Critiquing? Let’s brainstorm (with Anne Gracie)

Hi, Anne Gracie here, thinking about how critique groups and critique partners have become such a huge part of a writing life.

I know I can’t get along without the help of my writing mates. I have a book just out (The Accidental Wedding — and it has a beeeyoutiful cover! Yay!)  On the dedication page is a list of some of the people who helped me get it there.

The longer I’ve been published the less I know about what editors want —  so leave the possibilities open and be your friend’s incredibly helpful reader, not their teacher, mentor or advisor.

The hardest part of the critique process comes after the beginner level is past. Often people are at a loss when they read someone’s work, especially if problems are few and far between. What if there are no typos, no grammar mistakes, no head hopping, no obvious problems? Where do you go then?

I think one of the most important things is to respond to a piece, not correct it.

I’m offering some suggestions here, but I’d love it if anyone reading the blog would add to the list. Maybe then we can put it all together and pop it in HeartsTalk for everyone to benefit from.


*What’s good about the piece?

What parts did you like? Tick the good bits.

Did you find any parts particularly interesting or striking in some way? eg dramatic, tense, funny, beautiful, clever, effective, etc.? Note the words in the manuscript that created this effect. This is really useful

If there’s any confusing bit, say you got confused, but leave it for them to fix.

*The Plot:

What’s the central conflict in the book? Brainstorm a log-line or premise and use it as a compass for your book.

Here’s an example from The Accidental Wedding (out now with a gorrrrgeous cover 😉

An injured man, a desperate woman…

She saves his life. He fakes amnesia…

Is there a core of conflict at the heart of each scene?

Is the plot moving along well?

How does this incident fit into the plot overall?

What are the emotional consequences of this incident for the hero / heroine?

What are the plot consequences of this incident?

Any weak or clichéd plot devices? Can they be improved? Twisted to make a surprise? Readers love good surprises.

Brainstorm some ‘what ifs’.

*The Characters:

Are the characters coming to life? What words, phrases, actions, etc. make them come to life?

What impressions do we get of the hero / heroine? Jot them down and link those impressions to the words actually on the page.

Over time, look at how the characters are developing through the story. Novels are about character change. How are these characters changing? What causes the change?

Are their actions convincing? Motivations clear? If not ask questions.

Attraction ratings of hero / heroine. What makes them attractive? Anything that puts you off them? Note the words in the manuscript that created this effect.

Minor characters – are they effective? There for a good reason? In danger of dominating?

*The Chapter:

Does it open well? Close well, with a hook to draw the reader on?

Questions raised in the reader’s mind make for a page-turner. What “story questions” or “scene questions” are operating in this piece?

How does it stand in relation to other chapters read?

Is the pacing working? Could the piece be tightened for pace?

Anything left out that could perhaps be included? Too much detail? Not enough detail?

* The Romance:

How well is it developing? Does it involve/intrigue/excite the reader?

Are their actions/responses well grounded and believable?

Is the reader barracking?

Are there any places it’s sagging? Suggestions for overcoming this.

Are the barriers to the protagonists’ happiness convincing? Original?

* Feel free to tell them it’s wonderful and that nothing needs redrafting. But only if it’s true.

So what about you? Do you have any suggestions for things people can comment on?

What’s a useful piece of advice you received about your writing?

I’ll give a copy of The Accidental Wedding (the book with the scrumptious cover!) to whoever offers a piece of advice I think is the most useful.

The Accidental Wedding

An injured man, a desperate woman…
She saves his life. He fakes amnesia…

When Nash Renfrew wakes in the bed of lovely Maddy Woodford, he has no memory.  In the days following his accident, he is charmed by her bright outlook on life, but he lives for the nights, when she joins him chastely—more or less—in her bed. When his memory returns, Nash asks for just one more night before he leaves. But it’s one night too many and it creates a scandal that leaves him no choice but to offer her marriage.

With five orphaned half-siblings in her charge, Maddy needs the security Nash offers and can’t resist the promise of passion she’s experienced in his embrace. Well born, but poverty-stricken, Maddy knows she’s not the wife he planned on, but he’s everything she’s ever dreamed of. But will passion be enough? He’s a diplomat who knows Czars and Princes and Grand-dukes and she’s just a country girl who’s never even been to a ball.  Can their new-found love survive , or will this accidental marriage destroy her dreams and his career?

  • Publisher: Berkley (October 5, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425233825

For more about Anne Gracie, visit her website.


And the winner of The Accidental Wedding is Bronwyn!

Leave a comment


  1. Hi Anne,

    I think the most useful piece of advice I’ve received is, ‘know the market’. Know what publishers are looking for. There are so many publishers out there, and they are so varied in what they publish and what they are seeking.

    My first question in critiquing is: ‘What publisher are you targeting?’ I find this so helpful.

    Suzanne 🙂

  2. Hi Anne,

    Thanks — this is really helpful advice. You’re right — when critiquing beginners, it’s easy to fix technical mistakes. It’s when you’re past those things that the critiquing job becomes tougher and more demanding. Your suggestions on what to look for and how to relate comments back to the manuscript are invaluable. Thanks.


  3. Oh, and I forgot to add my own piece of advice — I’m a great fan of pointing out the good stuff in someone’s work. A smiley face when a character’s words or actions made me laugh. A *sob* when I was moved. A comment like “I have writer envy!” when I read one of those “perfect” sentences that just glows. It’s the kind of thing I love to get back from my CP’s — it shows me where I’m going right and makes the job of fixing up where you’re going wrong that little bit easier on the ego…

  4. Suzanne, that’s very true. So many people write a story and then try to fit the market around it. In some ways, that’s great — you need to spread your wings and learn to fly before you decide to clip them. And for some people that works brilliantly. Then again, for many it doesn’t.

    I think if you’re looking for a career as a writer, you need to take the long view.

    For a new writer starting out, I’m an advocate of writing the story you have to write and then seeing who it might suit. Some hugely successful writers like Katie Fforde and our own Anna Jacobs started off targeting Mills and Boon, and didn’t sell. They could have spent the next few years clipping their wings to suit an M&B line, as many hugely successful M&B writers no doubt did, but instead they looked to their writing strengths and followed that line.

    For me, some of the phrases in my category romance rejection letters signalled “problems” in my submitted manuscripts that are now regarded as my strengths in writing ST historicals — the minor characters, the background detail, the humor.

    So yes, know your market, and yes, learn your strengths.

  5. Thanks, Emmie. I completely agree with you about looking for the positives and telling people where it’s working well. Honest praise is rocket fuel for the writer.

    That’s why I advocate a reader response, rather than “correction” or even “suggestions for improvement.” If there’s a problem, discuss it in more general terms and search for techniques and principles — eg “How can we make readers empathize more with our heroines”

    A writer need to remember that different readers respond quite differently to a piece of work. What one person (or critique group) dislikes, another may love. You need to take honest feedback on board and then decides if it’s relevant to you or not.

    Readers are amazingly various. I’ve read published books that I don’t like as much as a contest entry that failed to final. I’ve seen contest winning manuscripts that never get published.
    So it’s good to get reader responses, but not to rely on them to take your books to the heights you need.

  6. Hi Anne, great post!
    Loved reading your hints and tips when critiquing peoples work.
    For me, the one thing that I probably used to struggle with the most was dialogue tags. I think I’ve used way too many he/she said to mention. Now I’ve learnt that to add a detail of what the character is doing, shuffling papers on a desk, walks to a window and gazes out, works just as well explaining to the reader who’s saying what.
    Tam 🙂

  7. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for doing this piece and at a critical time for some of us! I think the most important job of a critter (not the creepy crawly type) is not to change the voice or the feel of another person’s story. I had a lady tell me that a lost child would have made for a more interesting read in one of my Blaze contemps I was trying out for size. She then went on to tell me how I could do it. In the end, there was a whole nother book with different characters (that I told her to go and write, really, I don’t mind =))

    So offer grammar and punctuation, an extra description here and there but remember it’s not your story, someone else wrote it and have sucked up the courage to ask for help, not a total rewrite. I also think it’s important to leave a crit group if it doesn’t fit with you or the level you’re at. Easier said than done but if you’re not comfy, chances are it’ll show in your crits and comments.

    Anyway, that’s my three cents worth (or four)


  8. Tamara, yes, replacing speech tags with action (or other) tags is a very useful hint.
    Thanks for offering that hint.

    Bron, I so agree with you. There’s a very delicate path between offering suggestions and railroading someone’s story. It’s especially hard when the group is made up of writers, all bursting with ideas. That’s why I suggest you ask questions and give responses, rather than offering advice or trying to “fix” someone’s story.

    All writers – particularly developing writers, need to protect their voice — and voice is not just a matter of writing style. It’s the kind of themes you like to explore, the sort of characters you like to portray, the tone, the settings, all kinds of things, and well meaning “help” can sometimes miss the importance — and the delicacy of this.

  9. Kylie Griffin

     /  October 6, 2010

    Hi Anne, this is a great piece to be sharing as our RWA contest season starts up again. Some great tips and hints for potential judges and for authors to analyse before sending off their entries.

    One of the most practical pieces of advice I received in relation to the romance element in my work and subsequently deepening character POV. The process uses highlighters – no, not the Margie Lawson EDITS system, something a little different :-). The person who gave this to me knew I was a visual learner and it worked like a charm.

    Choose any three colours. Identify the following in your work and use one colour for each:
    * for attraction
    * for the emotional response to that attraction
    *for the conflict arising from it

    Once you’ve done this ask yourself is there a little or a lot of one colour etc.? And are you focusing on the external reactions to the detriment of the internal?

    Quite a specialised tool for critiquing your own work but very, very useful.

  10. maryde

     /  October 6, 2010

    Hi Anne,
    and thanks to Kylie Bronwyn, Tam, Emmie, Suzanne
    These are all great tips and advice.
    Especially from my POV as an unpublished author and an interested Contest Judge.
    I really like your idea Kylie, because I am a face-to-face and visual person too.
    As with Critting, I think patience is a great virtue— with another’s work or with what ideas given for your own.
    After all, as the author, you know what you think your characters are going to do or would like to do and where they are headed…. but another on the outside is trying to understand and sometimes that is very hard to convey to another. (does that make sense?)
    I read another’s work and may see something that stands out straight away, other points have to be taken into consideration, so have a long, hard think, “is it only because I do not understand quite what is going on – it is their work. :)?
    But as a relatively new hand at the sharing “stuff” I’d like to say it can be very daunting. I find it confusing at times wading through the gallons of “advice” out there, so I try to take on board a little bit of the seepage at a time. :))
    And then only keep what I understand or that what will assist me in the present. Otherwise I find it is too easy to get weighlayed in the deluge.
    I like what you said Bronwyn. 🙂 You put your ms/entry out there…..That in itself takes a HUGE amount of GUTS…. 🙂

  11. Cath Evans

     /  October 6, 2010

    What a fantastic list of’ ‘things to look for’, Anne – thanks 🙂 And a great list of added ‘things’ from the comments. My poor CPs will hate me now!!!

    I also like to mark words/phrases/incidents that jar you out of the story. It might be that the word is too harsh/soft, or the sentence isn’t easy to read, or just that the incident doesn’t feel right. I usually put a comment as to what I felt.

    As a writer sometimes you forget to drag your reader along with the story/character development. A jarring bit often shows that I’ve missed the mark with my writing.


  12. Kylie, that’s a terrific idea. Thanks for sharing.

    I used to make a kind of chapter chart that had a square for each scene and you wrote a summary of each scene, and above it, you wrote the plot consequences of the scene and below it, the emotional consequences. Was also quite useful, but I think your system is beautifully accesible and visual.

    Maryde, there is a theory of learning called the I +1 theory, and briefly it says that you can only teach someone what they are ready to learn, and in quite small increments. And I think that’s so true. Don’t worry about the “gallons of advice” — you will absorb and internalize what it is you need to know when you’re ready for it. Otherwise it just becomes confusing.

    The most important thing ALWAYS is the story and the characters. The technical stuff is all learnable and can come later.

    • maryde

       /  October 8, 2010

      Thanks Anne,

      I agree,

      if I agonise too much over what I have not learnt yet with the business or what isn’t 100% correct, I find I have no time for the actual writing of the story itself..
      So back to the story…
      lol Mary

  13. Cath, they won’t hate you — they’ll love you because of the wonderful responses you’ll give them.

    Yes, by all means mark the phrases and words that jar, but don’t forget, it’s their story and their style. They might want you to be jarred. 😉

    Also reading aloud often helps to show up awkward phrasing or jarring expressions etc.
    Thanks for your tips.

  14. I think my advice–such as it is–is first be positive (or start positive) with what worked, then talk about what didn’t or what could be tweaked. Second, be SPECIFIC. Don’t just say “I hate your hero”, that’s not helpful to anyone. (In fact saying you ‘hate’ anything can go horribly awry.)

  15. You’re right, that cover is gorgeous!

    And I’m planning to use that list of questions when editing my own work. I think that list will help me look at my first draft more objectively. Thanks!

  16. Hellion, nice of you to drop in.

    That’s very good advice — being positive is SO important. A writer’s ego is a fragile thing and a beginning writer’s even more so.

    Being specific is exactly what I mean when I repeatedly advise people to go back to the text — “Link those impressions to the words actually on the page” and “Note the words in the manuscript that created this effect.”

    Julia — you noticed my gorrrgeous cover! How surprising. (heh heh) Best of luck with your writing.

  17. Anita Joy

     /  October 8, 2010

    Anne, wow, that is a hard one. I’ve received a *lot* of fabulous advice, and I think my perception of what has been valuable has changed as my writing has grown.

    I remember the very first comp I entered (High 5) which was also my first crit feedback of any sort. I was new to serious writing and the feedback contained phrases such as ‘backstory dump’, ‘show not tell’, ‘pov changes’, ‘internal conflict’ (yes, it was a pretty tragic entry, lol, kinda what not to do in hindsight). I still remember reading it and the lightbulb flickering like crazy. But my writing leapt forward from that moment.

  18. Anne,
    Great advice from you, and everyone else,
    Thanks for sharing all your wonderful wisdom with us,

  19. Margot Green

     /  November 20, 2010

    Hi Anne, I attended your classes at R.M.I.T. about 4 yearsago and absolutely loved them, altho’ my self- confidence was a trifle dashed when I saw how many talented, younger people there were in your class.!However, inspired and encouraged by you, I have ploughed on, and with great trepidation, entered the STALI 2011 comp. I was both delighted and dissapointed to place 15th. However, those 3 score sheets were what I have been craving for and I have taken the few negative remarks on board and of course I am simply over the moon that the three judges all said that they would love to know ‘what happens next’ between my H. and H’n! And isn’t that what writing is all about? Hooking in the reader? And this is where I have a grump about romance writing to a formula, where there always has to be a happy ending. Because some of the greatest romance books and movies i.e. Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet, Ryan’s Daughter,Dr. Zhivago all end on a sad note as does my STALI entry ‘Forget Me Not’, for alas my gorgeous hero dies in the Peninsular War leaving the heartbroken heroine in deep- s—! But wait ! There is another book [ or 2!]and another handsome hero[ or2] to fall in love with my ‘ruined’ heroine, but unfortunately probably not a publisher for such a ‘romantic’ series.Anyway Anne, I’ll keep on writing, forI still love my heroine and I love her heroes– and by the way, she ends up in Australia[not as a convict] in the time of Governor Macquarie.
    Sorry I’ve raved on so, Anne, but writing can be a solitary affair, and my beloved husband of 48 years wasn’t even interested enough to read the 3 judges comments– Grrrr!
    Oh and by the way, the cover of your new book must be the most beautiful romance cover that I have ever seen–much better than the crappy bodice-rippers which some publishers fondly imagine that most women want. [Or perhaps they do!]

  20. Anita, I think a lot of new writers make exactly those mistakes — certainly I made them, and so do most of the new writers I’ve had in classes. So it’s not something to be embarrassed about – it’s a stage you go through, that’s all.

    Waving to Suzi. Thanks, Suzi.

    Margot, lovely to hear from you. And I’m so pleased to see you still have a passion for writing.
    The difference between your writing and genre romance is that genre romance does have a happy ending. You’re writing mainstream romantic fiction, nor romance. It’s all a matter of reader expectations. If you kill off a beloved hero, people who thought the story was genre romance will feel upset and betrayed. But if you call it mainstream romantic fiction, well, anything goes, there. And your market will probably be mainstream Australian publishers, rather than the international genre romance ones.

    So your difficulties in RWA comps will be because of reader expectations, but don’t let that stop you — you get very useful writing feedback in comps.

    All the best with your writing.


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