Ink-Stained Scribe

When Should You Ask for a Critique?

I would want my badass pegacorn to look like this,
I've been writing my whole life. Recently, Raven asked me to rewrite the first story I ever did, and I was forced to inform her of the terrible truth: I wrote my first story when I was three years old, and it involved a white pegacorn rescuing a cart-load of orphans from the Care Bears villain. Pretty sure I drew a coal-cart. (If I ever rewrite, I'm thinking Steampunk.)

Needless to say, my experience has been drawn out since the tender age of three-ish, and I've picked up a couple of things about asking for critiques along the way...mostly through doing it wrong. Now let's be clear that I'm still in the learning process myself, but from my experience (doin' it wrong) so far, there are two major mistakes new/amateur writers make when asking for critiques:

1. NOT asking for critiques.

Obviously, it's hard to improve, and even harder to publish if you never ask for critiques. There are plenty of people who are shy about their work, and I totally understand that. You're making yourself very vulnerable by sharing something that you've created, and we as humans do our very best to avoid being vulnerable. Realizing that you are not ready for criticism puts you a step ahead...unless you never ask at all. Assuming that most people are writing with the intent to publish, the worst way to hinder yourself is never to let anyone see what you've written.

2. Asking for critiques too early.

I'm going to focus on this second mistake, because it's the one I've made time and again. I've never been shy about sharing my work, which has its own set of problems. Most writing problems are like sliding glass doors, and most writers are like cats perched on the back of the couch, rump wriggling. Until we sail head-first into that sliding door, we don't realize it's there, even if other people have pointed it out.


This was my process in learning to ask for critiques. When was I ready? Let's find out:

"I have a few chapters and I want to see if my idea is good enough to pursue."

-Not yet.

A. This isn't so much a question, as a neon sign saying: "VALIDATE ME"

If you're still at the beginning of your novel, it can be really tempting to seek validation, but you've got to be prepared for the possibility of a negative reaction. What happens if your beta-reader tells you your premise or characters are cliche? Will you stop writing?

  • If you answered "yes", you're definitely not ready. The truth is, MOST first drafts read as cliched or hard to understand. A lot of writers don't really start understanding their own stories until at least half way through, and it's only in revision that the first three chapters reflect the real meat of the story.
  • If you answered "no", why are you asking whether it's good enough to write if you're going to write it anyway? You don't need someone to tell you it's good. Trust your own passion for your work.

B. No one else can know what you have in your head.

How many books have you read that start the same way? Boy gets magic object. Evil somethingorother shows up and destroys his village. Boy flees with mentor, only to realize that magic object is....

Right. So everyone probably has their own idea of what "..." stands for, but the important point is this: you know how your story is going to unfold, and what makes it unique. You can't expect a beta-reader to be able to tell from the first few chapters how epically mind-blowing is your premise, or how endearing is your main character. /Shakespeare

"I just wrote this scene, and it's so awesome, and I sent it to my entire writing group! I just need to share it with someone so we can talk about how awesome it is!"

-Not yet.

I'm still sometimes guilty of this, and there are a few reasons I discovered that made this a particularly bad time to ask for a critique.

A. I don't actually want criticism yet.

When I want to fangirl over something I've written, I'm not looking for someone to tell me that the character cries too much. I'm just looking for someone to squee with me. Maybe it's okay to send this to a really positive, fangirly supporter...but see the next point for why it's still not a good idea.

B. I can't concentrate on anything else but hearing back from my critique partners.

All the excitement and energy I've worked up by writing something I think is awesome turns to despair when no one has time to read or reply, and I stop writing until I get the validation I want. My suggestion? Turn that excitement into steam to write your next chapter. :)

"I'm not done with my book/story."

-Probably not yet.

I say "probably" here for a couple of reasons. Let's start with why you SHOULDN'T ask for someone to read an unfinished work, and then cite the exceptions.

A. You might not finish.

Did I just realize your nightmare? Fact is, your beta-readers will not thank you for sending them 30,000 words of a novel to read and critique, and then find that you've abandoned that story for something shinier, rendering their efforts pointless. Good beta readers are valuable, and you have to respect their time.

B. You'll probably have a lot of things you want to change by the time you get to the end.

I'll shoot out another anecdote here, because I'm guiltier of this than anyone else I know. I learn something with every novel, and I had to learn this advice in two stages.

With THE MARK OF FLIGHT, I started sending out one chapter at a time in 2003. I finished the novel in 2005, and sent it out again with revisions. Taking the suggestion of an agent, I cut out 50,000 words and sent it again. Then, in 2009, I rewrote 90% of it...and sent it out again. Now that I finally have a decent book, I've chopped off the beginning, and have planned out a set of six new scenes for the new opening. Guess what I'm going to do when I finish. Shocked my beta-readers haven't killed me yet? So am I.

With HELLHOUND, I wrote about 60,000 words in November, at which point I slapped the whole thing up on Google Docs and kept writing. After reaching the 106,000 word total, I had dropped a character, figured out my heroine's true "starting point" and come to realize that I was utterly embarrassed by the first 40,000 words or so, and wished no one else had read it.

The exceptions.
-You're a new writer, and you need a cheerleader. This is totally understandable, because most of us aren't confident when we do something for the first time, and those of us who are probably shouldn't be. The important part is to inform your reader that you are NOT looking for criticism, but the encouragement you need to finish the story.

-You're having plot trouble. It happens to all of us. Sometimes getting a fresh perspective, or even just talking out a problem at someone will help us to figure out where we went wrong and what we can do to get ourselves back on track. Often, this might be resolved by talking to another writer, but sometimes the problem is more elusive than that. I'm lucky enough to have a few really good beta readers.

-You're collaborating. Last week I wrote an entry about collaboration, and this is one situation in which I think it's absolutely essential to get critiques. You and your partner need to be on the same page (ha ha), and that means reading what the other person has written, and talking about where your visions diverged, or how a cool new idea might change the path of the plot in the future.

"I just finished my book!"
Shock! Amazement!

It might be ready.

Finishing a book is a huge accomplishment, but had I not already posted the first 50,000 words of HELLHOUND in Google Docs, I wouldn't have sent it out right away. Like I said before, you'll probably know a couple of things you want to change. If not, you'll probably spot them once the manuscript cools. It may not bother you to stare at your mistakes and know your beta readers will nail you for them, but it bothers me, because I'm lucky enough to have beta readers who won't be nice just because I know where they live.

I think it's all right to send it out at this stage, just know that you'll probably get critiques on things that you've already decided to change, and if you consistently tell your beta readers "I know, I'm doing *this* instead", they may feel less than necessary to your process, and a little resentful that they'll have to read it all again. (Sorry, Raven.)

I recommend you give your book a couple of weeks to marinate in its own awesome (or suck, if that's the case) before you pull it out and give it a good look. Make notes of what you'd like to change, and if you're not ready to revise, give your beta-readers these notes along with the manuscript.

To be clear, I haven't actually managed to do this myself, but I hope to take away the lessons I've learned this time around and work toward that goal.

"I finished my book/story, and I've let the manuscript cool. I'm okay with the thought of changing it."

Oh look, someone opened the sliding-glass door!

When do you ask for critiques? Have you ever asked for a critique too early? How do you know when you're ready? Answer in the comments!

photo by Basial