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October 29, 2013


Elle Rush

Great post, great story and great truth. Also, great quick thinking on your part.

Diane Davis

Oh, Donna....so very true. And there is a certain 'book club' in our area that I hope reads this. Because, first off, they are a book club, not a critique group. They need to know the difference. And second, because they need to learn that just because someone is not personally in the room with them, but on the phone instead, does not give them license to draw out their claws.

They have forgotten about humanity and humility (their own).

Thanks for this dead on posting!

Sandra Parshall

I have wonderful critique partners now, but I've had some doozies in the past. Choosing a crit group should be done carefully, with a lot of thought on both sides, and every group should have firm rules about the way members approach each other's work. This post should be required reading.


Great piece and it's so true. Some forget that a person is behind a story.

Sarah H

Every time I read about critique etiquette I think of a murder mystery where the villain likes to write viciously harsh reviews on Amazon in her spare time.

I would have loved to have seen the backtracking students, though.


Great post Donna. And so true.

This is why I only do positive reviews on my blog. I just am not in the business of trashing someone else's work, especially after publication. I'd rather just move on from the books I didn't like and let others make their own opinions.

Critique groups have to be very safe places where honest feedback is also encouraging feedback. I don't think anyone has written a perfect "something" the first time. Writing is about Re-writing, plain and simple.

Mark Terry

A terrific post. Sometimes I'm hired to edit and/or critique unpublished novelists' manuscripts. It can be a bit of a complicated situation. I understand that at many levels what an unpublished novelist wants to hear is, "Wow, this was fantastic! Don't change a word. Good job." There's very little likelihood of that being true, no matter how good it is. At the same time, particularly in a paying situation, they're coughing up money for me to be honest with them. It's broaching the criticism in a kind way, in a constructive way, and making sure that there are things to praise about the manuscript that make it do-able.

Donna Andrews

Diane, precisely. And I confess, I was reminded of my experience in Theroux's class by the experience Sandy Parshall recently blogged about over at Poe's Deadly Daughters:

Sandy, I have also had mostly good critique partners. Though I still remember one meeting where one of the group members threw the manuscript of one of my books on the table and announced that she hadn't laughed once. That book, in substantially the same form, went on to win a Lefty. And that meeting was one of the last of that critique group, because I and most of the other members realized that something other than critique was going on.

And yes, Kristopher and Mark, as reviewers and developmental editors it's so important to realize that you're not just evaluating words. You're holding a little piece of the writer's heart in your hands. Which doesn't mean you should praise something terrible or allow shortcomings to slip past. But so much depends on how you do your work. I did book reviews for an online publication briefly, quite a while ago--before I was published, in fact--and quickly realized it wasn't for me.

Kaye Barley

What a Great Post!!!!!!!!

Elaine Viets

Good post, Donna. I've seen some very cruel "critiques" in groups that fly under the flag of honesty. They're just mean.

Denise Spillane

Loved this story. I think we all need to learn critique with kindness or not at all. I remember one vicious critique out of about 30 and how I cried on the plane ride home from that class. It was only one but still after 20 years is hurtful. I am in Toastmasters where we learn to evaluate positively. Great story and lesson.

Lynn Farris

My son is a coach. He works with children. He uses what he calls an oreo critique. He finds something positive to say, then discusses something they need to improve, then ends up with something positive. Again with children he tries to focus on the single most important thing they need to improve.

As adults, I think we can handle a little more, But I try to remember to always comment on the positive as well.

Michele Drier

First, I didn't even get to the critique part...Paul Theroux? PAUL THEROUX? How incredibly cool! Love his fiction and addicted to his travel books. I truly did get to the critique part and I agree. It's so easy today to just slam things. Great post.

Marcia Talley

Great post, Donna! I have been fortunately in my critique group; we've been together since 1996 giving each other "tough love."

You and I shared another wonderful teacher, John Casey, who was my mentor at the Sewanee Writers Conference.


This is wonderful Donna. You've explained exactly why I don't post negative reviews.

Cathryn Cade


Had the same thing happen, with a twist. My RWA chapter had a visiting writing expert, and some of us submitted a few pages for the group to critique.

When mine went up on the big screen, the comments turned patronizing and mean. I was still unpublished, so soaked it all in! It soon transpired, however, that the toughest critics DID NOT REALIZE the writer was in the room! They weren't cruel women, just assumed they had that degree of separation.

It became deathly quiet when I raised my hand as the author. Then the positives began to fly.

I have often looked back on that experience when critiquing work for chapter contests.

Somewhere, that writer is in the room. And it's all subjective, anyway.

Cathryn Cade

Bronwen Evans

I think the word is 'constructive' criticism. That's what we should give. It's fine to say you don't like something and why in a constructive way. But also we have to realise it isn't one person's opinion we should necessarily listen to - it's a trend we are looking for. That is why a group of beta readers is who I listen to and take note. If they all say the heroine is selfish, I better listen. We have all known editors and agents who turned a story down because they didn't like it, yet the book went on to be a big seller. I can recognise a great story and good writing even when I don't enjoy the story. We are individuals and we won't all like the same thing. We should celebrate that.


Great story and great reminder of how to treat people!

A. H. De Carrasco

Hooray! That and while driving...

Cherie Marks

Such an excellent and timely topic with Goodreads issues of late. I only meant to skim, but read the entire blogpost and looked for the share buttons. Thank you for posting.

Storyteller Mary

Timely reminder!
I used to tell students, before peer editing, of an saying I once heard: One does not remove a fly from a friend's head with an ax. Gentle, kind . . . but do tell them of problems, just as a friend would tell you if there's spinach on your teeth.

Donna Andrews

Marcia, I ran into John Casey at the Library of Virgina Awards last year. We were both up for awards--different ones. At one point, when they herded all the nominees up onto the stage for a group photo, I asked him how many of us had been his pupils at one time or another. We figured out it was about a third of us.

I definitely lucked on with writing professors at UVa.

Lynette Sofras

What a wonderful post. I just want to say thank you, so very true.

Mysti Berry

How lovely, thank you for sharing that story!

A screenwriting mentor of mine taught us to always find at least three genuinely good things about the work we were reading, and mention them before the the critique. Not just to put the critique-ee into a positive and receptive state of mind, but to ensure we were doing our due diligence on the work, actually thinking about what worked and what was less successful, and why.

And forbid the phrases "I liked" or "I hated." They're irrelevant to whether various aspects of the story are successful or not.

Marilyn Mreredith

Loved the story and do agree wholeheartedly. It is possible to do great critiquing without injuring the author. Frankly, when I go to my critique group I'd be disappointed if they didn't tell me what was wrong--I consider the members my first editor.

Norma Huss

My first critiquing was done in a live group, so I learned this lesson quite early. I remember one man giving a scathing beating (word-wise) to another. (Love the oreo critique idea.)

Theresa Freese

It is good to start with specific goals for critiques, the classes I took had a problem solving approach. Discuss what works and why, and what doesn't work and how to fix it. It helped to learn from other's mistakes as well as our own mistakes. Keeping an editing mindset that both the author and the person doing the critique want the work to be better also helps.
When I worked as a Tech Writer, it was way better to have a co-worker point out a problem than a customer!

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