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 become a better speller

You’re going to hate this. The best way to fix spelling is the way I used in elementary school when I decided I wanted to be a good speller. (I wasn’t, at first.)

  • Read constantly, with your eyes (not your ears, Audible-lovers), in your genre. You will eventually be able to tell if a word you’re using is spelled wrong because you’ve seen it so many times. Then you can futz around with it or type it into Google, and it will give you the correct spelling. I can spell any number of complicated, obnoxious words off the top of my head but I still can’t spell ‘casserole’ without looking it up. I struggled with ‘strength’ and ‘sheriff’ and the like for most of my life.
  • Use mnemonics. This is easier if you have a broad and general knowledge base. I finally mastered ‘sheriff’ about two years ago via a combination of staring at the recruitment billboard for the local sheriff’s department at the left turn light to my street on the way home to work and by creating the “-iff” mnemonic. A sheriff determines if you’re a friend or foe. In SF naval books (I love those!) most of the weapons have an “if friend or foe” setting that allows the missiles to target enemy ships without hitting friendly ships. So I know it’s spelled “sheriff” instead of “sherrif” because of that.
  • Learn etymology. This takes a long time, but if you’re a word nerd you’ll love doing it. Words in English tend to have Latin, Greek, French, or German roots, and words tend to be clustered within those. We also borrow words from practically everywhere. ‘Tomato,’ for example, is from the Nahua word tomatl via the Portuguese, who changed it to tomate. Same with chocolate, jalapeño, and some of our other common foods. Once you understand the root word and the language it’s from, spelling and pronunciation become easier. For example, ‘chaos’ is Greek, and in Greek the ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘k.’ Chaos, chasm, chemistry, and so forth.*
  • Write the word over and over until you have it. I did this in elementary school. I used to misspell ‘went.’ My reasoning was that other w-words had ‘h’ after them. Where, when, why, who, etc. so ‘went’ must as well. I spent a good deal of my early years writing ‘whent.’ So one day I sat down and wrote ‘went’ on a piece of paper something like 100 times. I got it in my muscle memory. I practiced it. And now I don’t misspell it. I did the same thing with ‘dinosaur’ and ‘multiplication.’ It’s boring, and most of us don’t think we have time for that as adults, but it works. If there is a word that you frequently use in your writing that you have trouble spelling, you might set aside an evening and do this by hand. Don’t type it. If you just have one word to learn, writing the word again and again is quicker than mnemonics and much quicker than reading. Do it 100 times one evening, and then the next night do it 20 times, and the following night do it 10 times. Wait a week and try writing it and see if you have mastered the spelling. You’ll probably have mastered it by Day 2, but it’s good to check.

Anyone can learn to spell, including dyslexics. However, it takes time and willpower and desire, and it can be frustrating if you misspell most everything. My advice is to generally rely on spellcheck (don’t add custom words unless you know they’re spelled correctly!) and go from there.

*The Arabs got “chemistry” from the Greeks, who might have gotten it from the Egyptians, from the word ‘khem.’

How to punctuate

I’m an American and this applies to American English.

If you slept through elementary school grammar, or, more likely, your elementary and middle school teachers ditched GPS in favor of ‘creativity and self-expression’ (all of which all kids already have, so what’s up with that, elementary educators? I love you, but that fad–which is over now, I believe–created a good 10 years of people who can’t spell), then you will need to teach yourself punctuation.

It’s a sad fact that if you didn’t learn it in school you’re going to need to learn it on your own. Don’t complain about that. We only get so many days with you, and if you don’t pay attention because ‘you’re bored,’ that’s on you. GPS is fairly boring. So is learning how to clean your house, but you still need to do that.

Specifics on punctuation.

First, capitalize the first letter in every sentence. Your phone may do that for you, but your writing program, if it’s worth its salt, won’t. There are artistic writers who don’t do this and that’s fine. That’s them. Artistic writers are wonderful and they’re treasures, but they sure as fuck don’t make much money when they’re alive. If you want to write professionally, capitalize that letter. So many people don’t do this, especially younger writers.

End each sentence with a period, called a ‘full stop’ in British English. Sometimes end sentences with a question mark. Rarely (maybe once or twice per book) end a sentence with an exclamation point. Seriously. Do not use exclamation points. Not in narration–let me feel the excitement via word choice. Not in dialogue–if you’re writing your dialogue well and using the right actions surrounding it, you won’t need an exclamation point.

Example:

“Let’s go to the mall!” Jennifer said. “My game is in!”

This can become

Jennifer tossed her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Marcy. Today was expansion release day for their favorite game, Instant Spoils: The Dread Pirate’s Booty Four.* “Let’s go to the mall. Right now. Before school’s out, before everyone else gets there.”

The excitement should be generated through words, not punctuation. The rule of thumb I’d heard–and I fully agree with it–is that you should include no more than 2-3 exclamation points per novel. Otherwise you or your characters sound manic, melodramatic, and annoying. Use them sparingly, and they will carry quite an impact. Use them flagrantly, and you’ll wonder why people accuse you of writing purple prose.

About those question marks. Most people know you put a question mark after a sentence that starts with who, what, where, when, why, how, or if. Other words that start questions are does, can, may, should, will, is/are, and have.

You do not use a question mark if those words are in the middle of the sentence. “She asked me if I’d gone shopping” is not a question. It’s a statement.

You do use a question mark even if the question is delivered in a flat tone of voice. (Many people use question marks if, in their head, the sentence ends with a pitch lift.) If it’s a question and not a statement, use a question mark.

Example:

He threw his napkin onto his place, obscuring the half-eaten lobster tail. “Do you want to marry me or not?”

She sighed and played with her fork.

“You don’t want to marry me.”

Now that last sentence, if ended with a period, is a declaration. He knows she doesn’t want to marry him and that’s it. We could end it with a question mark, at which point it would become a question. “You don’t want to marry me?” invites her to answer, to give a reason, and subtly sounds different.

Other kinds of punctuation in English include the following: colon, semi-colon, comma, dash, hyphen, brackets, braces, parentheses, apostrophes, quote marks, and the ellipsis.

Colons are for lists. When you write a list, you separate the things in the list with a semi-colon. It would look like this.

“Go to the store and get me the following: hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.”

Semi-colons are also used to connect independent clauses. You can use it (sparingly) in lieu of a period. Please, please use it sparingly. Periods scan better.

She didn’t know why he hated her so much; all she’d done was try to please him.

Okay, but it works just as well with a period.

Hyphens are used to create compound terms such as ‘well-known,’ ‘part-time,’ or ‘mix-up.’

Dashes come in two flavors: the en-dash (the width of an ‘n’) and the em-dash (width of an ‘m’). The en-dash is used to indicate ranges, connections, or differentiations. The em-dash is used to provide strong emphasis and can be used in lieu of a comma, colon, or pair of parentheses when those don’t hit your point hard enough. Overuse of em-dashes will make your writing seem melodramatic.

“WWII was composed of two wars: the Pacific War, which ran from 1931-1945, and the European war, which ran from 1939-1945. Once the Japanese signed a treaty with the Germans, they became one war–the war we know of as WWII.”

Sometimes you put spaces before and after em- and en-dashes, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on style — the AP stylebook says to put spaces, but MLA says there should be no spaces. This is why you see no spaces in novels, but you do see spaces in newspaper articles. I learned punctuation in journalism class, using the AP stylebook, and I’m still taking the spaces out from around my em-dashes.

You also use em-dashes to indicate interruption. You can do that as per the examples below:

He glared at her. “What do you mean, I don’t–”

Her expression might have been a smile on anyone else’s face. “You didn’t ever satisfy me”–her gun moved to point at him instead of the server–“and now I want out of our arrangement. With all the diamonds, Scott. Every. Last. One.”

Note that when dialogue is interrupted and the speaker is finished, you put the em-dash within the quote, but when the dialogue is interrupted by action and the speaker is still speaking, you put the em-dash outside of the quote. (American English conventions.)

Parentheses () are for examples or qualifying marks, and could be theoretically removed from the sentence without affecting it whatsoever. You can also replace them with commas. I over-use them. If you refer to the Dashes paragraph above, you can see an example of parenthesis use. These are called ‘brackets’ in British English.

If you’re using parentheses, other punctuation almost always goes outside the closing parenthesis. Example:

After raising the hood of his car (and wiping his hands on his jeans), Billy checked the oil.

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence unattached to another sentence, put the punctuation within the end parenthesis.

Billy usually did his own oil changes. (He liked to get dirty.)

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence and is enclosed within another complete sentence, do not punctuate the parenthentical sentence.

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any) and ate it entirely (the schmuck).

Amusingly enough, you can add question marks and exclamation points to parenthetical sentences like the ones in the chocolate example. You don’t have to, and you probably shouldn’t in general, but if it works with your narrative or character’s voice, then it’s fine. So you could have the following:

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any!?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck).

Notice, however, that the period is still at the end of the sentence because the period ends the sentence (and should end almost every single sentence you write). <– note the parenthetical clause at the end, with the closing parenthesis and the period.

Brackets [] clarify meaning or introduce technical information. “You [Jon Snow] know nothing.” I’d use a bracket if I was quoting something precisely and needed to introduce information that the reader would need to understand the material. They are almost never used in fiction writing but are widely used in the sciences and social sciences, and in journalism. I might also write “I [Martin Luther King, Jr.] have a dream.” I’m quoting him directly, but in this context it’s very useful to add his name so you can get the reference. These are called square brackets in British English.

Braces {} are mostly used in computer programming and math. I never use them in any kind of writing that I do.

Ellipses (sing. ellipsis) are series of three to four period-like dots. They can be used a number of ways, but mostly should never, ever, ever be used in fiction writing except in dialogue. They’re spaced in a particular way and your computer will have a keyboard shortcut for them and/or will automatically space them. WordPress doesn’t do automatic spacing or format em-dashes properly, which is why my punctuation marks look a little ‘off.’

Some people use them to indicate a voice that is trailing off.

She twisted her napkin between her fingers. “Well, if you want to…”

There you use the three dot ellipsis because the sentence isn’t finishing, but there is other punctuation after. In the same example you could use ellipsis and end with a question mark, depending on if it’s a statement or a question, but generally with questions it’s better to just use the question mark. You can also use an ellipsis to indicate a space in a grammatically correct sentence.

“But…I thought you loved me!”

Note the lack of space before and after the ellipsis.

If you routinely use ellipses in your writing, you will look wishy-washy and amateur. Use a period. Stand by your statement. However, if you want your character to look wishy-washy, the occasional well-placed ellipsis will do that. Just please try not to use ellipses more than a couple times in a long chapter because it’s also somewhat jarring to readers (especially me).

In academic writing you use ellipses for one reason only–to indicate text that has been removed from a quote because you don’t need it, without rewriting the original sentence and opening yourself to charges of misrepresentation or plagiarism. For example, say I’m writing a newspaper article. A man is telling me about a chef he knows. I need to quote him directly, but we don’t need all of his words. I’d do the following:

Original quote: “She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines, all examples of citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Elliptical quote: “She bought…citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

The four dot ellipsis is used to indicate that the sentence is over. Example:

“She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines…. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Or I could use an ellipsis to join the two sentences.

“She bought…citrus fruits…for her latest pastry recipe.”

Again, you use that in academic writing or journalism only, where it’s understood that you are abridging a quote, not writing in a hesitant tone of voice.

Quotation marks are so much fun! In America, dialogue is set off with double-quotes, whereas in Britain it’s set off in single-quotes (and sometimes not at all) which can make it easy to tell the nationality of the author. We also use double-quotes when we quote someone else’s speech or writing.

Single-quotes in America are used to indicate something is unusual or special about the word, or to set the word apart for some reason, or to indicate that someone who is speaking is quoting someone else.

I said to my colleague, Mr. Smith, “Brian told me that you said, ‘there is absolutely, definitely no school on Friday.’ Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?”

The material set off in the single quotes is what Brian said, word for word, to me and I’m telling Mr. Smith that.

Most punctuation is set inside the quotation marks in America, with the exception of question and exclamation marks. Here are examples and reasons.

“Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?” –> Speaker A is asking Speaker B (you) a direct question. Question mark goes within the quotes.

Had she really said “I don’t love you any more”? I reeled in my seat, clutching for my glass of water. –> Speaker A (I) is thinking about something Speaker B (she) said to him directly. Question mark goes outside the quotes, because Speaker A is questioning the statement he’d heard.

“He said to me, ‘Are you sure you want this game?'” –> Speaker A (me) is relating to Speaker B about what Speaker C (he) has asked. Question mark goes inside the double and single quote marks.

“I love the Dread Pirate booty series!” He grinned at Jennifer from behind the counter as he rang up her purchase. –> Speaker A (I/he) is telling Speaker B (Jennifer) about something he’s emphatic about. Exclamation point goes within the quotes.

“I said to him, ‘Of course I want that game!’ It’s the hottest game of the year.” –> Speaker A (I) is telling Speaker B (the listener) about something she emphasized to Speaker C (him); the exclamation point goes within the single-quote for that reason.

I couldn’t believe she cancelled our date in favor of watching “When Harry Met Sally”! Wasn’t a real romantic relationship better than a movie about one? –> Speaker A (I) is thinking to himself, and the quotes are around a movie title. Since “When Harry Met Sally” has no punctuation, the exclamation point goes on the outside of the quotes.

The question mark or exclamation point go on the inside of the dialogue’s quotation marks when the person speaking is asking a question.

But what about periods and commas within quotes? Many, many people screw this one up, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn. When you write dialogue, you end the sentence with a period if you start a new sentence or include an action beat right after it. You end it with a comma if you use a dialogue tag.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park,” Jessie whispered, his lips swollen. He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. <– example of comma use because ‘Jessie whispered’ is a dialogue tag. In this case I added a clause after the dialogue tag to indicate why he was whispering, and added another sentence after.

Jessie whispered through swollen lips. “She beat me up as I ran through the park.” He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. –> Here the same idea is written as two sentences with a dialogue tag (whispered). Note how the dialogue ends in a period.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park.” Jessie sank into the chair, his lips swollen, his face a mass of bruised misery. –> Note the lack of a comma due to the lack of dialogue tag. If there’s no dialogue tag, there’s no need for a comma.

British English punctuates dialogue differently.

Apostrophes are the despair of many people. An apostrophe is used for many reasons:

  • To indicate omission of letters from words (aka ‘contractions’). Example: Cannot becomes can’t.
    • It’s means ‘it is.’ “It’s cold outside.”
  • To indicate possession (possessive case). That’s the cat’s favorite box, or Jerry’s remote control car is pink and purple.
    • Its indicates possession. That’s its favorite box, or I have a smartphone. My thumbs are too big for its keyboard.
  • To pluralize lower-case letters. There were too many s’s in that word.

What about words that end in -s? Despite what your English teacher may have taught you, there’s no hard and fast rule. Be consistent, and don’t stress about it too much. If you’re trad-publishing and your editor wants you to do it a particular way, do it that way. Publishing houses have style sheets, too, and they want you to ‘fit’ their punctuation style. That said, if you’re looking for examples, go here.

That said, you should never, ever put the apostrophe before the terminal -s. This is not a rule you ever get to break, period. People get mad about that stuff, as per the examples below.

  • That’s Thoma’s book. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed Thomas’s name to Thoma.
  • The Jone’s family. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed the last name ‘Jones’ to ‘Jone.’

And now for the almighty comma.

Do not put a comma wherever you breathe. If someone told you to do that, they were wrong. People breathe at different rates, and punctuation isn’t dependent on your lung capacity. In musical scores there will occasionally be an apostrophe above the staff. You breathe at the apostrophe. But otherwise there is no punctuation that correlates with breathing.

Commas are primarily used to separate clauses, or ideas, within a sentence. They can become rather complex, and, frankly, comma usage deserves its own article. Here are some real basics.

  • Use a comma to separate lists within a sentence if none of the items in the list requires commas itself. Her dress was green, red, and yellow. If any of the items in your list require commas themselves, use the semi-colon instead. …hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.
  • Use a comma and conjunction to join two sentences or independent clauses together. They went to the store, and then they went home. Generally you want to use periods for that sort of thing, but if all of your sentences in a particular paragraph are the same length, you can vary sentence length by joining two sentences this way. Be careful about overdoing it.
    • Don’t use a comma if the conjunction is joining two adverbs or adjectives that both modify the subject noun. In other words I type fast and well is correct because both fast and well describe how I type. My cat is pretty, and clumsy is wrong because both pretty and clumsy describe my cat. (Seriously. I’ve seen her miss basic jumps.) This should be easy to identify because and well or and clumsy aren’t sentences or independent clauses.
  • Use it to offset unnecessary information (clauses or words). My friend, John, bought that house. I ran, my feet aching, to work today. 
  • Use it after an introductory phrase (watch for dangling modifiers!). Grabbing her remote, Jennifer flicked on the television.
  • Use it with question tags or emphasis words. I know, right? The sunset is pretty, isn’t it?
  • Use it to set off dates. I wrote this on August 8, 2019, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
  • DON’T use a comma to separate articles (a, an, the) from nouns. Lots of people do this! She took the, poison is incorrect. Don’t even do it in dialogue to express a hitch in speech. Use an ellipsis or dash for that. You can, however, use a comma to separate two articles in dialogue to express emphasis or hesitation. “She took the, the poison” is okay, especially if I want to show that the speaker is amazed or startled.

There’s lots more on commas. You can find as many examples as your heart desires by visiting grammarly.

I used the following resources to write this page: Grammarly, The Punctuation Guide, GrammarBook, Your Dictionary, Grammar Girl (via Quick and Dirty Tips), Purdue OWL, Literary Devices, and Get It Write. I also recommend the books The Transitive Vampire (and other books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon); Eats, Shoots, and Leaves; and Woe Is I. I receive no kickbacks for links to books or websites.

*This game was created by Patricia Briggs and is featured in her Mercy Thompson series.

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.

Three things you need to do to write well

There are three things you absolutely must do if you intend to write novels.

The first is to actually write. Many people will say you should write every day, and I generally like that because repetitive practice does wonders and writing every day will get you to published quicker than anything else will. This holds true for sports, dance, music, art, and any other physical skill or mode of expression a person might want to develop into a career.

I’ve taught for many years now and I have had kids tell me they want to play professional ball. One of them, now in 10th grade, carried a basketball with him everywhere. Every chance he got, he was practicing. He woke up early to practice, stayed up late, and did quite well on our team. His parents got him a personal trainer (at great expense to themselves) and I honestly believe he has a shot. But he is one of at least 100 kids who’ve told me they intend to play pro ball, and he was the only one who practiced every day. Typically they tell me they want to play, but they don’t put in the 3-6 hours of practice a day that they need to become professionals.

Fortunately no writer has to put in 3-6 hours of practice a day to go professional. We’re not looking to be professionals at the age of 19. We won’t peak in our twenties and retire in our thirties with a busted knee. But it would be a good idea to do a little organized writing every day. It gets you in the habit. Some people say that if they have to write every day it turns into a chore, and this can be true for some (not for me; I get an endorphin rush every time I write). But, if you intend to go professional, writing really will be a chore. At least part-time. If you only write when it’s fun, you won’t make much money at it.

That said, I don’t write every day. I wish I could. The ADHD makes it hard and so does my job. When report cards are due I must grade first. I don’t intend to make any money off of writing for at least several more years, though. I love my day job. I’m 44. I’m hoping to be publishable by the time I’m 55, so that I can have supplemental money (note — supplemental — writing pays for shit for most people) when I retire. I’m not your average young hopeful with dollar signs in their eyes.

The second is to read.

Read everything, but especially read fiction, and especially read fiction both in your genre and of the length you want to write.* You must read, and you should read fiction for at least half an hour every day. I typically read fiction for an hour or more. You could get away with not reading as much if you’re writing for TV or movies or something, but if you intend to write something other people will read, you must read too. I’ve read a lot of works from people who don’t read, and they struggle greatly with things like how to use words to describe settings, feelings, character, action (especially fight scenes, sex scenes, etc.). They struggle with sentence formation, paragraph structure, and the like.

Reading will not only tell you a lot about what’s considered normal in your genre, but it will teach you more about the above than any craft book, lecture, YouTube video, etc. You must read. (Plus there are genre conventions that work well, visually, but don’t work at all in text, like the jump scare. That’s a staple for horror movies but doesn’t work too well in print.)

You also want to read a tremendous amount of nonfiction because you need the largest base of general knowledge you can possibly get. I loved general education classes in college and structured my GE to help me as a writer. Today I’ve read articles on the writing process, ADHD and ADHD medications, assault weapons laws, weight loss recidivism, women and professional imaging, Morton’s toe, parents who eat lunch with their kids at elementary schools, wolf packs, teaching, and the news. Part of that is my ADHD, but part of it’s also building up such a base of general knowledge that research becomes easier.

I’ve also noticed that if I write a lot without reading much fiction, I run out of words. It’s the strangest thing. I stop being able to describe things. I think of reading as taking in fuel. You better gas up before you drive to grandma’s, that sort of thing.

The third is to critique other peoples’ works. That one deserves its own article in the interest of not making these too long.


*It’s also very, very important to read outside your genre. You should be familiar with every genre’s conventions, especially since they cross over to an extraordinary degree. Many thrillers, mysteries, SF/F books, etc. have romantic subplots, just as an extraordinary number of books are actually mysteries. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is basically a mystery packaged as a young adult fantasy novel. I know there are a number of men out there who would not be caught dead with a romance, but that’s what Kindle is for. No one can see the cover of the book you’re reading when you’re reading on a Kindle, and if your masculinity is that fragile, you can always delete it from your Kindle when you’re done. It’ll still be there for you in Amazon’s cloud.