To Critique or Not to Critique

It is common these days for writers to find other writers to swap manuscripts with, for the purpose of critique. I have two critique partners (or “critters,” as they are fondly referred to).  Like me, both have written YA manuscripts, but neither writes historical, and neither writes third person. Both are younger than I am. Nevertheless, I have found their comments to be valuable and thought provoking, and I’ve made several positive alterations to my manuscript as a result of their good insights.

Ty Roth, whom I interviewed for the blog two weeks ago, didn’t have any critique partners at all. Or even beta readers. His agent and editor (and people who work with them) are the only ones besides Ty to have ever read his manuscript.  He admitted that the work he submitted was rough, but emphasized that the story was the important thing.

I found this enlightening.

The downside of critique partners is that everyone has his/her own likes and dislikes, perspective and preferences. Each time someone recommends changing your manuscript, a little more of the essence is chopped away, and by the time an author is “done,” the end result might be an over-thought and pasteurized shadow of its former self. If it was terrible, that’s not a bad thing, but if it wasn’t, it might not be a good one.

This reminds me of an old story, that goes something like this:

There was once an old man who decided that the day had come to take his donkey to the market and sell it. He and the donkey had been together for a long time, but their traveling days were over, and the donkey was a hungry one. He harnessed the animal one last time, took hold of the rope and led the donkey down the road.

After a mile or so, someone going in the other direction jeered, “Why are you leading that donkey, when you could be riding him?” The old man hadn’t wanted to burden his four-legged friend before saying goodbye, but realized that the stranger had a point, so he climbed on top of the donkey and continued on his way.

After another mile or so, a different traveler came upon them and exclaimed, “Why are you riding that poor old donkey? He’s so pathetic that you should be carrying him!” The old man realized that this stranger also made sense, and so he dismounted. With an awkward heave, he hauled the donkey onto his shoulders and determinedly walked on.

A third person came upon them and stood in the road laughing. “You crazy old man, why are you carrying that donkey? He should be pulling a cart or something.” The old man stood with the donkey on his back until the stranger had passed, then slowly lowered his loyal friend to the ground. The donkey gazed at him, and the man felt badly that he had allowed other people’s opinions to sway what he really wanted to do. Reaching over, he grasped the animal’s halter and they walked side by side once again.

Having your manuscript read by critique partners can be a very positive experience, but everyone’s got their own opinion. You’ve got to go with your gut, and only make the changes that feel right. An agent might just love it the way it is.


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6 responses to “To Critique or Not to Critique

  1. I agree that there’s the danger of being pulled in too many directions from critic’s comments, especially if the writer is new to the business of writing.

    However, I have noticed that it is one of way of growing (to learn when to go with your gut instinct and when to listen to critics), and being able to take the comments gracefully also readies you to be open and willing to change, which will be paramount for success, when your MS gets up picked by an agent. 🙂

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!


  2. Hi Layinda!

    Great post! You make an excellent point. I’m having people beta read my ms right now and some of the comments are fantastic and useful, while others are just plain wrong. Sometimes it’s easy to separate the chaff from the wheat, but not always. Gotta be careful.


  3. Great post!

    I’ve got 2 crit buddies who are absolutely amazing. I find their advice helpful and generally spot on. But if what they say doesn’t resonate with me, I’m going to go with my heart. 🙂


  4. Layinda,

    This is an awesome post. I love how well you illustrate your point with the donkey story. It’s a good thing to keep in mind.


  5. I have to say I’m feeling a bit like the odd man out. I completely understand the value of critique partners. Although, I must admit that I have no idea what a “beta reader” even is. To my composition students, I regulary suggest and, at times, demand peer reviews. For me, however, in my creative writing, I like the ownership I maintain and the purity I retain by being guarded with my work until it reaches the hands of an agent or editor. “All roads . . .” I guess.


  6. I used critique partners heavily when I was learning, but there came a time when I out-grew it. There comes a time when you no longer need advice, but just reactions. People who can hold a mirror up to your work so you can see how you are getting things across better.

    A good “reader reaction” critiquer is golden. If you can find a mix of kinds of people who can do that (say a writer whom you respect, and also someone with no writing education but is very good at telling you their feelings, and people knowledgeable in different genres) that’s the best thing.

    When you start out, critiquers who point out where you break the rules may be valuable, but after a while, they become like the people giving advice on the donkey.


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