Plotting, Pantsing, and Outlining

For those who don’t know, plotters typically have a very well-developed outline before they start writing their alpha drafts. Pantsers “write by the seats of their pants.” They don’t know where the story is going until they write it. There are a tremendous number of traditionally-published, famous pantsers and an equally large number of plotters. Sometimes they’re called ‘architects’ and gardeners, and sometimes ‘pantsers’ are called ‘discoverers.’ Use the wording that’s right for you.

Plotters: JK Rowling, John Grisham, Ada Palmer

Pantsers: Stephen King, Patricia Briggs, Margaret Atwood

You can transition from one to the other. Chuck Wendig did.

A large number of novice writers start out as pantsers because they don’t know anything about writing stories, so they just write a story. Eventually they learn about outlines and then most try to outline. This is the point where you discover if you’re a plotter or a pantser. If you’re a plotter, outlining will feel good and fairly natural. If you’re a pantser, outlining may feel stifling, claustrophobic, boring, frustrating, or tiring. Plotters need to know where they’re going and what’s going to happen before they feel comfortable writing — when they try to “pants” their writing, they peter out because they have no roadmap for what’s ahead. Pantsers need the thrill of the unknown. Once they know the story, they lose interest in it and move on.

All that said, pantsers do use basic outlines. You are not a “plantser” if you use index cards or short notes. In fact, the reason that famous published pantsers do produce books in fairly short order is because they understand story structure and they steer by that. I’m a pantser, and I’m going to describe my method of faux-outlining. More specific information on story structure can be found here.

The first thing I do is figure out how long I want my novel to be. I typically try for 80,000 words, which is your typical 300 page novel. If I was writing an epic fantasy, I’d be aiming for 120,000 words. A thriller would max out at 80,000 and might be 70,000 instead. Know the word count for your genre and plan accordingly. More info can be found here.

Second, I develop my characters. Who is going to be in this story, and what is this story basically about? This is not a genre thing. Say you’re writing a romance. Is your romance about a property developer at odds with the historical preservation society? If you’re writing a fantasy, is the story about a kid who wants to become a wizard? Or a magical object that changes the world? Etc. Figure out what your story is about and create your characters, including your antagonist. More information on that can be found here.

Third, in most novels there are about seven major events, with the last event happening right before the end of the story. The events need to be spaced out evenly or your story will lag and your middle will sag. I take out a piece of paper, open a doc, get out index cards, or whatever and I write down what these events might be. My characters are going to have inner struggles, interpersonal struggles, and struggles between themselves and the antagonist(s) and or villain(s), so I use those seven major events to detail those struggles. I don’t do “Twist 1: Struggle between protagonist and self.* Twist 2: struggle between protag and best friend.” You can layer those. Maybe Twist 1 is a struggle between the protag and himself, which manifests as a fight between him and his best friend. The more you can layer into your twists, the better your book will be.

So I get a general, basic idea of what’s going to happen in those sections. My twists list usually looks something like this:

Twist 1: Joana finds Bryan.

Twist 2: Joana sets off to train Bryan.

Twist 7: They kill the vampire.

As you can see, that isn’t really an outline. It’s more like a list of events. I know a lot about the characters, so I don’t really need to write down the interpersonal stuff. I know it’s there. I’ve found that if I write down much more than 1-2 simple sentences about my twists, I end up trying to railroad my characters into those events and they resist.

When I go to write, I separate out my books into equal chunks of about 9000 words. For the chunks I’m working on, I will typically figure out how to get from the twist I just passed to the next twist. Or from the beginning to Twist 1. I lay out anywhere from three to six index cards for scenes,** and then I write 1-2 sentences about what might happen in that scene. Again, if I do any more than that, I lose the story. And then I write.

Again, this isn’t outlining. I had the pleasure of meeting Ada Palmer at GenCon 49. She was on a panel about this subject, and she showed us her outline. It’s extremely detailed and complicated. She knows precisely what is going to happen during every scene in her story–and an 80k novel typically has around 64 scenes. I have no real idea what’s going to happen in my scenes at all. Important details just come to me as I write.

For example, in my Lisette novel, I knew Lisette was going to meet Diego, but I had no idea that Lisette and Diego were going to be lovers until I wrote that she woke up in bed next to him. I knew that Lisette was going to know Florencia, but I had no idea they’d be friends until they were. I knew I had to introduce other, minor characters, but I had no idea that one of them would be engaged in a power struggle against Florencia, the leader, until he was. And that power struggle became a significant subplot. That’s pantsing. A plotter would have planned all these things out before writing Word 1.

I believe that most successful, published pantsers understand story beats and story structure, at least on an instinctive level, and keep those in mind while they write. The ones who write for a living have this engrained in their heads, so it’s much simpler and easier for them to execute. With a little knowledge and some practice, you can do that while you pants your way through your story as well.


*All of these twists have specific names, which you can learn here.

** For more on scenes, read this.

Why your first book will probably never be published

Most of the people I work with don’t believe their prose is deathless, which is good, but there’s a trap that a lot–and I mean a lot–of new writers fall into. It’s called “I have to make my first novel work.” If you’re typical, you either have already or will at some point fall into this trap too.

Many of the novice writers I know (and I say this with affection and respect; no one is bad, or should be mocked or made to feel inferior for this) are spending a tremendous amount of time trying to make their first novels work. They must have this first novel published. They must tell this story. This is their story. It’s a part of them, and they need to share it with the world. It’s a visceral need; they’re not being melodramatic and they don’t think the world can’t live without this book. It’s more like a compulsion. I fell into that trap and worked on my first novel for something like three years before I put it in a drawer (code for “stopped working on it”). I know people who stuck with their first novel for quite a bit longer than that.

One of the reasons writers obsess about their first novels is that, often, the writer is using pieces of his life, past experiences, and his own personality in the story. This is not precisely like writing a Mary Sue character, which is a character that’s too good and perfect to be true. Although most characters should be characters you at least understand and empathize with, if you base your characters too much on yourself, you’re going to have real difficulty with your plot, your theme, applying your critiques, or some other vital part of your book because you will not be able to make the necessary changes needed to make your book work. Also, you’ll never develop the skill to write any other characters, and every book you ever write will feel like the one that came before.

A book is fundamentally not about real life. Life does not work like fiction. Stories have structure that doesn’t exist in real life, which is why those movies are all “based on” true stories, instead of being actual true stories. Your characters and plot generate each other, and that means sometimes your characters aren’t going to be able to have the ending or results you want when you plot out your book. 

Books must be neat and tidy, with loose ends all wrapped up, and they should leave the reader with a sense that everything that happened in the story is understandable. They must have resolution. Life isn’t like that. In life, we often experience things that make no sense, that shouldn’t have happened, and that don’t lead to neat conclusions that make us feel satisfied. If books were like life, the typical reader would throw them across the room in frustration.

If you try to force your characters, which you can’t change because changing them would be like betraying yourself, into a plot which you’re also not willing to change because it’s how you wish your situation had turned out, then your story will fail. Readers will say, “it made no sense.” It will have fundamental flaws. If you don’t understand how this could happen, read the articles on structure, character, and plot, then come back and re-read this. (Note to current readers: these articles don’t exist yet.)

In addition to all that, most novice writers–and many published ones!–have no idea how story structure works. (Again, all due respect and affection. This is not their fault. I had no idea story structure existed until I stumbled across it by accident and began to study it. They certainly don’t cover it in school.*) This is because storytelling is fundamental to our species. It is an absolute necessity to tell and hear stories. It probably evolved with language well over 100,000 years ago, and might have evolved in one of our evolutionary ancestors before it got to us. How did Brud kill the rhinoceros, and can Din do it too? Well, here’s how it happened. How did Mar manage to find the new cave? Here’s the story. Both directions and instructions can be turned into stories, and explaining how we feel and why can be told as stories as well. Educating the young can certainly be done in story form. In fact, children learn best from songs and stories.

So we read lots of stories and we see lots of stories and we hear lots of stories. Our entire existences are based on stories, to the point where we can begin to believe narratives that don’t match reality. (Climate change deniers are a good example of this. They’re not crazy, but they believe things that aren’t true.) Then we go to write them, and we usually manage to more or less hit the mark and possibly even get published if we’re lucky enough, sensitive enough, and pay close enough attention to our critique partners. The problem is, writers like that are fumbling their way to success. They don’t know what they’re doing, so they can’t replicate it.

I recently watched a vlog episode in which a traditionally published writer was struggling with outlining her thriller. She’s a pantser and is trying the outline process for the first time. And as I was listening to her talk about her problems, I realized that she didn’t know anything about story structure. Here’s this successful, educated, talented, helpful person who is trying to help other people and trying to explain her process and trying to write a good book, but who is missing some fundamental pieces of the process. She even bought a book about story structure, but she’s missing how character relates to story and that’s what’s giving her the trouble. I wanted to say something, but the video is many, many months old and she probably figured it out by now.

If she, published as she is, didn’t know, how can anyone be expected to know? How can New Writer know? Now I’m betting this traditional publisher has written other books for the drawer and that her first published book wasn’t her first novel. If it was, I’m betting that she didn’t base her characters, their back stories, or how their stories should end on her own life and experiences. I don’t know these things, but I’m betting this is so.

When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t base my characters on myself, though I parceled out to them traits that I do have. I didn’t do any wish fulfillment endings. I didn’t even use my own past experiences as material. In fact, my first novel was the overly-developed back story for a character I wrote for the Dresden Files FATE role playing game. (They do a really awesome character generation process that writers could easily adapt for novels.) I wrote a paragraph for my character’s background, then expanded that to twelve pages because I wanted to understand what made her tick. Then I expanded that to 75 pages, and then I expanded that to a 120,000 word novel. At that point I realized I’d actually written a novel and that, with a little world-building work, I could write it as an original novel and even publish it. I did that, and pretty soon I had a novel that was not set in the Dresden Files world.

My problem was that, in the DF role playing game, she was 22 years old. In the original novel, she was 17. I based everything on how I wanted the story to end and on the traits I’d given her in the game, so it was incredibly difficult for me to deviate from that. I remember having a series of talks with myself about how I had to let go of the role playing game character and give the original world character a different ending in order to make the story work. But that turned out to be extraordinarily hard. The story kept wanting to go in the wrong direction because I was subconsciously forcing it there. Ultimately I got about 70% of the way through my fifth alpha rewrite, realized my character motivations didn’t match the plot (which meant they had no reason for doing what they were doing), and knew that if I didn’t put the story in a drawer for at least a little while, I’d never ‘lose’ enough of the characters to make the fundamental changes they needed for the story to work properly. With great reluctance and a sense of loss I put the story away and wrote a different novel.

Doing that probably saved my writing career, which hasn’t even really taken off yet. What it did was detach me from a book that had become a millstone around my neck. I loved my millstone, but it was still holding me back. I had a fresh start and could apply the things I’d learned in the interim to an entirely new story, one built from the ground up in a proper fashion. My next novel didn’t work either, but it failed better and I learned a lot from it. I got a lot of story structure down by writing the second book. My third book, which I’m working on now, is my struggle to match character to plot. I don’t quite have it, though I can certainly explain it, but I can see where I’m going wrong and why.** My fourth book should be miles better than my current WIP, and I’m betting I’ll have it down by the fifth book. I will probably publish my sixth book.

“Wait–who writes five books before publishing their first? OMG, isn’t that a lot of effort? Why write a book if you don’t intend to publish it? Are you nuts? I would never, ever do such a thing.” That’s in quotes because I’ve heard that response many, many times from other novice writers. And yeah, it’s a lot of work. Any learning process is.

But let me explain something to you. Do you think pro basketball players woke up one day, put on their first pair of athletic shoes, and played pro ball without ever practicing or playing for amateur teams? Of course not! Your average athlete has spent years learning how to do the thing. They practiced and competed on an amateur level and when they were good enough, they were hired to play at the pro level and get paid for it. People who bake and decorate complicated pastries first made a large number of mistakes. Those mistakes probably tasted good, but they weren’t worth a lot of money. So why should I think that my first efforts should net me fame and fortune? What makes me more special than the baker or the pro athlete? Did I put in more practice? More devotion? More time? How arrogant could I  possibly be to believe I’m that much better than anyone else who wants to make professional money at a skillset that must be carefully developed?

Your first novel is priceless, but it’s not you. It is the vehicle through which you begin to learn to write. It’s where you learn to let go.

Let it go.


*I have an English credential. I know they do cover the basic three act structure. That’s about like plopping a bag of flour in front of a kid and saying “this is flour. Now make some phyllo dough from scratch.”

**Teaching something you can’t quite do yet is not only pretty ordinary but a great way of deeply learning the thing you’re teaching because it forces you to think about and articulate them, much like critiquing does. This is why kids should teach each other things.

Attitude

Very few of you will actually need this drummed into your heads. That said, I’m a guest (can’t read, can’t comment) in a group where submissions editors share the horrible come-backs that authors send them after they reject submissions. They’re horrid. I’d share some with you, but that’s against the rules.

No matter how great you think you are–and you can be a multiple award-winning author who’s rolling in money, fame, and glory–no one actually likes an arrogant asshole. Likewise, no one likes a person who is difficult to work with. I have been both arrogant and difficult to work with, and I’ve worked with both sets of people, and I know what I’m talking about.

First: writing is not a competition. There’s no race for you to get your work to publication before someone else does. You absolutely do not need to worry about theft or plagiarism unless your novel is 100% ready to go and someone literally steals the file or print and mails it to a slush pile before you can do so. And even then, you have so much proof that you wrote it that you can beat that thief in court.

There are dozens of paranormal romances out there featuring alpha werewolves. There are dozens featuring sexy vampires. Mysteries with private investigator characters are a dime a dozen. Whatever idea you have, it’s probably not unique or original, which means no one can steal it. You may have a new take on an old idea, but you probably don’t even have that.

What you have is your unique way of telling a story that’s probably hundreds of years old by now.

People love that shit. I grew up reading the original fairy tales. I mean, I was five years old, sitting there working my way through the Cinderella version where the stepsisters cut off their toes and birds pluck out their eyes as they’re literally marching Cinderella to the marriage altar. Those stories are a part of my DNA and probably why I can’t resist writing dark stuff. I love fairy tales very much. I own three different versions of Beauty and the Beast. You’d think one would be enough, but each one approaches the story in a unique way, a way that only that author could achieve. (Which is quite feat, since two of them were written by the same author: Robin McKinley.) Readers love tropes and will actively seek out their favorite tropes so you really, really don’t have to worry about someone stealing your idea and publishing it. Just write the damn story.

Writers who zealously guard their work, require NDAs (which aren’t appropriate for anything except Harry Potter Book 7-level stuff, and that was the publishers because they wanted to make massive money), and who screech about theft of idea are obnoxious and insecure and the rest of the writing community stands back and laughs in their sleeves over such people. Don’t be one of them.

Second, do not drag other authors down. Lift them up.

You know who looks ugly when they trash an author? The person doing the trashing. Yes, I even mean people who trash Stephenie Meyer and E L James. Both Meyer and James are rich, rich, rich, and they both have devoted fan bases. Don’t you wish you could have that? The people who trash them try to cover it by saying they disapprove of elements of Meyer’s and James’s works, but the fact of the matter is that they’re trashing the authors, not the themes and plots and characters of the books. “Meyer is a hack” is about Meyer, not about her writing.

I once read the first 10% of the first Twilight book because I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I didn’t see why people loved it, but I also didn’t see why people hated it. I didn’t finish it, didn’t read the rest, didn’t watch the movies, and have no opinion about the quality of the books. I know almost nothing about Meyer herself. Same with James. I didn’t read the 50 Shades books. I did watch the first movie because I do care about how those particular tropes played out. I wanted to be able to talk about them on social media, and I don’t much like talking about something I don’t know. So I’m not a fan. I gain nothing by defending them except my own self-respect.

It’s totally fair to take exception to some idea, theme, element, character portrayal, etc. in a book. I have read books where African Americans were portrayed in racist ways, and I sure as hell took exception to that and said so loudly. It’s totally fair to publicly discuss the things you don’t like about a book. It’s also fair to say that the purchase of a book that promotes stereotypes is a tacit support of those stereotypes, which is why I refuse to buy any of Orson Scott Card’s books from anywhere other than used bookstores, and I didn’t see the movie even though I like Ender’s Game. The man hates gay people, and I don’t care to support that opinion with my money. But I don’t trash Card as a writer. I criticize his oppressive belief, and I could never be friends with him, but those are not the same thing.

Dragging other authors down will not make it more likely for you to publish. It won’t make your readership bigger. It won’t net you more money. It will make you look like an asshole, and it will keep you from ever being read by that author’s fans. It may also make you a laughingstock on social media.

Likewise, never, ever publicly trash a reviewer, whether pro or amateur. In general, be as civil as possible. Everything negative you say can and will come back to haunt you and may result in the end of your career. People listen, and they make up their minds about you, and that could be the difference between the publication of your manuscript and its rejection.

If you receive a rejection slip, do not write to the publishing company and insult them. Your prose isn’t as awesome, deathless, high-brow, important, amazing, incredible, or life-changing as you think it is. The people who read it aren’t ignorant hacks. If they don’t understand your message, you didn’t do a good job of writing it. And if you show yourself to be the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, don’t expect to ever publish. Publishing companies have lists that they put people on. “This person didn’t handle rejection well, behaved in an unprofessional way, and personally insulted staff members X, Y, and Z” is not a note you want appended to that publishing house’s file on you. Not to mention, they do, on occasion, talk to each other. If you want publishing houses to enter into a bidding war for your work, you better handle rejection as politely as possible first.

Third, your prose is not deathless.

In fact, it’s probably not as good as you think it is. That’s okay. Total crap does get published, and the worst writer I ever read has a fan base. You can be quite publishable and have a good career with middling prose. Many do.

When a critique partner suggests you change something about your book to make it work better, give the request some serious consideration. If your reaction to receiving critiques is to shove your fingers in your ears and start chanting nonsense syllables, you’re behaving in an arrogant fashion.

“But I’m an artist!” you might say, or some variation thereof. Great. There’s a reason they’re called “starving artists.” If you want to be “true to your art,” don’t complain if you never earn any money and remain unknown. Many people are happy to be true to their art and forego the rest. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m not saying change your work to please everybody, because you can’t. You do, however, want to make sure that 80% of your crit partners/beta readers are satisfied. If you have five critique partners and three of them say that you need to clarify your main character’s motivations, then do so. Besides, as you grow in skill you won’t have the conflict of being true to your vision and producing something commercially acceptable. (If you’re writing for a hobby, do whatever you want–but again, don’t be an asshole about it.) Do so even if it sucks.

I write a lot about Latino characters. One of my characters was named Brayan. I wrote over 200,000 words using that spelling. Some of my crit partners had no idea how to pronounce the name, which happens to be the phonetic spelling of “Brian” for Spanish-speaking people. While “Brayan” is more authentic, I changed the name (and not without a serious struggle) to “Bryan” because my readership is mostly going to be native English speakers, most of whom won’t speak Spanish. I don’t want my readers to experience the name of this significant character as a road block, because if they do so, they won’t be able to fully immerse themselves in the story.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory wrote an epic fantasy called Blade of Empire. I  enjoyed it immensely. Most of the characters are elves, and in their world elves have extremely long and complicated names. The male main character’s name is Runacarendalur Caerthalien. This is an epic fantasy, with two of three books published, so you can imagine how many characters have names like that. An enormous number of readers who reviewed the books (especially the first one) commented on how off-putting the names were. Now Lackey and Mallory are experienced, many-times-published authors who have devoted fanbases who would probably read their books if every character used their social security number as their name. But you and I, we are not them. We don’t get that willingness to jump the hurdle of difficult names, etc.

Consider changing whatever it is that’s causing your readership / critique partners trouble. Be flexible. Listen. Learn. Consider. Approach your writing relationships with humility, kindness, and respect. Give honest feedback, but don’t be cruel. Don’t say horrible things about people in person or on the Internet even if you think you’re totally justified. Don’t ever publish anything negative to anyone while you’re upset. Life, writing, and the whole process actually goes easier if you think of yourself as one of many writers, if you’re willing to take advice, and if you make the attempt to be easy to work with.

How to respond to the crits you’ve received

Last article on critiques was about process. This one is about how you relate to other people.

Before I start in on this article, which is all about how to handle being criticized, I would like you to know that the vast majority of the time you get critiques, they’re probably going to be a pleasant experience–especially if you take the right attitude about them and you make yourself a pleasant person to critique.

When someone gives you a critique, thank them like I’d said in the previous post. They spent time on your project and you do the bare minimum to reward them.

Thank them even if they did a shitty job.

Thank them even if they insulted you. (Never use them again if they did so, but still.)

You do this because you want to be seen by the world around you as a gracious, professional writer who will be pleasant to work with. The more you make the habit of being gracious even when you don’t feel like it, the easier it will be when you’re sitting on a panel of published authors some day and someone goes to the microphone to tell you, in public and before everyone, how much they hated your book.

Think it won’t happen? Maybe not in front of a microphone, but every writer who ever makes it big has someone who very publicly states how much they hate that person’s work and what a hack they are. In print. Nationally distributed. Or on talk shows. So practice for that day, if nothing else.

Then open a Word document and write out your feelings. Use as many swear words as you want. Tuck it away somewhere and never, ever, ever publish it.

Next: No matter how much you desperately want to, and you probably will, do not answer the questions your crit partners raise unless they really do want to know the answer and they tell you so. 80% of the time or more, they will be asking the question in order to let you know that there’s some confusion you should address, not because they are in burning need of the answer themselves.

Example 1

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Example 2

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These are critique clips from my WIP’s second “chapter.” My critique partner has asked questions; they’re in green highlighting. He also highlighted the stuff in yellow, which is what his first question references. I didn’t answer these questions because they’re not meant to be answered by me to him, but by me to my readers, which means that what I really need to do is go back and make my writing more clear.

When a crit partner asks you a question, it means your writing isn’t clear. Fix your writing. You’re not going to be going home with your readers, answering their every question as they read. Make sure your writing isn’t confusing in the first place.

If you’re a normal new writer, you’re probably going to want to talk for a very long time to anyone who will listen about your story. Sometimes this is appropriate. Sometimes it isn’t.

It’s never appropriate to go on and on about your story, your plot, or your characters if you’re boring other people or taking unfair advantage of their good nature, patience, or your crit partnership. Pay attention to their expressions, their body language, and the tone and words they use to respond. If their feet are pointed away from you, they don’t want to hear what you have to say. They want to walk in the direction their feet are pointing. (Really.) Online, if their responses are monosyllabic and there are big pauses between them, that’s a good sign they’re more invested in something else at the moment.

Some crit groups (the best ones) are places where you can bring up problems with your story and your crit partners will discuss those problems with you and help you hash them out. This is a workshopping thing, and it’s fun and awesome. You must be as willing to help them with their stories as you expect them to be willing to help with yours, or you’re being an ass. Don’t be an ass. If you want to do that, here’s how you do it.

Incorrect way:

You: “You guys kept asking what my main character’s motivation was for assaulting the tavern. She really wants the cash box under the till because she knows the tavern makes a lot of money on Fridays and the staff is lax about money drops, so it’s a great time to rob the place. She even made sure that the bouncer would be distracted by slipping a little laxative in his lunch when he ate at her diner earlier that day, remember? I said in Chapter 1 that she was broke, and in Chapter 2 I said that the tavern staff was lax, and in Chapter 3 I mentioned the laxative, so why didn’t you get it? And you said you didn’t understand the magic system I’m using. It works like this …”

Correct way:

You: “Hey friends! I’m having a problem with Act 1 and I want to talk about what you all brought up in your critiques. Do you have a moment?”

Them: “Absolutely!”

You: “Joe [crit partner 1] said that my main character’s motives for assaulting the tavern were a little vague, and Katie [crit partner 2] agreed with him. I’m having trouble seeing it. Can you explain a bit more? Also, can you please help me figure out how much I need to explain about the magic system for readers to understand what’s going on without being bored? I’m stuck.”

People love to talk about how they feel and what they think. It makes them feel smart and valued. Give your crit partners the chance to feel smart and valued, not like you think they’re stupid, ignorant, and bad at reading.

What if your crit group meets offline?

Some crit groups are set up so that people hand out their 10 pages of writing (typed, double-spaced) during the first meeting, then get their crits back the following week. Some people focus on one person and their story a week. However you do it, this is the process for receiving your feedback.

Shut up.

I’m not kidding. The best, most useful, and probably most personally difficult way to accept a critique from your offline crit partners is to let them give it. Some people will speak directly to you. Do not reply. Do not answer their questions. You may write their questions down, but don’t say a single word unless they desperately need you to in order to continue their critique. Other crit groups will do a panel thing where they all sit around and talk about your work with each other and you shut up and write everything they say down and do not say a single word unless they beg you or they’re done, at which point you say “thank you.” I know I’m being repetitive here, but I cannot stress this enough. If you want people to want to crit your work, this is what you do.

Besides, you do get to speak.

Your crit group’s mores may mean you get to reply to your critique partners individually, after each person is done. You might reply to them en masse when they’re all done. That’s up to your crit group, of whom you’re a part and can help make those decisions. I prefer to reply to everybody, because sometimes more than one person will have the same basic criticism, but each will have their own spin on it.

Do your absolute best to avoid explaining what’s going on in your book, what they missed, or answering their questions unless they ask you to. Instead, ask them the questions you wrote down. Then your group can, with you as a part of it, have a productive conversation about your WIP. Write down stuff from that too. What you’re getting is a gift, and you should appreciate it.

If your group has time limits for feedback, respect them. Don’t talk over, through, or for another person in your crit group whether you’re the recipient or another critiquer. If you can’t stick to a time limit, write down what you want to say and hand it to the person it needs to go to. If your group has four writers and each of you submits something each week and receives crits the next week, then it’s going to take time to get through each critique, and if you hog all the time, people will get irritated at you. Take all the time you’re allotted, but don’t go over.

If you think that the members of your crit group are just plain wrong, or are expressing their personal irritation with you through your crits, then you should meet with them outside of your writer’s get-together and hash it out, or leave and find another group. Don’t try to resolve your personal problems with a crit partner (or theirs with you) in the middle of the meeting. All that does is make everyone uncomfortable, and then you get people who make excuses and don’t show up.

Now all of this advice is on how to behave well and on how to resolve problems with crit partners. This is because if there are no problems between you and your crit partners, then there’s no need for the advice. That said, even friends sometimes run into trouble, and it’s good to think about what to do ahead of time.

Most of the time the critique process is pleasant. I usually experience a bit of an endorphin high when I read a critique because someone actually read and replied to my writing! Most everyone I know couldn’t give a shit about my writing, which is a common problem for new writers. On top of that, I get to find out what they liked / what I’m doing right! And I get to find out what I can fix to make it so that even more people like what I’m writing, which means maybe some day someone will give a shit about my work and I get to learn something. That seems like a win-win situation to me.

What to do with the crits or edits you’ve received

Many people ask what they should do with the critiques they’ve received.

This may sound like a silly question, but it’s not. The average novel is about 80,000 words long, which is approximately 300 pages.* If you have 3 crit partners and you give them your novel in 3000 word chunks, you’re going to end up with approximately 80 critiques. If these are developmental it’s not too bad to collate the information, but if they’re line editing critiques you’re going to be buried under word choice suggestions.

This is how I handle critique suggestions.

The crits I receive are mostly developmental, with a few reader responses and some word choice stuff as it pertains to clarifying plot and character development. I strictly tell people not to do line editing or copy editing critiques, though I’ve handled those too in two of the short stories I’ve published.

I don’t have my whole novel written before I start sending chunks out for critique. In fact, I usually don’t have more than a 6000 word ‘pad’ (and sometimes not even that). When my critique partners give me critiques, the first thing I do is thank them. On Scribophile, that means leaving a brief “thank you” on their profiles’ walls and clicking some adjective markers at the bottom, such as “like.” Please thank your crit partners. To fail to do so is rude.

Next, I carefully read and consider each critique. Sometimes I’m elated. Sometimes I’m offended, irritated, or angry. I sit with those emotions and I try my hardest not to respond to them. I trust my crit partners to have my absolute best interests at heart. They’re telling me the truth. If they lied to me to spare my feelings, Amazon reviewers would pan my books, they wouldn’t sell, and my career would be over quite quickly. I’ve been with my crit partners for years, so I know I can trust them.

If you’re just starting out, it can be hard to trust your partners, but really think: is this person trying to help me? Or is he just being an ass? If your crit partner says anything like “you should probably take a grammar class” (which I said at the very beginning of my critiquing career and still cringe about to this day), then that person is an asshole and you can throw out their commentary. If they talk about you instead of your writing, throw out their commentary. No good crit partner will say things like “you should stop writing until you learn better mechanics.” (I saw that happen to someone else.)

That said, if your crit partner says something like, “I’m finding it hard to root for your main character. I’m not sure I like her and I don’t want to read about her any more” (paraphrased criticism I received), your partner is not being a bad crit partner or an asshole. They are telling you the truth as they see it. They are trying to help you. Have your cry–mine lasted about 4 months–and then get back on the horse and work on your story. Critiques like that will eventually make you a better writer, if you don’t quit first. (Please don’t quit. Everyone can develop their skill and become better.)

In regards to processing developmental edits, I’d strongly suggest stopping writing at your various plot points (roughly 8 per book; see my article on story structure) or at the end of each quarter. Look at what your critique partners have said. Unless you have written the whole WIP already, there is no point in continuing to write if your work is fundamentally flawed. It’s like continuing to drive the car after the tire goes flat. Go back and fix the problem, rewrite the section if necessary, and keep going. If you don’t know how to fix the problem, research the solution. I think I still have an (out of date) section on craft book reviews here on this website that could be helpful there. (NOTE: This is my opinion. Many people will tell you to just keep writing and fix it later. Try my advice and try their advice and see what works best for you!)

If your critique partners have found minor flaws, don’t correct them. Keep going, and apply those corrections after your entire WIP is complete. This will keep you from endlessly tinkering with Act 1 and never finishing your WIP.

If your critique partners have identified an issue that might affect the next act or section of your book, brainstorm ways to fix it and apply those corrections when you write that section.

If your critique partners are upset or confused about something, think about what it is. Sometimes you want them to be upset or confused. Sometimes you want them to, as readers, ask those questions. For example, in my WIP, my main character’s boss has given her an order she doesn’t understand or agree with. None of my critique partners understood or agreed with the order, either. They thought I’d put in the order to deus ex machina the beginning of the story. However, the order is supposed to be something that raises red flags for my main character, and the reason the order was given is due to a long-term subplot in the series. No one is going to understand the order until Book 4, and I’m currently working on Book 2. So I nod and let that one go.

So what do you do to manage line edit critiques? What do you do with the thirty billion word choice suggestions?

This is what I did when I applied my editor’s suggestions when I edited my 30 page published short story Sacrifice. First I made a copy of my file and I labeled it with the title and “edits.” Always make a copy if you’re working in Google Docs or Word. (In Scrivener, first take a snapshot.)

Next I went through each critique and hand-copied it into the new story file. If more than one critiquer had the same critique, I would make a mark like “x2” or “x3” to indicate how many people had the problem. The more people who have the problem, the more important it is to fix.

If more than 20% of your critique partners have a problem with something, you should really fix it. Even if you love it. You’re not going to buy your books, so what does it matter that you love it? They (your readers, your potential market) have to love it, and the more critique partners have a problem, the more readers will too. Do you really want to alienate, say, 40% of your possible readership?  That’s a lot of money to throw away. It could be the difference between writing as a career, which is mostly only possible for the rich and folks who make the NYT Bestseller list with 80% of the books they write.**

If you want to continue on this line of argument, read point 3 of this article.

After I copied over all the comments, no matter how silly they were (and I thought plenty of them were silly and a few were just plain wrong), I gave deep and careful thought to each comment that wasn’t obviously something they (my editor) were right about and I needed to fix. I surmounted my attitude to get the job done because I wanted to be published more than I wanted to be right.

In almost every single instance, my editor was right, or at least not wrong. This is because my editor wasn’t emotionally invested in my work. Intellectually, yes, but my work feels like part of me. I feel deeply about my work. I’m too close to it to objectively consider it without help. In those cases where my editor was not wrong, I still applied their suggestion because it wasn’t a hill I wanted to die on.

In any given manuscript you will probably disagree with your editor. Every time you disagree, think: is this something that is truly, deeply, massively, project-ending important to me to have my way? If it’s not, do it their way. You don’t want a reputation as a prima donna or someone impossible to work with. There may be 1-2 things per manuscript that you must have your way despite what the editor says. Write out a 1-2 paragraph justification for each and send that to your editor. There’s usually a little wiggle room, but not much, so you want to save your disagreements for things that truly matter.

Making corrections takes time. It’s also boring as hell, emotionally difficult, and generally about the least fun thing you can do in writing. And then you send it in and they send it back with more corrections–copy editing stuff. They’ll correct your grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but you must apply/sign off on those corrections because it’s your work. You do those and send it back. Then they return it for proofreading. You have to proofread it to make sure it’s correct because the work represents you. Your name is on it, and it’s you who will be covered in mud if there are errors. Your editor won’t suffer (that much) if your work goes to print with errors, but readers might decide not to bother with something full of typos and punctuation issues, at which point you lose money, and it looks unprofessional, which means you lose respect. I am completely forgiving of GPS errors in drafts and am happy to read a draft rife with GPS errors. I will put a book down if there’s more than one error in the first chapter. With even one error, I view the book with deep distrust.

By the time you’re at the proofreading stage you are so sick of the project you’d rather slit your wrists than look at it again, but it must be done. It took me 100 hours to write a 10,000 word story, apply the edits, and proof it, and most of that time was the edits and proofing. I haven’t read it since.

People who have published: if your experience varies, please let me know in the comments. This is purely my experience.

If you have the leisure to do so, I strongly recommend you do your edits on one book while you’re doing something creative with another project or you might just decide that publishing isn’t for you and quit altogether. You’ll know more about where you stand in that regard once you have a work accepted and go through the process. Alternately, have a friend you absolutely trust in terms of proofreading and who is familiar with your story help you with the proofing.

If you’re looking for information on how to respond to being critiqued, either online or in person, read this.


*Industry standard is 250 words to the page, even though if you opened a book and counted each word on any given physical page, it would be a different number. This is because hardback books and paperback books fit different numbers of words on their respective pages.

**Of course there are exceptions. Andy Weir made bank off his first book, The Martian. But if you read interviews by him, you’ll see he depended heavily on critiques and he changed his book to suit them. And Stephen King made the NYT Bestseller list with Carrie, his first novel, and every novel thereafter. However, he spent 10 years writing and publishing short stories first and that’s where he learned the skills he needed to do such a good job on his first novel.

Scribophile, The Ubergroup, and BetaBooks

Please read “How to find critique partners” first.

Scribophile

If you do use Scribophile (or any other website) I encourage you to create a pseudonym. The sign-up instructions tell you not to, and I took them seriously, but most everyone uses a pseudonym and you won’t get in trouble if you do. This is because you will make mistakes and piss off people and you don’t want to inadvertently piss off the wrong person and kill your career before you start.

Scribophile is based on karma points. Basically, you can post a recommended 3000 words at a time. It costs 5 karma to do so. You earn karma by critiquing the works of other people. The longer your critique is, the more karma you get. A 2000 word critique might earn you 3 karma, whereas a 125 word critique will only net you the base award of 1 karma. That means you must critique in order to get critiques. Many new people complain about that. I was an arrogant ass when I started there and I didn’t complain about it–and this was before I recognized the benefit of critiquing.

If you sign up for Scribophile and you need a basic primer (and you probably will; it can be confusing for newbies), there’s a nice article called “The Unofficial Guide to Scribophile.” It’s a good place to start. You want to start reading at “The Community” header. You can also PM me on Scribophile; I use the same name there as here. I can’t place you in a group or make things easy for you, and I very, very likely will not agree to critique your work, but I can help you figure things out.* If enough people ask, I’ll even post Scribophile FAQ article here.

There are forums for general chatter and there are groups you can join. For example, there’s the Novel Exchange group, where you can find someone to crit your whole novel in exchange for critting theirs. There’s the Fight Club group, where you discuss writing fight scenes and critiques focus solely on those. There are groups for writers from England, groups for writers over 40, etc. etc. Lots of groups. Find some groups, join them, and make friends. The crits will come.

That said, it takes a while to form your own personal crit team. It took me about six months to find a group that worked for me, and then another six months to find a team that I was compatible with. (Groups can be very large; teams should be just the people you’re actually exchanging crits with. I have the bad habit of calling teams ‘groups.’)

I won’t go too far into how Scribophile works, but I will briefly discuss the spotlight thing because that’s what trips most people up.

When you pay the five karma to post a work for critique, you must select a ‘spotlight’ to put it in. If you critique a work that’s actively in a spotlight, you get a lot of karma for it. If you critique a work that’s not in an active spotlight, you get hardly any karma for it. That encourages people to critique works that are in spotlights, and it encourages writers to re-post their works in spotlights once they fall out. (Note: you don’t need to create a whole new upload to re-post your work. You just visit “your posted writing” under “menu” and select “put back in line for spotlight.”)

Before you find your very own personalized crit team or build your friends base (your “favorites”) via exchanging crits, you’ll want to keep your works in the “main” spotlight. This ensures that everyone on Scribophile can see and critique them. However, it’s expensive because you only get 3 full-karma crits per spotlight, and as a new member you don’t have much karma to spend. Make friends quickly. (I’m an anti-social introvert and I made friends quickly. So can you.)

Once you make your friends/team, change to the “personal” spotlight. This gives you six full-karma critiques, but only makes your work available to people you’re friends with or who are in groups with you. This is a really good idea because there are people of all sorts of skill level on Scribophile, and you don’t want one of your full-karma spots taken by someone who drives by, reads Chapter 22 in your WIP, leaves a critique that’s punctuation-only, and complains that he doesn’t understand what your story is about. While those people are rare, once you’ve been on Scribophile often enough you will get one of those and it will piss you off. My work is now restricted to a small number of groups and I rarely get critiques from people I don’t know. My current crit group has three active members in it, so that means they can each critique the work twice before I have to pay karma to put it back into a spotlight. This was especially helpful when I was trying to figure out how to start Joana.

If you want to post your outline, background, world-building, your magic system, or anything else that doesn’t need to be critiqued but should be online for your crit team to reference, select the “beta read” spotlight. It costs you no karma, but it also doesn’t give anyone who does critique that work any karma in return.

I encourage you to Google Scribophile and read the several articles about it out there on the Internet. They’ll tell you the good and the bad.

The Ubergroup

The Scrib group I ended up joining is called The Ubergroup. The website’s a bit out-of-date, but the group itself is extremely active. Folks are too busy writing and critting to update websites. The Ubergroup is a collection of crit teams arranged by genre, theme, tone, or crit style.

Because I write ‘darker’ themes, I ended up on a team called Noir Are We Normal. The members of my team are currently writing horror, SF/thriller, and urban fantasy. Recently we’ve had members who’ve written historical fantasy optioned for HBO, antiquities-era historical fantasy, paranormal romance, and psychological thriller. This is one reason why you should try your hardest to be conversant in as many genres as possible. My team’s core members have been together for several years now and we’ve each put at least one entire WIP (alpha draft) through the group. Ours is a good example of a team based on tone; not a lot of people enjoy critiquing content that comes with trigger warnings, so when The Ubergroup gets someone whose writing comes with trigger warnings, they’re typically sent in our direction.

Other groups include a very large team called Ampersand, which is broken into smaller teams of about 3-5 members. They do romance of all kinds. There’s a memoir team, a literary fiction team, fantasy teams, many YA and MG teams, etc.

There are all different skill levels in The Ubergroup; in order to join you have to have a professional attitude and be able to follow directions. You don’t have to write well. That said, we have several trad-published members, including a person who received a six-figure advance last year or the year before, and at least one indie-published member who supports himself on his Amazon book sales.

The Ubergroup runs by different rules that Scribophile does. Note: The Ubergroup is a subset of Scribophile. The one is contained within the other. In Scribophile you never, ever discuss critiques or your crit partnership in the forums. All crit discussion is handled through PMs. The forums are moderated, but critiques are not. If someone gives you a bad critique, you hit the “bad critique” flag at the bottom, and Alex (the site owner) evaluates the critique. If he thinks it’s bad, he gives you your spotlight spot back and takes the earned karma from the other person. I think he sends them a note, too, explaining what happened. Usually crits are flagged ‘bad’ for attempting to game the system; for example, I’d heard that someone posted chunks of the Gettysburg Address in a critique in an effort to gain more karma. If you’re an honest person, you have nothing to worry about.

The Ubergroup is moderated. That means that there are people who you can go to if your team members are being obnoxious, if there are personality clashes, or if their crits, while acceptable to Scribophile in general, aren’t up to snuff. The Ubergroup requires all critique discussions to be held in the public team threads in their forum, where moderators can see them, because we feel that people behave better when they speak publicly. If a member complains about another member’s critiques, the moderators read the critique in question to determine if the problem is one of tone (the crit is fine but the person receiving it is offended by the way it’s worded) or of content (the crit is superficial and the critiquer needs either a nudge to improve or extra training in how to give good crits). If Person A and Person B have a spat, three uninvolved moderators will read over everything and try to determine what’s going on. Usually it’s a miscommunication and we iron it out. When it’s a bad personality mix, we try to find both long-term and short-term solutions that are acceptable to everyone. Rarely we find we’ve accepted someone who breaks the only absolute rule: don’t be an asshole. Those people are usually shown the door. That happens roughly once a year. If you can’t behave professionally, you can’t play with us. Moderators also help new members find their first UG team and answer all their questions. (Many people in UG are on more than one team.)

Absolutely nothing has been of more use to me than joining The Ubergroup and finding my crit partners there. It was more useful than joining Scribophile, which is probably the second-most useful thing that improved my writing. I learned how to properly critique through my experiences in The Ubergroup because they’re considerably more organized and focused than Scribophile-at-Large, which is mostly a place where you can find critique partners and nothing more.

BetaBooks

BetaBooks is a website created by Scribophile members to make the beta read process easier. When you have completed your entire WIP and want to find beta readers, you can post it there. You should have a pitch already written. People will sign up to read your work. BetaBooks is free for readers and has a free tier “for newer authors who don’t have a large reader group yet.” There are more features on the paid tier, but you probably won’t need them until you’re well into your career. It’s a members-only site, a necessity if you want to protect your copyright. You can both post a beta for reading and read someone else’s beta, though you don’t have to do the one in order to do the other.

Basically, you upload your WIP in chapter-long chunks, then you send out your pitch to your readers. You can find readers through their Directory, or you can send the link to your friends who have volunteered to read your work. (They must make accounts in order to access your work, but their accounts are free.) You can set up how you want your feedback to be delivered. Say you want people to fill out a questionnaire. No problem. Maybe you want inline reader response. OK. Whatever works.

I prefer BetaBooks to sending out Word docs or Google Docs for a number of reasons.

  • You can filter feedback by key words. If you’re looking for what confuses your readers, search by the word “confused” or “confusing.” It will pull up all instances of that word from your reader responses.
  • It tracks where people stop reading. A lot of the time, beta readers will put a MS down and walk away. They may not be bored, but your book isn’t keeping their interest. If most of your readers aren’t getting past Chapter 9, BetaBooks will tell you and you can look into what’s happening in Chapter 9. No need to hunt your beta readers down and force them to tell you where and why they dropped your book.
  • It’s easy to upload your WIP and then send out one link. No need to email individual files to individual people every couple of weeks.

That said, I haven’t used BetaBooks much because I’m going to finish all 5 books in my series before I beta any of them. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on it in a few years.

*I very likely won’t critique your work because I barely have time to do my own writing, not because I dislike you or think I’m better than you. Teaching is a full-time job. I have a family I share a house with that wants to see me daily. I have several current crit partners whom I wouldn’t dream of stinting. And I’m a moderator for Ubergroup and have duties there.

How to find critique partners

If you’ve read my other articles you know that I think that critiquing the works of others is perhaps the single-most important thing you can do to improve your writing. And, of course, you’re going to want other people to critique your work. But how do you find them? How do you approach them? How do you ascertain that you’re at roughly the same skill level?

It’s very important to find crit partners at approximately the same skill level. You might benefit from critiques given by people of vastly better skill level than you, but they’re not going to benefit from your critiques and their writing will appear to be so polished that you won’t learn much from critiquing their work. This is why published, big-name authors don’t critique works from novices or newly-published writers. But before you can compare skill levels, you have to find them in the first place. When you do find your crit team, try to be in the middle of the group in terms of skill level.

When I started out, I had a friend who had indie-published a few books. I wrote my alpha draft and then, on the advice of my tax preparer, started a Facebook social media presence under this name (which I visit maybe once a year, so don’t bother) and friended her. She introduced me to all her writer friends. Someone I didn’t know was looking for critiques, so I offered to critique her work. At this point I was arrogant and ignorant, and my new critique partner wasn’t too good at grammar, so I put my foot in my mouth up to the knee and told her that maybe she should go enroll in a grammar class at her local community college.

Don’t do this. Trust me. If I could go back in time and metaphorically gag myself, I would. She was very angry and never spoke to me again, and that’s how I lost my first crit partner.

I posted that I wanted crit partners and didn’t know how to find them, so someone recommended I try Scribophile. I recommend you try it too. I signed up that day and bought myself a membership. Memberships are $65/yr. Around Christmas many people gift them to folks who don’t have memberships, so if you’re desperate you can do that. You can join for free, but there are limits to how many works you can have on the site and how many messages you can have in your site-based DM inbox, and you don’t get to use italics. The site is owned and operated by one man, Alex Cabal, and he’s friendly and extremely responsive to DMs. Thousands of writers, including published pros, plus agents and small publishers, use Scribophile, and that means he has to pay for a lot of server space and bandwidth, which is why it costs that much. If you sign up for Scribophile, don’t complain about the cost. Not a single veteran member will support your plaint, and you’ll look bad. Scribophile is ad-free and sign-in only, which preserves your copyright. It’s also limited to people 18 and older, which means you can post erotica, horror, and other material that probably shouldn’t be read by kids.

Scribophile can be a bit confusing for new writers. It was for me. But once you master the learning curve, it becomes very easy. I would not be a decent writer today if it weren’t for Scribophile. Most of the regulars are awesome, though I should warn you that, because it’s home to thousands of writers from around the world, it’s also home to thousands of personalities and political views and some of them will clash with yours.

If you are the kind of person who thinks he’s owed crits but can’t be bothered to give them, don’t join Scribophile. Be prepared to pay a lot of money for editing.

If you’d like to know more about Scribophile and how it works, I’ve written a separate article for it. Also, FYI, most writers, in my experience, tend to gush about their own particular favorite way to find crit partners (mine is obviously Scrib) but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to find crit partners.

So I didn’t look around much, I’ll admit. Next I’m going to list off some places I’ve heard of or have had recommended to me, but caveat: I am not a member at any of them.

Wattpad is a thriving online community that is open to teenagers. I have heard good things about Wattpad; a friend of a friend posts routinely there and gets a lot of good feedback. People who use Wattpad do get published. Be warned: with 70 million readers it’s possible you won’t be able to find a user name that isn’t a string of random numbers. I wanted to create a login just to be able to describe it more, but gave up after eight attempts to create a login name.

The University of Iowa, which hosts one of the best creative writing programs in the US, hosts a writing MOOC (massive open online course) several times a year. It’s free, and it’s taught by their creative writing instructors. If you sign up for the next MOOC, you will be encouraged to form crit teams with other students. You can continue in those crit teams long after the MOOC ends.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) encourages its members to form support and crit teams, which you could continue on your own after November, April, and July end.

I’ve heard that some people have found crit partners via GoodReads, but I’ve been on GoodReads for about 3 seconds so I don’t know.

Alexa Donne, a trad-published YA author who has a vlog on YouTube, routinely uses Reddit. I have never used Reddit on purpose so I can’t say anything about that, but check out her videos and see if Reddit would work for you. You will notice that her advice very closely mirrors mine. That’s because it’s good advice. Most experienced writers will tell you exactly the same thing.

Likewise, Jenna Moreci, an indie-published, successful fantasy writer, has a vlog on YouTube. She has a video on finding crit partners, and several videos on how to critique.

If you use Twitter, there are specific hashtags such as #cpmatch that you can use. You can also post on Twitter that you’re looking for critique partners or crit groups. Use the tag #amwriting and someone will eventually point you in the right direction.

Another thing you can do is join a professional society or your favorite writer’s fan club. Often they have adverts for people who write and want to find crit partners. At 16 I found my very first writing team via Mercedes Lackey’s fan club. This was pre-Internet, so we did everything through the post office, but I did end up in a group of six writers. Nowadays I’m sure it’s much easier, and I’m betting most author fan clubs can help you find a crit group, especially if you’re writing in that person’s genre.

Offline resources abound. If you have a local public library, ask the info desk librarian. They usually know everything. Check the bulletin boards; usually writing groups advertise there. For example, there’s a writing group in the East Bay Area called “B Street Writers” that I found through a local library. They have over 100 writers of all genres. They meet once a month. You just go to a meeting, be friendly, and see if anyone needs a crit partner. Don’t act like they’re there to serve you. Offer your services, and if anyone sounds interested, ask for an exchange.

Bookstores are also great places to look for writer’s groups, as are places such as Panera, Starbucks, or Peet’s. Writing groups often meet at places like those, and, while they might not have an opening for you, they could point you in some interesting directions if you ask nicely and aren’t obnoxious.

Many cities have recreation departments or adult schools that offer creative writing courses. Those are great places to find more crit partners. Sign up for one.

My last suggestion is to go to Google and type [your city or area] writing critique group and see what comes up. I did that for Chicago and found a couple of matches through meetup.com and several other promising links.

Good luck! If you know of any resources that aren’t here, leave them in the comments.

How to critique

I have published 5 short stories, all in charity anthologies, and you probably won’t be able to find any of them because two were in English anthologies, one was at a county fair, and the last two were so poorly set up on Amazon that their series name changes from one anthology to the other. I’m not an expert on publishing. I don’t even really consider myself a published author.

What I am good at is critiquing.

I am good at it because I critique an average of 9000 words each week, six weeks out of seven, and I’ve been doing this for at least four years. According to Scribophile, as of today I have critiqued 353 works, and that’s a low number because I’ve also critiqued for offline friends. (If you want to know more about Scribophile, a crit partner-matching website, read this article.)

For this article you should know the basic kinds of editing already. If you don’t, please read “Kinds and costs of editing.” Also, I’ve posted links to related articles about critiquing at the bottom of this post.

When I started critiquing I thought I was very good at it because, when I was in college the first time, I majored in English and Journalism. If you want to learn grammar, punctuation, and spelling (GPS), Journalism is the major to take. English doesn’t cover that. So I can generally nit-pick commas with the best of them.*

My first many critiques were entirely copy editing, and I cringe when I look back on them both due to my total ignorance and my absolute and awful arrogance. I corrected I don’t know how much punctuation, spelling, etc. I threw in a little line editing, but that was mostly when someone had obviously used the wrong word. “The building was inflammable; it wouldn’t burn” kinda thing. Most writers, especially novice writers, do a considerable amount of copy editing because they think that’s the only kind of critiquing there is. You give me your work, I’m going to polish it.

The problem with that is, you’re most likely polishing a turd. A polished turd is still a turd. It won’t sell. If you pipe sunshine up the asses of novice writers and they publish to Amazon, you (and they) will kill their careers even before they start. DO NOT do this. It’s cruel.

So this is how and when and why you should critique.

If a writer is giving you an alpha draft (a draft that has not gone through a beta read, also known as a ‘rough draft,’ also known as the thing most writers tend to rewrite about eight times before they show it to someone else–your rough draft can have drafts of its own) then you developmentally critique it. Do not talk about word choice. Do not talk about sentence structure. Do not point out that most of the sentences start with “I” or “He” or “The.” Do not point out adverbs, dialogue tags, bad punctuation, etc.

Why not?

That is enough to make any novice writer, especially the ones still in larval stage — teens on Wattpad, people who just started seriously writing a few months ago, etc. — cry and quit. Then you have crushed someone who might go on to be a very good writer. Many writers have deep and persistent self-esteem problems and they only grow out of it with patience and practice, and if you crush a new or novice writer because you think they can’t punctuate, you are being absolutely awful, arrogant, and generally not a person I’d care to be around. All that craft bullshit can be learned, or you can pay to have it corrected. And you can argue that a writer should be resilient–I agree!!–but resilience must be grown. If you step on the newly-germinated tree, it will die. If you step on a full-grown oak, it will not.

But also, as I said, if the work is fundamentally flawed the person is going to rewrite it and all your comma corrections are trashed. For example, I’m working on a book currently titled Joana. I wrote most of Act 1, showed it to crit partners, and had my characters soundly (but kindly) panned. So I rewrote it from scratch. New scenes, new settings, everything. It was (kindly) panned again for being slow and uninteresting. I rewrote it from scratch again — new scenes, new settings. That one worked. If I’d had someone else spend an hour or two of their time nit-picking my adverbs, they’d have wasted their time entirely.

When you do a developmental crit on an alpha draft, it should be mostly in paragraph form. If you’re working on a Word or Google Docs file, you might consider making a few brief comments using the “comments” function in places you want the writer to be aware of. Then make a separate file, title it with the author’s name and yours and their chapter number and the word ‘critique’ (note: I teach teenagers so I tend to give explicit instructions), and write a few paragraphs about the characters, the pacing, and the plot. I will break this out by act later. If you are using an online platform such as Scribophile or Betabooks, there will be ways of doing this inherent to the platform.

By the way, I highly, highly recommend Scribophile and Betabooks. See “Finding your crit partners” for more.

Default to developmental editing crits as much as possible unless the writer has asked for something else. Developmental crits are the deepest, most useful crits that you can receive or write. They will teach you the most, as a critiquer, and they will help you the most to receive as a writer.

If the writer has explicitly asked for line editing, you will go through their document and use the comments function to make note of what needs to be changed. Do not rewrite someone else’s work unless they ask for it! That’s rude. Sometimes I have, very politely and hesitantly, suggested to a writer that they rewrite a sentence in a particular way. I show them how I would write the sentence, and then I explain why. The explanation is crucial. When the writer gets that suggestion and explanation, they are then free to accept the rewrite or reject it, but they’re not going to think you’re an arrogant asshole who believes he’s better than they are.

So you might do something like this:

edit 2

I wrote the text and made the corrections. Note that I didn’t correct the punctuation in the third paragraph. That’s because it’s a function of copy editing, not line editing. Now in a real crit, if I were line editing, I’d throw in a little copy editing for obvious stuff like that as well, and I always highlight typos and dropped end-quotes in any crit I do, but those tend to be rare because a good writer will at least run spell check before uploading anything, and spell check catches a lot of typos. I will write an eventual article on dialog tags and shit like that, and when I do I’ll link it here.

So that’s some basic line editing, and what a critique for line editing might look like.

A critique for copy editing would look very similar, but instead of the suggestions I made for alternate words, I would focus on the bad punctuation. I’d highlight it and in the comment I’d put in the correct punctuation so that all the writer would need to do is hit “accept” or whatever the button on your comments is and it will automatically make the correction.

If a writer has a chronic problem, like, for example, they write a lot of dangling modifiers, then highlight the first one and make a comment about dangling modifiers. Explain what a dangling modifier is and how to fix it, and then just go through the rest of the text, highlighting the dangling modifiers, and in the comment write something brief.

For example:

edit 3

Do not express anger and frustration at a writer’s consistent errors, especially if you’re only reading the one thing they give you. They can’t magically fix the entire document the moment you point out the first error. Many writers write their entire WIP before they ever show it to anyone, which means the same error may be in the 80,000 words you just volunteered to read. Explain the error ONCE, mark it in a consistent and bland fashion when you see it, and keep snappy, snarky, mean comments about GPS (grammar, punctuation, spelling) to yourself. All they’ll do is hurt and demoralize the writer.

The fact of the matter is that many, many writers are terrible at GPS. But they write great books. They may be extremely good at creating compelling characters and exciting plots, which is considerably harder to do than having good GPS. Dyslexics, for example, can’t spell, and if you yell at them for their spelling, all you’re doing is being an ableist asshole.** Also, sometimes a little misuse of GPS is fine. Most writers insert the occasional fragment in their writing (like I have in this paragraph) and that is a matter of tone.

Personally, I wouldn’t do any copy editing beyond really obvious typos unless I was explicitly asked to do so, I knew the author’s nationality, I was familiar with the GPS conventions for that nation, and I knew their intended audience’s nationality. English people spell and punctuate differently than Americans. The official language of Nigeria, India, Belize, and several other surprising countries is English, and do you know if they use conventions from England, or if they (like America did) invented their own? Case in point: one of my friends and crit partners is South African. She writes romances that are set in South Africa. I have critiqued some of them. She speaks English natively, but as I have not studied her country’s punctuation conventions, I don’t crit her punctuation.

Fact of the matter is, in a real, fairly professional environment, you will almost never critique a person’s GPS unless they explicitly ask you to look at it prior to publication. Typically line editing is done after the writer has hired and paid a professional do some editing.

So if professionals are available, and if you absolutely should hire them (and you should if you ever want to develop an audience), then why bother getting someone to critique your own work? Why critique anyone else’s?

If you learn how to do all this stuff, then you won’t have to pay as much to the various editors for their work. Some editors charge by the hour instead of by the word. If you are good at GPS and if you’ve had a friend critique your work for mechanics, then you don’t end up paying as much for a professional to catch everything you and your friend miss. Also, the more you critique other people, the less likely you are to make the same mistake. And the more people critique your work, the more errors they will catch and you can fix before sending it to that expensive editor.

Caveat: you will be incredibly bad at catching your own errors. Typically you will make all kinds of horrible, newbie mistakes that embarrass the hell out of you when you write your alpha draft. I drop end quotes all the time, or I put an end quote after a regular sentence for no apparent reason, because when I’m in the flow sometimes my brain signals get crossed and then I do this.” A crit partner can catch that for me tomorrow, but I’m going to need to wait at least a week before re-reading it if I intend to catch it myself. I’m too close to the work.

Now if your GPS is terrible you shouldn’t do line edits anyway. But don’t worry — you can still write! There are ways of fixing GPS.

There’s one other kind of criticism that you can and should give, especially during the alpha draft / developmental critique stage. You should tell the person whom you’re critiquing what they’re doing right. I’m not a fan of the praise/shit sandwich and I don’t naturally do this, so generally when I critique a work I go over it once for the critique and a second time to pick out what the person did well.

This isn’t intended to make them feel better or make the critique go down easier. I firmly believe that if you can’t handle criticism, you need to develop some resiliency. I’m not here to service anyone’s feelings, and professional writers would never ask me to.

That said, a large number of novice writers have no idea what they’re doing right. It’s important to know what you do right or well because it gives you confidence in your own writing, it’s something you should work on to develop even further, and you can then use that to help other people who aren’t as good as you at it to become better at it. If you help a novice writer see what they’re doing right, they’ll begin to develop a better eye for the strengths and weaknesses of their own works and of the works of others. They’ll be able to articulate those things easier. They’ll learn faster. And they’ll be less likely to have to steel themselves before they open your crits, no matter how much they appreciate and are grateful for your commentary.

Also, the occasional reader response stuff is good too. Note where you laughed and where the story made you feel one way or the other, even if the feeling is ‘boredom’ or ‘distaste.’ How’s the person ever going to fix their boring story if they don’t know precisely where you got bored? Writers need to know all these things in order to improve their craft. Don’t make your whole critique reader response, but do put some in.

Read this for how to respond to crits you’ve received.

Read this for what to do with the crits or edits you’ve received.

Read this for how to find critique partners.

Read this for how to develop the right attitude (or for what not to do to other writers, etc.)

*When I write informally–blog posts, alpha drafts, Facebook updates, I generally don’t care that much about my punctuation. When I write professionally I do, and I extend that knowledge to copyediting crits.

**I know many English teachers whose spelling, punctuation, and grammar are worse than mine. I teach history. And while you can use spellcheck, if you struggle with whether you should use ‘lay’ or ‘lie,’ or whether it’s spelled ‘gray’ or ‘grey,’ or you mix up your ‘their,’ ‘they’re’ and ‘there,’ spell check isn’t going to help. As for the Oxford comma, only point that out if they’re inconsistent. If they use the Oxford comma in one sentence but don’t in the other, that’s a point worth making. If you hate the Oxford comma and they use it, let that sleeping dog lie. Your opinion is not valid either way there unless you’re using a style sheet for a particular publication.

Kinds (and costs) of editing

I had no idea there were different kinds of editing when I started writing. This is what I’ve learned.

The first kind of editing is called developmental editing. If you hire a developmental editor, that editor will evaluate your WIP (work in progress, your unfinished, pre-submission story) for fundamental things such as plot and character. They will tell you why your middle sags, or what you can do to make your mediocre, kind of boring main character vital and dynamic. They will discuss story structure with you, give you advice on where to properly start your story, discuss pacing, and all those other good things. They do a lot to keep your story from being boring.

The second kind of editing is called line editing. These editors will discuss sentence and paragraph structure with you and give you advice on word choice. They do a lot to make your prose sing.

The third kind of editing is called copy editing. These editors fix your grammar, punctuation, and spelling. They look for consistency, so they can point out if you misspelled a character’s name, if the character has brown eyes in one part of the book and hazel eyes in the other, if you have continuity errors, and all that other nit-picky stuff. People expect published books to look ‘professional,’ and they help with that.

You can and should also hire a proofreader if you intend to indie-publish. A proofreader goes through the finished, edited manuscript (MS) and looks for typos.

You need all three editors and the proofreader. If you intend to indie-publish, you will need to hire all of them. They cost a fortune, which is why there’s not much money in writing for most people. It’s not unheard-of to lose money on writing until around your fifth to eighth published book, if you go indie, or to not earn out your advance until your fifth to eighth book, if you trad-publish. Between editors, cover artists, layout specialists, and marketing, writing is generally a money-losing proposition.

But there’s good news! You can learn how to lay out your own novel. You can learn how to market yourself, which you’re going to need to do anyway because even publishers expect you to do a lot of your own marketing. Book tours and speaking engagements, for example, are authors doing their own marketing and they typically find it exhausting. Signing 2500 autographs in one day makes your hand swell up and keeps you from writing. You can even learn how to edit, and then trade edits with other writers who have learned how to edit. (This is called critiquing. See my “How to critique” article.)

How much should an editor cost? The Write Life did a pretty good article on that (circa 2017), so I’m going to defer to them. But just in case you want it quickly, they break it down this way:

For a 70,000 word book (about 250 pages):

  • Developmental editing – $5,600 USD
  • Copyediting – $1,260
  • Proofreading – $791

Again, that’s a general idea. Some places will charge less, but they usually also have less experience. You get what you pay for. Typically I save my tax returns in a special savings account toward editing costs, book covers (a good book cover can run you $800; covers are far more than art alone) and the like.

Critiquing: an absolute necessity

The third thing you absolutely must do if you intend to write novels is to critique them.

I didn’t say you need to get your own work critiqued, though you do. But you must critique other people.

I wrote every day for almost a year back in 2013, generated about 200,000 words, and didn’t improve that much. I thought I was hot shit (most writers teeter-totter between absolute arrogance and cringe-worthy low self-esteem and I am no exception) and I continued believing that because I had no idea what I was doing.

There’s a thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.* Basically what that says is that a lot of people think they’re better at something than they are. For example, most people think they’re above-average drivers, but that’s statistically impossible. I suffered from DKE back when I started seriously writing, but that’s because I’m generally good at grammar and had mostly gotten As on my essays and papers in school. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but you should be aware of when it’s happening to you.

Once you become aware that there are things you don’t know, you stop believing you are very good at whatever it is you’re doing. Maybe you get into several car accident, all your fault. Maybe your novel is rejected 250 times without any personalization.** Either way, you get hit with the cold water bucket of humility and you start to learn. Eventually you become better and then your belief in your skill begins to match your skill. If you have impostor syndrome,*** you probably aren’t experiencing DKE.

So what’s that got to do with critiquing?

Critiquing taught me that I had a lot to learn. It punctured the bubble of my own personal expression of the DKE. That was a valuable lesson, but I learned that in 2014 and I still critique today, so there has to be more to it.

As of today, I have critiqued at least 353 works averaging a length of 3000 words per work. Most of them are chapters in full-length novels. In addition to that, I’ve critiqued a few full-length novellas, several letters and personal essays (“why you should accept me to your school” or “Dear school board”), blog posts, and other miscellaneous writings. When I started critiquing, I suffered from the DKE there too. Because I’m generally good at grammar, punctuation, and spelling, I thought critiquing was just about those things. But then I began to notice that other people’s critiques were less focused on mechanics and more on content, and I began to learn. Today my crits are pretty good and some people have even sought me out to give them.

Yay, accolades. So why should you critique a lot? What will it give you?

First, critiquing the works of other people will help you put your own in perspective. Is yours better or worse? What can you learn from the other person’s work?

Second, when you catch a problem with someone else’s work, you have to articulate that it is a problem, why it’s a problem, and (if you’re knowledgeable) how to fix that problem. That forces you to use several different parts of your brain, which results in learning. The more I articulate the problems in someone else’s work, the more I’m likely to see and fix those problems in my own.

I’ve found that critiquing the works of others has improved my writing like literally nothing else, including writing daily and receiving the critiques of others, has done. It is the quickest and best “shortcut” to writing well. You must set aside the time to do it.

*The Dunning-Kruger Effect is at least in part cultural. Western culture invites us all to think we’re better at things than we are. People in non-Western countries don’t seem to suffer as much from it. I believe it’s also a characteristic of the fixed mindset.

**You know you’re getting publishable when your rejection notes are personalized. A personalized rejection note either means your book is publishable but they don’t want to buy it right now, or you’re this close to publishable. Form rejection notes mean you have a way to go.

***Impostor syndrome is when you think you haven’t accomplished something that you have. Neil Gaiman famously spoke about meeting Neil Armstrong at a party. Armstrong kept wondering why he got all this praise about going to the moon, when he just went where people sent him. Armstrong exhibited impostor syndrome, and his made Gaiman feel better about his own achievements, because Gaiman was feeling impostor syndrome too. Many people suffer from impostor syndrome. I certainly do as a teacher; people tell me I’m good but I don’t think I’m more than mediocre. Amusingly, you can suffer from impostor syndrome in one field and the DKE in another.