Desperately Seeking Critiques

I lifted the requirement that all comments must be modified, but if the serious spamming sets in again (as it may already have), I’ll reinstate it, so if your comments don’t instantly appear, please understand and be patient. I’ll hate having to do it, because I want you to have the satisfaction that comes with seeing your comment right away. And it’s more work for me, and I can’t always get to the comments immediately. We have a spam filter in place. Spam is slipping through, though–one of the mysteries of the internet!

Also want to announce that Transient, my book of poems for adults, was released a few days ago. If you’re an adult (at least high school and up) and you like poetry and you think that themes (among others) of aging and dying friends won’t make you too sad, here’s a link to the website David created:

On May 11, 2016, Mary E. Norton wrote, What do you do when none of your beta readers give any advice so you’re not sure if your writing is good or not? Because whenever I give my writing to someone they usually say they liked it, but no more than that. I just want to know what they liked about my story, what they didn’t like, how they felt at certain times, if it was confusing at some parts, and what characters they liked the best! But everyone just says the same thing, or they just put the story aside and end up never reading it. Its so frustrating! What am I to do, keep nagging them or just let it go?

I feel your pain! When I needed blurbs for my poetry book, I had to chase after poets to get them, and I didn’t want to be a pest! It all worked out in the end, and I’m very grateful for the kind words–but the experience was miserable.

Several of you had thoughts and experiences to share.

Christie V Powell: I had that trouble with beta readers who are related to me (especially my younger sisters). I have started giving them a list of questions to answer. This last time, I gave my sisters the story without the ending, and said they had to answer my questions or I wouldn’t give them the ending!

Sounds like a great plan. Giving readers a list of questions may relieve them of the worry of not knowing what to say. And withholding the ending is genius!

If I were doing this, I would put on my list of questions one or two that solicit positive feedback. I’d want to know what they liked or even loved as well as what didn’t work. Criticism usually goes down easier if it’s leavened with praise.

I’d also be sure to include these questions: Were there any spots where you were confused? Were there any gaps in the story? Were there places where you got bored? I’d ask them to mark those spots.

And I’d ask an open question or two, because we may not always see clearly what’s going on in our story. (We may have much more clarity about other people’s work than about our own.) We can ask, Are there any other things not on my list that bothered you? I’m always surprised by some of the concerns my editor raises.

Kitty: Lots of talk about beta readers here, so if it’s okay to do so (sorry if this sounds spammy, I’m not being paid to promote it or anything), I’d like to recommend a website I use, Scribophile. It’s basically a site where you can critique work for karma (the currency on the site), which you use to post your own work. It works like an actual economy, “buying” and “selling” critiques (with fake money, of course), which I like a lot more than asking people to critique my work out of the goodness of their hearts. You can also find whole novel beta swaps with the group’s feature. (the group The Novel Exchange hosts beta swaps every month or so. I’ve had both some good and some bad experiences with those.) It’s a freemium payment model, but I’ve found that the free basic account is more than enough for me.

It’s a great site, but just a word of caution if you do join. Be careful in the forums, especially the cool hangout chill zone, which isn’t really that cool or chill anymore.

Me at the time: Are the critiques on Scribophile helpful and not mean?

It’s certainly okay to recommend a website if one isn’t profiting from driving traffic to the site. I’ve recommended sites and so have other people. We’re helping our fellow writers!

Lady Laisa: My younger brother is my go-to for an opinion on anything I’ve written. He and I have different taste in our reading material but are still more similar than others I might go to for advice, so I always run my writing past him first. He often picks out any grammatical mistakes I’ve made, which is super useful and points out things he thinks ought to be worded differently. Then I usually have to ask his opinion on a specific character/description/bit of dialogue. He’ll tell me and then I might have him read the excerpt through again to see if he has any new insights. He’s invaluable!

I think mainly you just have to ask questions and prepare for the possibility of having your darling story torn asunder. I asked for someone to read one of my excerpts once (a young lady who does critiques on her blog) and I didn’t mentally prepare myself to have my treasured creation dissected and I kinda lashed out a little. Not something I’m proud of. I mean I actually ASKED for it, and everything she pointed out was correct and I did end up changing things that needed to be changed. But I still felt awful when I saw all the notes and scribbles and changes. Next time I’ll be more prepared though, and can take it better.

So you have to realize that you are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage. People are usually super-extremely-ever-so-very-polite when they critique, but it will still feel like you are coming under attack, and you have to prepare yourself for that. Just a warning.

Lady Laisa later revised her comment: I think I worded that one sentence awkwardly. “You are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage.” A better way to put that, I think is: “You are basically ASKING someone to tell you what parts of your story are garbage.”

Not that I think what you write is or may be garbage, it’s just that when someone criticizes something you’ve written it kind of feels like that’s what they’re saying. And I’ve had to realize that yes, a lot of what I’ve written would probably be better off in the garbage disposal.

I have a little visceral reaction to the word garbage, because it sounds harsh and possibly hurtful. I understand that Lady Laisa wasn’t applying the word to Mary E. Norton’s writing or anyone else’s, but she was applying it to some of her own. Ouch!

I’m trying to think of what writing I would call garbage and the only thing I can come up with is writing that is meant to hurt someone or some group of people. Beyond that, some stories and some writing I love and some I don’t love or even like, but applying the word garbage goes further than I would venture.

I think I’ve said before that asking someone–anyone–if one’s writing is good or not good is the least useful question we can ask. We need specifics or we don’t know how to revise.

There may be a few writers who can do all their own editing and whose work, when they let it be read, is as good as it can be–I won’t say perfect because no piece of writing ever is, in my opinion. But most of us need outside eyes and opinions. I always do.

If I can’t get other writers or a professional editor to look at my work, then someone who is a good reader, who loves to read, is the next best choice. But if we think we may be able to involve other writers, we should go after them. If it’s an exchange, then we don’t feel like a beggar.

There’s something else. With friends or family, as opposed to other writers, we may have more motives than wanting a critique. We may want to be admired or for our worth to be recognized or to be liked. These motives may get in the way of how we ask for criticism and how we receive it.

Here are three prompts, which you can approach realistically in a contemporary world or which you can move back in time or transform into fantasy:

∙ Since we’ve been talking about feeling a little like beggars, your MC is a panhandler on the streets of a major city. Write a scene in which he or she tries to get people to give her money. If you like, write the beginning that leads to this scene and continue on to tell the whole story.

∙ Your MC is a visitor in this major city. He or she–well-meaning, soft-hearted–does something surprising in response to the beggar’s importuning. You decide what that is and write the story.

∙ The above visitor to the city is neither well-meaning nor soft-hearted. He or she is your villain, preying on the vulnerable. Write the encounter with the panhandler and continue the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the post!

    This is the list I gave my sisters:
    1. What do you think of the story?
    2. What is your favorite part?
    3. Who is your favorite character?
    4. Who is your least favorite character?
    5. Which clan would you like to be in and why?
    6. What do you think is going to happen in the ending?
    7. What would you change?
    8. What do you think the theme(s) are in the book?
    9. Was anything confusing that you think should be explained?
    10. Were any parts boring and/or made you want to stop reading?

  2. I write a website called StoryBird it really is a supportive place and my question is my books I don’t want to share with my 3 brothers because well I usually put in a healthy dose of romance and stuff. And StoryBird I write books like that too! So who can help critique my writing I don’t have a good enough relationship with my mom and dad?

  3. Jenalyn Barton says:

    Someone once told me that sometimes you have to “train” your beta readers. So what I do is I tell my beta readers to write or comment (I use Google docs) if they find anything confusing, if they like something, and if they have a reaction to something, good or bad. I tell them “Don’t try to give me advice on how to fix something; I’m the writer, so that’s my job. All I need from you, as a reader is how you react to the story and what you find confusing.” I leave the giving advice on how to fix things to my writing group or my former professor’s editing class, since he has used my manuscript for his class and has told me in welcome to do that again. I do this because readers are experts in reading, and writers are experts in writing. This way the beta readers don’t feel overwhelmed by it all, because they know up front that they don’t have to try and give advice, and they already know how they react to a story.

  4. Speaking of constructive criticism, I did wonder something about your poetry website. I was curious as to why you were trying to exclude people younger than middle school from your poetry website entirely-why can’t they try it out? When I was in middle school I would have loved the poem samples you provided. Who’s to say they would get bored reading poetry? Writing doesn’t have age limits; if kids slightly younger wanted to dip their toes in I am sure there is nothing they absolutely couldn’t handle-and if they couldn’t, they could simply click out or put the book down. It’s dangerous to assume! Just because they are young doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy poetry.
    Anyway, good post. In a recent college creative writing class of mine classmates were especially hard on my writing for some reason come critique time and I got some downright hurtful comments back on drafts-made me wish that we had followed a set format or that the professor could have looked over marked up drafts first. The question suggestion might have helped considerably! I hope that I will once again be in a writing group where these ideas can be useful.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thanks for asking! I’m going to think about your question and maybe change my approach–not sure. At this point there’s nothing on the website–or in the book for that matter–that’s really inappropriate for children, but I may add poems that could be. Since I have no children, I may not be the best judge and I don’t want to welcome children into a site that their parents would be distressed about. If you’ve read my blog and tooled around my website, you know I’ve taken pains to create a safe, comfortable place.

      • Erica Eliza says:

        I view age announcements like this the same way I do the “ages ten and up”stickers on board games. They’re more of a mark of who will be interested than who should be allowed to enjoy them.

  5. I have a question about chapter length: how much is the accepted word count/page count variation between chapters? My shortest chapter is a measly 946 words, and my longest is 2064, and the two happen to be right next to each other. Most of my others are in the 1000s range, with a few exceptions. As a reader, would you be bothered with drastically different chapter length close together? Is this something you would notice?

    • I just read DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy and it’s a fine example of very varied chapter lengths. I didn’t find the varying lengths distracting. I don’t have the word count for each, but they varied from 1.5 to 5 pages long. The important part was that something significant happened in each one to move the story forward.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve written two posts on chapter length, which you may want to check out, but, basically, I agree with Chrissa.

      • Song4myKing says:

        I agree as well, that it really isn’t a problem. I evaluated my chapter breaks after I finished the second draft. One chapter was about twice as long as most of the rest. I realized the point of conflict changed near the middle, so I split it (in the first half, the MC is trying to hide her identity from the person she’s with, but her cover is blown. In the second half, she’s trying to get the other person to see things from her point of view). Those two chapters deal with the happenings on one night. They could have stayed as one chapter, but they also work well as two. I ended up naming them “Who Goes There?” and “Friend or Foe?”

  6. Chrissa Pedersen says:

    Gail, thank you for sharing the website for your new book. I’ll have to put TRANSIENT on my order-list at our local bookstore. And thanks for letting us know about the SPAM issues. In regards to beta readers, I feel so lucky to have my critique partners. I don’t know what I’d do without them. We have our own karma system. Sometimes we have a lot to share and other times life gets in the way and we don’t. But it all works out in the karmic balance of writing. We often share online via email, but if we need more clarification we can always pick up the phone for a more in-depth talk about our work. For me, friends and family just can’t give the same level of critical reading that I need.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you!

      The spam seems to have let up for now. Fingers crossed!

      Sounds like your critique set-up is ideal.

  7. Song4myKing says:

    This is a very helpful post. I am blessed with two aunts, a friend, and a former teacher who have all given me good, honest critique at various points along the way, but now that I’m near the end of revisions, I’m planning to soon send my manuscript to a new friend who has never read it before. She also writes but I’m not sure how much critiquing she has given or been given. So these tips and questions to ask will be helpful to both of us I think.

  8. I actually have a question…. Umm i’m 11 and i have worked really hard on a book that i really want to publish! My mom says if i save up and stuff i might be able to but i don’t know how to get it published!! My book is about a bunch of friends on a fun trail ride and i want to make it like a picture book, i even have drawn pictures for it! I have worked really hard and i really want to get it published!! Any advice anyone!!!!?????

    • Congrats on completing your book! Before you have it published, and while you’re saving up, it would be a great idea to look with your mom about different publishers, or see if you want to self publish. I would also recommend reading Mrs. Levine’s posts on publishing found in the ‘publishing’ category here on her blog. Research as much as you can about the publishing process, as well as story structure to ensure your book is absolutely ready to be published. The more you know the more you grow, after all. Also, it’s a great idea to have a beta reader to give you unbiased advice on your story. Be sure to find a beta reader you can trust, and then take the advice of Mrs. Levine’s post here about critique and listening to it. Good luck with getting your story published!

    • Congratulations on finishing your book! Be careful- most good publishers shouldn’t ask you for money to publish your book. They should be paying their authors, instead.
      How long is it?
      I know there are places that will publish short stories by authors under 18, but I’m not sure about books. There may be rules about contracts and so on.
      Emma’s advice sounds great. I’d add one thing: Start working on your next story while you’re looking for what to do with this one. Good luck!

  9. Thank you for this post! Typically, if I need a beta reader, I go to my mom. She’s a “former” writer (she used to work for an article site), so she knows a lot about grammar, structure, and will tell me if something doesn’t make sense. For my newer books, I’m planning to go to some of my friends (online and offline).

  10. EmergingWriter says:

    For those looking for writers groups, I recently found one local to me through I’ve only been to one meeting so far, but I found the critiques both respectful and helpful in an actionable way. Just an idea for those who might be seeking such a group, but who don’t quite know where to look. Meetup might be a place to start! Of course, every writers group will be different, but it is possible to find folks who can give useful advice in a palatable way. 🙂

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I looked at this online and saw several near my home town, little Brewster, NY. I haven’t tried one, but this seems like a great resource. Thank you!

  11. Hi, guys! This was a really great chapter, it helped me a lot! My critique buddy is a writer, like me, and we’re really close. I suggest for grammar, spelling, and stuff like that, ask your Language Arts teacher. For just plain insights, maybe a librarian you know, or a friend that you trust.

    • Charrlotte Read, I am also homeschooled. The best advice I can give you is to either use a friend, or go to your public library and ask for a critique. Another thing I do is send little bits I’m nervous about to my writing buddies over at NaNoWriMo. Hope this helped!

  12. I have a super important question

    My novel is heading towards this chapter where there’s going to be a fight- so I thought, why not make a full-on battle?
    Yet I am currently unsure of how to do that. Whose POV should it be in? Should I focus on one part of the battle and have the other characters fill in with information about their parts later?

    • There are a lot of possibilities. You could focus on just one character, especially if they are in a leadership role or otherwise have access to communication from other parts (for instance, if they can speak mind-to-mind with other characters or can fly overhead to get a view of the whole thing). Have you read The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis? The battle there is told from the point of view of on-lookers who have a magic pool that lets them check up on everyone and see the big picture, and then the next chapter begins with the character who is actually in the battle and does the whole thing again, plus more, from his POV. I am probably going to have some battles in my later books in the series, but I’m going to focus more on the characters, who aren’t soldiers, so they might get a look of what’s going on but they have their own missions behind the scenes of the main fighting.

  13. This was an awesome post! Thanks for writing it. It was super helpful because I just finished a novelization of Jack and the Beanstalk with several twists. My older brother is the only other person besides me who has read my story. He says he likes it and there is nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, I know better than that.
    My parents have no time to read my story, and my friends aren’t interested. Is there a good method for editing a story by yourself?

    • A few people have mentioned different websites where you can connect with people. The NaNoWriMo forums are a good one. As far as editing for yourself, I like It’s a free site that will highlight some of your mistakes and helps make your writing better. There are a lot of similar sites (, for instance), but most require money.

    • There are several great websites and online writing communities that you can join, Tayrn Chan. NaNoWriMo is one of them, and although it mainly operates in November, there are two Camp NaNos in April and July that you can participate in. Their forums are a great place to get writer feedback!
      Write the World is another website that I love. You can basically publish stories, poems, anything online there, and you can have other writers review it and make helpful comments. It doesn’t necessarily have a feature for self-editing, but it is great for having other people read and critique your work.

  14. I have an important question.
    The novel I’m writing involves some romance, but I’m only 13. How can I make the romance scenes feel realistic but also somewhat appropriate? I don’t want to feel weird writing it. The romance is taking place between 18 year olds.

    • For me it’s easiest to focus on the whole relationship, not just the romance. Assuming you want love and not just romance, they also need to develop trust, friendship, fun, admiration, etc. I find those easier to describe than the physical aspect of it… although I know eventually I’m going to have to include that part and I’m nervous too.

    • I totally understand this dilemma Lela. I’ve never (gasp) been in a romantic relationship before, so writing romantic scenes without that experience can be a little trying. Christie Powell’s advice is spot on– you should definitely build up the other aspects of a relationship as much as or more than the romantic aspects. Also, looking at your characters’ personalities can help you decide their reactions in a romantic situation. One of my characters in my WIP is very non-touchy-feely and doesn’t like emotion. She acts very differently than her sister, who is more of a hopeless romantic, when at a dance or when expressing her feelings to her guy. Showing character in romantic situations can be very revealing of a character’s personality, and therefore make it more realistic. I would also suggest not over describing the romantic scenes– if you write your characters’ relationship well, you won’t need descriptive kissing to show your readers your characters are in love. Good luck, and if you have any tips you’ve learned from writing romance, I’d love to know. I’m still learning as well. 🙂

    • Awww…Lela I TOTALLY get where your coming from. I’m fourteen, but since romance scenes are my favorate to write, I dont typically have problems. Try focusing on the feelings and the dialogue instead of the physical chemistry. keeping things as far apart as possible for as long as you can will help, trust me! If you write it well and give the characters depth with just the right amount of awkward tension in the relationship, you’ll soon WANT to start seeing them get closer and closer. Sometimes it just takes a little buildup to ease the anxiety a little.

  15. One of my beta-readers said that he enjoyed my story and that it was hard to put down, but if he had to put it down and come back later, he had a hard time remembering who is who and what is going on. Any advice for making it easier to get back into the story after a break?

    • Hmm, I don’t know. I guess it depends on the person, really. Books I could easily get back into, though, were books where the characters had flashbacks to earlier chapters. My grandmother, however, has always had to look back, no matter what the book.

  16. Hi there,
    I have had this question for a while about starting to write a story. Does the first sentence matter? Some authors write the first sentence very mundane, like “The bed was neat”. Some write it long sentences with lots of commas and suspense like “The thief ran down the dark hall, skidded around the corner, and looked about franticly for a window”. I’m always very hung up on the first sentence. I plan it before I even get home and pick up my notebook. Should I? Or should I just start writing?

    • I think it’s important to have a strong first sentence, but you don’t have to worry about it on your first draft. You can always change it later. So go ahead and jump in! 🙂

      Some writers take a while to warm up, and end up throwing away the beginning and starting in what used to be somewhere in the middle, even.

    • I agree with Melissa. I’ve heard both sides: those who say that the first sentence needs to be perfect, attention-grabbing, foreshadowing, giving a sample of your voice, etc. I’ve also heard some who say give the first sentence as much care as you’d give any other.
      For what it’s worth, here are mine:
      First book: Most girls would be afraid to wander dark tunnels, but Keita Sage did her best to seem fearless.
      Second book (WIP): For Keita Sage, crossing the valley floor without detection was the easy part of the rescue.

    • I agree with both Melissa and Christie. Go with that great first sentence you come up with and then start writing. In the first draft, the first sentence doesn’t have to be perfect or attention grabbing. In fact, I normally come up with a first sentence, and by the time the second draft rolls around, I almost always change it for the greater good of the story. You may or may not end up changing your first sentence, but just be sure not to let yourself get stuck there on your first draft. The beginning is important, yes, but the time to perfect it is in a second or third draft. It’s important to start your story and roll with it in order to not get stuck in the pit of perfectionism, so if you have trouble settling on a first sentence, just write the first thing that comes to mind that is within context for the direction of your story. If, like you said, you’ve planned out the beginning before you even sit down to really start writing your story, that’s great. Use the beginning you came up with and build from there. Once you make it to your second draft, I highly suggest picking up a copy of “How to Structure Your Novel” by K.M. Weiland, which addresses beginnings in one of the first chapters. It’s helped me tremendously with my beginnings, as well as structuring the rest of my story.

  17. Hello,
    Whenever I show my stories to my sisters she just says its good and nothing else. But I want to know more like what did she like, what didn’t she like. Please advise.

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