Sunday 8 November 2015

You *really* want me to critique you? Really?

The critique group that I started on yahoo in 2002, and ran for 10 years, is still going, though with hardly any traffic these days. In past years it would often get over a thousand posts a month and has seen a total of 64,654 posts.

I began learning to write by running a play-by-mail game called Saturnalia. I 'completed' that education in critique groups online.

My yahoo group opened with an introduction that made it very clear that delicate souls need not apply. This was to be a group that, unlike 99% of other groups, focused not on massaging egos but instead offered plain-spoken feedback without regard to the sensibilities of the writers. If what you wrote was badly written (in the opinion of the person giving the critique) they were encouraged to say so - and to offer advice to change that situation.

Friends and family are terrible people to show your work to. They will generally tell you how great it is. Regardless of what they think. They care about your feelings.

As a writer you're better served by people who know how to write and don't care about your feelings. You need people who are prepared to be cruel to be kind. And you need to thank them for that considerable effort (in a critique group you do this by critiquing their work back in an unbiased manner).

Most people are not ready to receive serious critique of their writing. Most probably never will be - and that's not a problem if they enjoy writing and are happy doing so as an end in itself.

I am asked most days, and often more than once on any given day, to read a book or story by someone. Generally I'm asked on Facebook, but also on Twitter or by email.

I decline with a cut & paste. When people are asking for feedback I decline harder! It takes a lot of time (which I don't have), a lot of effort, and since most people aren't ready for critique there are two likely outcomes:

a) I put the effort in and it makes them angry. I have worked to make myself an enemy.
b) I say 'that's great' irrespective of what's wrong with it. I have been of no use.

I'm also asked for writing advice in general. "Mark, I'm writing a book. Please give me advice."

I have blogged a few writing tips, about where my ideas come from, and some rules to write by. But I'm not about to publish a book on writing nor to type one into a message reply box for the next person to ask.

However ... I thought that given the relentless interest it would be good to have another page to point at, and one with some actual specific writing critique on it. So. If anyone wants to send me page 1 of their story/book and feels themselves to be sufficiently mature and thick-skinned to have me tell them I didn't like it and why (if I didn't), then they can mail it to me at [project has now finished] and I'll pick three at random and critique them in a future blog post/s. I don't much mind what format they come in - body of email is fine too.


So a while ago I did a series of page 1 critiques on this blog, ignoring my gut instinct that it would end badly. I did end up being attacked in certain quarters for "being mean", and since there's no point putting in the considerable effort just to create ill feeling ... I stopped.

Edit: Hear what another author had to say about this exercise recently.

Whatever people say, having your writing honestly critiqued can hurt, and our instinct is to react poorly to being hurt. Writers often put their heart and soul onto the page, something of themselves. If they were immune to the sting of honesty in that context then they might well be too walled in to be a good writer in the first place.

Critique (and indeed critiquing others) is, however, hugely valuable to a writer who hopes to improve.

I still get frequent requests for feedback on writing and my cut & paste reply highlights in addition to my lack of time and possibly opening myself to charges of plagiarism, the following no-win dilemma - why would I invest that amount of effort in someone who is not a friend, and if they are a friend, why would I risk losing their friendship by applying the sharp edge of honesty to it?

Here's my first one, Critique #1
And the second, Critique #2
And number three, Critique #3
Here's the fourth, Critique #4
A fifth! Critique #5
And more: Critique #6
Critique #7
Critique #8
Critique #9
Critique #10

2022 reprisal - you can check some of these out on my Youtube channel now!

Critique #11 Children of Gods and Fighting Men - Shauna Lawless
Critique #12 Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft
Critique #13 Strange the Dreamer - Laini Taylor
Critique #14 The Girl with all the Gifts - M.R Carey
Critique #15 Solomon - by me!
Critique #16 Wizard's First Rule - Terry Goodkind


  1. Yes, please! *crosses fingers and toes*

  2. This is really awesome of you to offer your time to do this :)

  3. As someone who was on that group when it had some traffic, I can say I learned a lot about writing and critiquing from participating in that group. Most folks were generous giving a line-by-line critique/edit that really helped me understand how people read my writing. I kept all those critiques so I could reference them later. And when I did line-by-line edits, I saw common mistakes and tried to help the writer make it a more solid piece. That was valuable experience.

  4. I'm sending mine right now. I want your critique. Badly. Please be lovely and choose mine at random. It would be such an honor to have you call it horse's ass, lols. I'm ready. I'm thankful. I promise :)

  5. Submitted. Thanks for all that you do to facilitate "amateur" writers.

  6. Okay, I've submitted. Looking forward to seeing the ones you choose, I hope mines among them.

  7. Thanks again for Mark for your efforts in helping (hopefully) the stars of the future - good on you :)

  8. Saturnalia, eh? Perhaps you remember a young lad whose alter ego was Goldstar? If so, twas me...So long ago, it seems...

    1. I do. I recall that in later life you acquired an eye-watering number of parking tickets ... how did that play out?