Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading for Critiques

Today we have a guest blog from Becky Levine, author of THE WRITING & CRITIQUE GROUP SURVIVAL GUIDE, which will be released by Writer's Digest Books tomorrow! Tomorrow is also Amanda's due date (although she's posting this early, so it's entirely possible the baby has already arrived...edit: and indeed, the baby arrived a little over a month ago!!!!!), and Becky was nice enough to step in to take over. Thanks, Becky!


Normally, when I talk about reading and critique groups, I’m talking about reading manuscripts from the other writers in your group. When I saw that all the Fictionista writers play with paranormal elements in some of their writing, I thought I’d write a post about another kind of reading you can do with your critique partners.

Analytic reading.

No, I’m not asking you to step back into college and write an essay. No footnotes required here. I am, however, going to point out the benefits of stretching your critique group a bit beyond the standard expectations. In one particular way.

If the members of a group sometimes, like the Fictionistas, write in a shared genre, you all have a specific need. You have to keep up with what is happening in your field, to see what’s being published, to understand what those writers are doing to make themselves successful. Do I mean that you should write (and critique) to the market? Definitely not. However, while you grow as a writer, you only help yourself by understanding your genre and staying in touch with what other writers in that area are producing. And the more you and your critique partners educate yourselves, the more constructive your feedback will be.

If, on the other hand, you and your critique partners are writing in a wide variety of genres, then I believe reading in each others’ field is critical. So many elements of a manuscript are different across genre—pacing, voice, the balance of prose to dialog. The expectations of a reader for literary novels are very different from those of a mystery reader; similarly most young-adult books have a faster, edgier prose than books for younger readers. For a critique to be truly helpful, the critiquer should be as familiar as possible with the type of books her partners are writing.

What can you do to educate yourselves and each other about a genre?
See if the group has time to set aside for discussions. If you’re swamped with productive writing and feedback, don’t push that aside. If, though, you have extra time (maybe that warm-up session that you spend catching up on the kids and the latest news in sports?), see whether you can use that time to fit in a book-group session.
Read the same book. If you’re writing in the same genre, select a book in that field that’s hit it big. If you’re writing in different genres, take turns picking a book. See if you can all pick out the elements that are particular to this field—what is it that makes this book YA or suspense or urban fantasy.
Take that book apart. No, I don’t mean literally. Literarily! Think as you read—approach this book as a critique. Dig past your first emotional reactions and get to the why and the how. Why do you like/dislike elements of the book, and how has the author manipulated his story and characters and text to make you feel that way? Make sure to read and analyze books you do and don’t like, so you’re talking about what works as well as what doesn’t.

We write because we read. We love books and we want to be part of the community of word people who produce stories for others. What better source of material can we have for educating ourselves, both as writers and critiquers, about tools and techniques that can make our own books better?

Go, read, enjoy, and learn!

Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, coming from Writer’s Digest this January. You can read more about Becky and her writing at her website & blog,


  1. Good tip! I love the idea of the crit group reading a book and analyzing it...I'm going to try that one.

  2. Amanda Brice8:15 PM

    Great tips, Becky! Thanks for filling in for me.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Becky.

  4. Thanks for visiting Becky. I love the difference between literally and literarily.

  5. Very interesting post! I recently joined a crit group and we do write in the same genre field... I'll definitely point them in this direction and think about doing just what you've advised!

    I'm new to the blog, but Happy Delivery to you, Amanda!! How exciting :-)