How to Recognize a Toxic Critique of Your Novel

by Adrienne deWolfe

I’m a huge advocate of critique groups. I humbly credit mine for advancing my skills sufficiently to help me land my first five book contracts and to win such distinctions as the Best Historical Romance of the Year.

Critique groups can provide a powerful and constructive forum for helping fiction writers craft a popular fiction manuscript -- one that sells.

However, critique groups can also perpetuate some of the silliest myths about the business of writing, while nurturing some of the most dysfunctional personalities in the writing community.

My advice to writers? To have a positive critique group experience, be sure you thoroughly research the genre guidelines for the novel you plan to write. Then do some gentle probing to learn the hot buttons of your potential critique group readers.

For instance, an individual who is tired of the proliferation of vampire and werewolf novels may be impatient with the type of characters you want to feature in your Fantasy novel. An individual who is going through a nasty divorce may be especially acerbic while evaluating the writing in your Romance novel. Someone who is staunchly pro-environment may be uncomfortable with the historically accurate way you depict Railroad magnates in your Western novel.

In short, personal prejudice often seeps into story critiques.

Personal prejudice is not a good enough reason to re-write portions of your fiction manuscript.

When Should You Join a Critique Group?

Assuming that you are sincere about becoming published in commercial fiction, my advice to writers is that you postpone critique group membership until after you've completed a solid, foundations course in fiction writing and novel structure.

Why? Because the success of your critique group experience will depend on recognizing the difference between strong writing and weak writing -- and a critique that is steering your writing in the wrong direction.

Not all critique groups have members who are educated about the marketplace or the foundations of fiction writing. I have seen dozens of aspiring authors re-write manuscripts multiple times based on the uneducated advice of critique partners, who are operating under misinformation or rumor.

These uneducated opinions about "good writing" or "what sells" can cause you to overwork your manuscript. Stale manuscripts are easily spotted by savvy editors, who promptly return them to the writer. Even worse, you may grow so frustrated with your book, that you quit writing and end your publication dream!

Book Writing Professionalism vs. Amateur Pride

Once you are clear that the critique group members will be good Beta Readers of the book you're writing, you must clearly communicate the types of feedback that you're seeking. Then be prepared to bite your tongue and listen. Even when your Beta Readers have the highest intentions for your success, the unpleasant truth remains: literary criticism hurts, no matter how kindly it's delivered.

If you truly hope to be published, then you must accept that literary criticism will haunt you throughout your career. If you can’t learn to shelve your smoking pride during a peer review, then you’ll be poorly equipped to face rejection from literary agents and book editors. You will also be poorly equipped to cope with book reviewers (who will rip apart your novel on the Internet.)

By learning how to cope with literary criticism early -- in a detached and unemotional manner -- you will survive the business of writing with your dignity and your self-respect.

In the following sections of this article, you'll learn:

  • How to choose the right Beta Reader for you
  • How to solicit the best advice from your Beta Reader
  • How to recognize inexpert writing advice from your Beta Reader

How to Write Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

How to Choose the Right Beta Reader for You:

If you're ready to solicit advice from other writers, congratulations. You've arrived at an important milestone on your writer's journey.

However, before you begin your search for the right Beta Reader, be brutally honest with yourself. Why are you asking for story critiques from other writers?

If you’re secretly hoping to boost your writing confidence, you may not be ready for a critique.

Investigate Credentials

Learn as much as you can about the credentials and personalities of the writers in your potential critique group before you submit your work.

For example, in what fiction genre(s) are they published? If they're unpublished, what are they writing? How well-read / knowledgeable are they related to your fiction genre? Are they bare-bones beginners, who have never completed a manuscript or submitted one for sale? Are they intermediate writers, who've completed at least one book manuscript and have won contests in the fiction genre they are writing? Or are they advanced writers, who have earned the sincere interest of literary agents and book editors and who appear to be on the verge of selling?

Please understand that a book sale does not necessarily make a published author good at giving a writing critique. Many published authors are wonderful storytellers but poor analysts. For instance, they may be able to point out where your story lacks suspense, but they may have trouble turning their opinions into specific instructions for fixing a passage, based on the fundamentals of fiction writing.

Pre-published authors can be astute Beta Readers, especially if they read heavily in your genre. However, if these authors are beginning writers, or even intermediates, they may urge you to "cut the whole scene" when some savvy line-editing would suffice. This predicament typically occurs because beginners and intermediates haven't learned the advanced techniques of book writing.

No matter who is providing your novel critique, you must learn to differentiate between knee-jerk reactions and well-supported suggestions, in which the reviewer is capable of citing a rule of fiction or novel structure.

Even a well-supported novel critique isn't always comfortable, so abide by this rule of thumb: if you receive the same criticism at least three times (from three different, knowledgeable fiction writers), then take a good, hard look at the suggestion.

Know Your Fiction Genre, Your Subgenre, and Your Target Audience

Do your market research. I’ve seen far too many fiction writers sabotage their progress by re-writing a book based on someone’s uneducated interpretation of the marketplace.

For instance, if you’re writing Romance, and you receive a story critique that says, "too much emotionalism,” or tells you that “no man would read this book,” then your reviewer’s observations are moot. He doesn’t understand your market.

By the same token, if you’re writing a technothriller, and story critiques are complaining about the lack of technological detail in your prose, you should prick up your ears.

Communicate What You Want from a Novel Critique

What kind of feedback do you want in your story critiques: a general overview or a line edit?

A line edit is exactly what it sounds like: a line-by-line evaluation of your grammar and syntax. It is often helpful to your critique partners to know what kind of line edits you're seeking (Example: "Please help me eliminate weak, 'to be' verb constructions and suggest stronger verb choices.")

However, if glaring areas of weak plot conflict, weak characterization, or slow story pacing pop up, your reviewer may elect to give you additional direction, noting where areas could be condensed, or where a character could be "fleshed-out.” If this is kind of evaluation is acceptable, let your critique group know.

Keep in mind that the job of your critique partners is not to write massive revisions into your manuscript. That's your job – or the job of an editor whom you pay.

Let me explain: book editors at publishing houses do not have time to line-edit massive amounts of fundamentally flawed prose. If your manuscript falls into the flawed category, book editors will pass on the opportunity to buy your manuscript. They will offer contracts to the genre fiction writers whose manuscripts demonstrate mastery of novel structure and fiction fundamentals. If you need to brush up on these techniques, I invite you to apply for my coaching program for commercial fiction writers.

If you are an advanced writer who has been published in your fiction genre, or if you're truly on the verge of publication, I recommend that you direct your editor (or critique partners) to provide you with general feedback in each novel critique. (Example: "I liked Chapter One, but your heroine was a bit unsympathetic in the kid scene.") To get the most value out of general story critiques, make clear to your critique partners what you want them to focus on. (For ideas, see the questions on the next page).

7 Questions that Every Novel Critique Should Answer

If you submit the following questions, in advance, to your critique partners and/or paid editor, they can provide a concise critique based on fiction fundamentals.

#1. Was my scene compelling?

In other words, did I emotionally move you as a reader? Did I make you eager to turn the pages? If not, where did you lose interest?

#2. Was my writing clear and consistent on the first read?

If not, where did you re-read passages?

#3. Is my characterization complex and compelling enough to keep you interested?

[Note: Your writing should give your reader a clear and compelling reason for each character's behaviors -- even the less than noble ones, such as theft. Even if your reader personally abhors thieves, your writing should make the character's theft logical within the framework of your story.]

Did you understand the goals, motivations, and conflicts of my characters? Did you feel the tension between the hero/heroine (Romance) or the protagonist/antagonist (other fiction genres)?

#4. Do the endings of my chapters make you want to read more?

Did my cliff-hangers work? Were you eager to read the next scene?

#5. How is the pacing of each scene? Each chapter? Part I?

Did you feel "jerked around," or did you feel like you were smoothly transitioned into each new scene/chapter? Were my action scenes urgent enough? Did my suspense scenes escalate with tension? Did my mood-setting scenes evoke emotions based on each of the physical senses?

#6. Please cite rules of fiction and novel structure; avoid criticisms based on your personal preferences as a reader.

If your reader loathes your genre, or is unable to analyze your submission based on the foundations if fiction and good novel structure, then I suggest that you take his or her opinions with a grain of salt.

#7. At this time, I (would) (would not) like feedback on my writing style.

In most book writing circles (especially published ones), criticizing a writer’s style is taboo. But what is meant by style?

You could describe it as the writer’s voice, or his unique way of phrasing story narrative. I like to think of it as creative license.

How to Recognize Inexpert Writing Advice

Let’s look at some sample criticisms. These are rife with personal prejudice, rather than market sophistication or knowledge of novel structure and the fundamentals of fiction. Each of the following examples was overheard during a live critique session.

#1. “This idea has been written before.”

No idea is new. Even Shakespeare was penning ideas that had been passed down through the Oral Traditions hundreds of years before the Elizabethan Age. Keep in mind that some readers of commercial fiction actually want to immerse themselves in the same archetypal story over and over again. For this reason, the Western, the Thriller, and the Romance novel still thrive.

#2. “Editors hate prologues.”

Who started this urban myth? While an occasional book editor may be anti-prologue, hundreds of novels containing prologues get published each year, and they sell as well as books without prologues. Scoundrel for Hire and Always Her Hero, my fourth and fifth published Romance novels, both opened with prologues. Both novels also won awards -- and they were nominated for these awards by book editors. Well-written prologues don't prevent novels from selling.

#3. “One-sentence paragraphs are grammatically incorrect and should never be used.”

Although this criticism sounds valid, it’s a myth. One-sentence paragraphs are completely acceptable in fiction when writing dialogue. Furthermore, one-sentence paragraphs are a stylistic device used by fiction writers to add emphasis to an idea that might otherwise get buried in long passages of narration. One-sentence paragraphs can pick up the pace, heighten suspense, and add humor.

#4. “I don’t like to wait for character information to be revealed. I want you to write important traits, like hair color and age, as soon as you introduce that character.”

While there are exceptions to every rule, accomplished fiction writers understand that character traits and background should be revealed bit by bit to keep the reader interested. A complete "background dump" of a character's physical attributes in the first two or three lines can be distracting -- and can read like a news report.

#5. “I don’t like the word scarlet. Why can’t you just say what you mean and use red?”

This example represents any suggestion in which a literary crusader wants to argue word-choice to death. Give it a break! Scarlet is a perfectly acceptable word in the English language. So are crimson, ruby, Titian, and vermilion. Unless an adjective, adverb or verb is used to the point of overkill, or in a manner which is inconsistent with the character’s personality and the tone or setting of the novel, the literary crusader is wasting everyone’s time.

#6. “I hate (talking animals) (tree-huggers) (suicide bombers) (New Age rhetoric) etc. Delete that nonsense from your book.”

Arguing with boors is not going to improve the caliber of the story critiques they give you. If your reading partners can’t be constructive reviewers for the book that you want to write, exercise your inalienable right to quit the group.

#7. “Your writing is too purple.”

Ah, the greatest insult in Writerdom. Some niche readers may not realize that lush prose is acceptable – even expected – in certain genres. In published Romance novels, for instance, evocative passages are common (and often demanded by book editors). However, if your reviewer can support his criticism by pointing out specific instances where your style slows the pace, or detracts from the reader’s understanding of the scene, then he may have a legitimate complaint.

#8. “You’ll never get this story published.”

If your critique partner is truly psychic, ask for stock market tips (then send me his phone number!)

However, if your critique partner rubs elbows with literary agents and book editors, faithfully reads Publishers Weekly, or accesses some other conduit that legitimizes his “insider knowledge” about current market trends, his tactless commentary may have merit. You may need to accept that your story may not become your first (or next) book-length sale. Keep in mind that publishing is a cyclical business. For example, in 1990, no editor of my acquaintance would touch a fantasy Romance. Nowadays, editors can’t buy paranormal manuscripts fast enough.

Summing Up The Pros and Cons of Writing Critiques

Soliciting a critique from other fiction writers can be highly advantageous. Critique groups can also bring you face-to-face with some fire-breathing personalities. If you venture into the dragon’s lair, be prepared to stand the heat. You’ll learn more about yourself and your writing than you could possibly learn from a style book.

When the sparks start flying, toughen your hide, practice some humor, and refuse to let your confidence go up in smoke.

The article, How to Recognize a Toxic Critique of Your Novel, is copyrighted by Adrienne deWolfe.