alex Lidell (

Recently, a new writer – we’ll call her Laura - came into a walk-in critique group I was at and wanted to share a story she wrote.  It was a beautiful idea, but the execution of the writing was raw.  After sharing a bit of praise, I pointed out a few basics that didn’t work for me in her story.  An inconsistent POV was one, I believe.

Laura was unhappy with me.  Clearly.  I stopped talking.  Perhaps I was a bit to sharp?  Other writers chimed in with similar comments.  Laura grew unhappier by the word.  Finally, she snapped at us that she likes her story just the way it is.


The problem was not Laura’s writing or her story.  It is her story after all, and a good one.  The problem is that she had come to a critique group when she should have gone to a support group or an open mic.  In other words:

Don’t ask questions to which to do not want an answer.  – And don’t ask them of people whose answer you do not want.

The day before your manuscript is due to the editor is not the time to ask a crit partner what she thinks of your changes.   Your first draft does not need to go to your copy-editor-in-the-making neighbor.   You don’t need to sound board your ideas for a new fantasy with a romance writer who dislikes magic.

In other words, know what you want and ask for THAT. 

Discuss changes with your crit partner when you still have time to change them. If it’s the day before edits are due and you just need affirmation that you did not destroy your novel, tell your partner you are looking for affirmation, not a crit.  And if she does not know the difference, don’t show the story to her that day.  Take it, instead to that copy-editor-neighbor, to catch some last moment typos.  And once your edits are in, talk to the romance writer about the romantic subplot you are playing around with for your next novel.  Are you getting the pattern?

Knowing what you need is your job.  Just getting a lot of eyes on your WIP is neither helpful to you nor fair to the beta reader. You need to explain what you need from the read and, privately, consider whether this person is capable of giving you that.  If not, skip this reader or give her another task.

My non-writer friends, for example, can tell me when the story feels slow or confusing – they cannot tell me why, and they certainly can’t tell me how to fix it.  Not in a way that’s helpful to me, anyway.  So, I skip the “why” and ask the “where”.  Where did you get confused?  Where did you get bored?  Did you remember who this character was when he re-entered the story?

So, the next time you work with a beta, be specific.  Did you feel this chapter moved the plot forward?  Does this character seem intelligent or annoying?  Could you visualize the setting - what did you see?  And remember, above all…

Don’t ask question to which you don’t want an answer!

Your turn.  Do you agree?  Disagree?  What experiences have YOU had working with Betas?

This post was by:

Alex Lidell
Dial (Penguin), Jan 10, 2013
Twitter: @alexlidell

Sixteen-year-old Renee struggles to keep up with male cadets at a grueling military academy while confronting a friend's forbidden magic and her mentor's shadowy past. 


  1. Great post, Alex! I like the idea of figuring out what you need and at what stage and then finding the right crit person for it. I've definitely shown things too soon or too late and had it shake my confidence. I tend to write the Stephen King way now--closed door for first drafts (bouncing the concept at most off of my crit buddies and agent) then let them all have at it after that.

  2. thanks for sharing your process, Amy. I am *trying* to do that, but i really do love the feedback on the early chapters

  3. I've always said that sharing your writing, regardless of the stage it's in (rough draft, published work, etc.), feels a lot like standing in the middle of the street, naked. People will point; people will judge. Get used to it. Growing thick skin is essential.

  4. Getting critiqued is difficult. Although the better you are at it, the better writer you will become. Great post, Alex.