Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lessons from the Critique Group

*"I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because slamming your head against the wall when you publish a post with mistakes in it is bad for your health."*

Like most writers who know what they're about, I have an awesome critique group that I meet with regularly. We're all writers and we critique each other's stuff, giving one another support, encouragement, and constructive criticism on our writing. We cover small things like grammar, word choice, and sentence structure, as well as bigger things like characterization, story arc, and plot. 

This past week, we met as we usually do, and I got some excellent reminders about my writing. Nothing I didn't already know, but this is why critique groups are so great! They remind us of things we may be slacking on.

Three major things I was told to look out for in my writing:

1. Gender Voice
2. Crutch Words
3. Sensory Details

The piece of writing I submitted to the group was a chapter of my Dragon Magic manuscript, a high fantasy story with an ensemble cast of characters and--you guessed it--lots of dragons. This particular chapter was told from the POV of Wenlyn, a seventeen-year-old dragon rider.

1. Gender Voice. One thing I said--that my character felt all warm and tingley--was questioned by one of the men in my critique group. "A guy would never say he was warm and tingley," he told me. "That's gotta go."

While writing it, I figured it worked because he's young. I have personally heard my now-eighteen-year-old brother say that exact thing. But...when I stopped to think about it, I realized my brother only uses it sarcastically or while joking, and it's true that most guys wouldn't say that in any kind of seriousness. When I thought about Wenlyn's character, I realized the critique was a good one. I was able to find something more suitable to put there. 

Lesson: Always be aware of the gender and age of your characters. How would they think? What would they say? I've been told I write male characters fairly well, but even I can slip my feminine mindset in sometimes without realizing it. Always a great reminder! (Thanks Wyatt!)

2. Crutch Words. I was told that I used the word 'but' an inordinate number of times in my chapter. Another gal was told she used 'as' a bit too often. Worried, I went back through several chapters looking for the word 'but' in all my chapters. The critique for this particular chapter was definitely correct--I used it WAY too many times. In other chapters, I'd written, it wasn't so bad. But I realized something: there are some days I can sit down and the words just flow and the chapter comes quickly and naturally. Other times, I really have to work hard to pound out the words. During the times it's harder, that's when I slip most into the use of crutch words. I have a sneaking hunch that this--or something like it--is probably true of most authors.

Lesson: Be on the lookout for your own crutch words. Even if you use them a lot in your first draft, make sure to check to edit them out when you go back through. Ask your beta readers to be on the lookout to help you recognize what your crutch words are so you can steer away from them.

3. Sensory Details. Part of the chapter I submitted included two men riding atop a dragon and trying to speak to one another. When I wrote it, I focused mostly on the conversation and what information to reveal to the reader through the conversation. Every person in my group pointed out that I didn't take the opportunity to put in details of wind, the beating of wings, and the difficulty of talking at that altitude and speed. They were totally right! I wasn't focusing on that at all. Now, this is sort of how I write: for my first draft, I focus on the action and moving the narrative forward. Not until I go back through and do my first edits to I focus more on character, quirks, setting details, etc. Yet, if this hadn't been pointed out by my group, I might not have thought to put it in even when I did edit, so I'm glad they gave me a specific area to fill in with these details.

Lesson: Don't forget to add details that incorporate all five senses. They'll ground the reader in your world and make the experience more real for them. 

So, what lessons have you gleaned from your writer's group lately?


  1. Great thoughts. I agree about gender voice being crucial. Irnically, men say they can't write women (that's why in movies and books women are always talking about dating or dieting... snore) but I've read things by even very popular authors (ahem, LKH) and thought "no men act like this, do you know how to write men?" And let's face it, male or female, if an author can't write 50% of the population, they can't really write. So it's important to keep track of everyone's tone and motivations.

  2. Incorporating all five senses was something it took me a while to learn. I tended to ignore smells and sometimes touch.
    Crutch words - yes, I have them!

  3. yeah, I don't think the phrase "warm and tingley" has ever crossed my mind. I usually use, but considering the results I may switch to Grammerly.

  4. Nice to meet you! I like your tips! We were just talking about the importance of gender voice today, so I love that one! I learn so much the more I work at it and my CP's are such a great support. They teach me so much!