What Might a Peer Critique Look Like?

I’ve said before that critique partners–or more specifically, beta readers–are a must have for writers today. When we finish writing something, editing and revising several times, we begin to lose our objectivity with each pass. We can’t always see the mistakes we’ve made, and we can easily miss weak points because the story is far more developed in our mind than it often is on paper.

Critique partners and beta readers can help fix these issues, if we are willing to listen. Some things they share are helpful and some are not necessary, but it can all help you make sure your writing is telling the story you wanted.

If you’ve always been afraid to have someone else critique your work, you are in for a, well, a treat, I guess. In order to help show what a critique partner can do for you, a very good writing friend of mine has been kind enough to do a critique of one of my short fiction pieces written for Blog Battle. You will see what it looks like to have a critique of your work done by a peer.

BB 2

Cathleen Townsend has written, published, and been included in several other compilation works that have also been published. She is an active member of Blog Battles and has offered to critique the short stories of battle winners so that they have a better chance of taking their short stories to other publications to be included in magazines, etc.

For today’s critiquing exercise, we went with my recent short realistic fiction story, Fear of Forgiveness (click here to read the first version). Below is the second edit of it with her notes interspersed. After that will be the revised version with any changes I made using her critique. I hope that seeing the notations and transformation will be enlightening and helpful!


First Revised Fear of Forgiveness with Cathleen Townsend’s Critique Notations

1037 Words (plus critique notes)

Green indicates passage under discussion, blue/italic text are Cathleen’s comments.

 I flicked the brim of my hat and watched unnecessary filter a cloud of fine dust is generally fine, can be assumed dust float on the hot, stagnant air. Not super-hooky. I generally start my tales with something that puts a small—not big enough to knock you out—question in the reader’s mind. Selena coughed, and from next to me I could feel another filter—that’s definitely too many her sideways glare boring into my head. I shrugged and stepped forward, jamming my Stetson back on with a quick wiggle to adjust the brim.

Okay, stripped of pretty language—which you have—in your opener, a guy flicks his hat and a gal coughs. I need something with more tension. Maybe he flicks his hat and she curses him? We’re wondering why—maybe have him rush to the side of her wheelchair—and she coughs out, “Mind the dust.” That should get us wondering about the wheelchair. And it stops Selena from being saintlike. This way, he could have a surge of anger toward her, followed by guilt.

“Go get ’em, tiger!” Selena called, her cheesy turn of phrase bringing me a reluctant smile. I’d cut this. It seems like a non sequitur, and I think you want to get to the guilt over his sister being in the wheelchair.

No matter what happened, at least I knew she’d stand by me. Did I deserve it? Hell no. I didn’t deserve the clothes on my back, but somehow, someone out there thought I deserved a second chance. And I wasn’t going to let it slip by or let her down. This is essentially navel-gazing, and I don’t care about this character yet. I think you should skip this and get right to the next graf.

If I could take back what happened exactly one year ago, I’d do that. I’d have given my last breath to rewind the clock and stop my sister from getting trampled in that stampede. She told me it wasn’t my fault, but every time I looked at her after that, crippled and trapped in that wheelchair, I couldn’t shake the guilt. If I’d been there for the round up like I was supposed to be, none of it ever would have happened. Missed opportunity. You’re talking around it when you could be making us choke on his guilt. Consider: she’d be pulling on her boots and joining me today.

“They’re just cows! C’mon. You got this.”

I flinched. Selena meant well, but her words only seemed to solidify the heavy weight Okay, new color. I’ll use purple when I think your language is too clinical. I want to see emotionally weighted phrases, in this case I’d choose twist my gut in my gut, dragging my body toward the ground and slowing my momentum. Suggest: causing my steps to falter. I touched consider ran a finger along the brim of my cowboy hat This is how you opened, so I’d pick a different beat. Maybe open with him knocking the dust from his hat and was comforted Telly. Okay, this is flash, but see if you can evoke the emotion by describing the memories instead—more powerful that way by a slow trickle of memories. I envisioned all the times I wore it I almost didn’t catch this because it’s pretty, but it’s an unnecessary filter, all the times I chased stray cows on winding trails and through heavy brush, all the rodeos, and horse training, and trail rides. Consider rephrasing to make this part stand by itself. Relieving the sentence of the filter will allow more emphasis on the detail we need.

The last few steps I took with my eyelids pressed closed, but when I opened them I wasn’t prepared. Forcing myself to take a deep breath, consider: and when I opened them, I had to take a deep breath—pulls reader along with small mysteries I exhaled to drain the tension squeezing across my tight shoulders and constricting my gut. Don’t need this. Readers know people take deep breaths to relieve tension, and you’ve already talked about his gut. The shoulders by themselves aren’t worth the mention, IMO.

Two dark doe-like eyes with feminine, doe already establishes feminine long lashes blinked back in a lazy sort of these weasel words don’t add sleepiness. Her chocolate brown muzzle wobbled in repeated slow, circular chomps. The cow’s coffee-colored eyes offered no accusation Okay, now you’re back to the eyes. Finish with the eyes and then move on to the muzzle, but for some reason I kept hearing this the voice in my head, blaming me. The hateful tone ringing through my consciousness taunted and shamed me for my selfishness. I think it’ll be stronger if you tighten it. I was practically a murder. I’d robbed my sister of everything that mattered to her—her beautiful future and all her dreams of becoming a barrel racer.

Loathing seared my insides, but even if it wasn’t spewing from those gentle cow eyes, it might as well have been. With every glance, I further drowned in it . . . that and fear.  We’ve had a lot of emotion. I’d work this in later or cut it.

For months, I couldn’t even look at the cattle, let alone touch the beasts without having a panic attack, but I needed to touch them. Eliminates the whiplash of can’t touch—have to touch. They were our livelihood and my responsibility. Today was the first day in a year that I’d been able to get this close to a cow, and this stupid, insane fear had to stop. Was it irrational? Yes, but a violent picture of my brutalized sister in the savage aftermath clouded my vision for weeks following the accident. I’d kill this. It puts it in the past and therefore less relevant. Consider rephrasing and keeping these two images. The image of her unmoving, grossly twisted body spattered in inky blood and churned up muck still plagued me.

When it came to cattle, I was a complete and utter idiotic mess, but You said this better earlier over time Selena convinced me to face my fear. We’d been working on it for months, and today, on the anniversary of the accident, I somehow this word is almost always lazy writing let her convince me to touch one. This graf might need some touch-ups if you take my cuts. Ditto for any of the others. Make sure it’s in your voice, using your rhythmic flow.

I swallowed past the lump in my throat and flexed my fingers while the cow just kept on staring and chewing. Keep the focus on his actions for this sentence. The next sentence will remind us that the cow’s phlegmatically chomping away. Little strands of half-masticated hay protruded from the side of her mouth.

“It’s not rocket science,” Selena yelled from behind me, much louder than was necessary given the short distance.

“Not rocket science? Really? That’s the best you got?” I shot the retort over my shoulder without taking my eyes off ol’ Bessie and ignored the stinging sweat dripping into my eyes.

“I figured I might as well keep up the cliché train. You know you like it.”

“Not in a million,” I said, grumbling under my breath. This doesn’t add. Marches on just fine without.

“Look at her. She’s not gonna bite.”

“I am lookin’ at her.” My heart rate sped up just saying the words.

“Well . . . .”

“All right. All right.” I took another deep breath and lifted my shaky hand toward the fence.

The cow took one step closer, her head stretched over the fence rail, probably hoping I’d give her a treat. The thought hadn’t occurred until then. Maybe it would have made the whole ordeal easier.

“You’re a wuss.”

Eyes narrowed, I gritted my teeth and laid my hand on the cow’s muzzle. With my brain in overdrive, a jolt of pure adrenaline blocked all sensation in my fingers and screamed through my muscles to run. It’s a mistake, IMO, to use adrenaline in a long sentence. Keep fear snappy. Fighting the urge with every last vestige of reason I could muster, the coarse texture of fuzzy skin, stretching taut over the cow’s muzzle, finally registered. She pressed her damp nose into my palm. Achingly long seconds passed, but the beat of my heart slowed until all my muscles relaxed, going heavy with wasted energy. I’d either replace this or cut it.

“Hey there, girl,period” I said and This is an unnecessary dialogue tag tentatively rubbed her face with both hands, my relief as palpable as the grittiness of dust in the air. This is actually quite brilliant description, but I’d make it the grittiness of the dust…

I leaned forward and rested my forehead against hers, knocking my cowboy hat to the ground. Silent tears streaked down my cheeks, dropping on my bovine companion’s face, but I didn’t care. Unnecessary detail, and distracts, IMO from the emotional weight of the sentence. I think of this as draft stuff. We all write it, and we need to learn to recognize it so we can cut it. For once in a long while I didn’t feel lost. I didn’t deserve this freedom, but I couldn’t let it go.

A hand rested on my back, and I raised my burning eyes to glance down at the owner.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she identify speaker said, low and husky, her own tattered emotions clearly on the brink. “Dad didn’t stay angry at you for being late. I never blamed you and neither did he Dad. And you know if the cancer hadn’t have got him, he’d be here right now, cheering you on. I’m okay and you need to be, too.”

I have no story critique beyond an attagirl. I like this. I voted for it in its raw form. J

As far as line edits go, I realize I just wrote way more words critting your story than you did writing it. But here’s the deal. I’m going to throw everything I can at making your story better. That’s my job. Holding back doesn’t help you at all. You need to wade through and decide what fits, what resonates. That’s your job. Take only what you feel makes your story better. Just because I said it doesn’t mean you have to agree.

Hope something here helped.


Some Thoughts from Me . . .

Everything Cathleen shared was incredibly helpful. Did I use all her advice? No, but I did consider it and how it played into the story. The short was written in first person, so where some turns of phrase might have appeared “lazy” to a writer, they were actually part of the voice of the speaker (not me, the author who is separate from my speaker or the 1st person character whose perspective we experience). That’s just one example of ignoring critique advice. There might be all sorts of reasons to disregard some suggestions. You as the writer must determine what is important and what is not to improving your story because it is YOURS. 🙂

Some phrases or words from the critique that I thought might use further clarification:

  • FILTER WORDS:
  • GRAF:
    • shortened from “nut graph” or “nutshell paragraph” which is a journalism phrase used to describe writing that tells you what the writer is up to.
    • “The nut graf tells the reader what the writer is up to; it delivers a promise of the story’s content and message. It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the “kernel,” or essential theme, of the story.”
  • NAVEL-GAZING:
    • “useless or excessive self-contemplation”
    • “the activity of thinking too much or too deeply about yourself, your experiences, your feelings, etc.”
  • WEASEL WORDS:
    • “There are all kinds of words that seem to pop up in your story while you’re writing the first draft. They can make your writing sloppy, cause confusion, and take up space (sometimes all at once!). Some call them “filler words,” others “weasel words,” or any other variation of the term.”

Final Revised Fear of Forgiveness by Rachael Ritchey

891 Words

A hard flick to my hat brim detonated a cloud of dust into the sweltering, stagnant air, and I hated how the subtle imagery matched the powder keg of dread ready to bust my chest open. Selena coughed and punched my hip. I cringed. No doubt she was glaring at me, too, but I shrugged it off and stepped forward, jamming the Stetson back on my sweaty head.

“Go get ’em, tiger!” she said.

I rolled my eyes but couldn’t help the reluctant smile, even if it didn’t last long. Did I deserve a second chance? Hell no, but Selena convinced me to give it a shot, and I wasn’t going to let her down.

She kept insisting what happened wasn’t my fault, but every time I looked at her, crippled and trapped in that godawful wheelchair, I couldn’t shake the guilt. If only I could take back what happened a year ago. If only I could rewind the clock and stop my sister from getting trampled in that stampede. If I’d been there on time . . . if, if, if . . . if only.

I pressed the tips of my fingers into my furrowed brow, just above the roaring ache behind my eyes, and begged the tormenting thoughts to stop. My mind grasped at faded memories, like the times my sister and I competed by rounding up the most cows, chasing strays over rough terrain. Or us team roping at rodeo—always out to beat the Holman twins. My eyes stung, but I wanted more of those days.

“They’re just cows! C’mon. You got this.”

I flinched. Selena meant well, but her words only made the dread coil tighter in my gut. With my eyes pinched closed, I took three hesitant steps and kept them that way until proof of life other than the thunder of blood rushing through my veins filtered in. Opening them, I gasped.

Two dark doe-like eyes, set wide on a cow’s head and framed by long lashes, blinked back in apathetic laziness. Her chocolate brown muzzle wobbled in slow, circular chomps, but there was no angst in that face. The hateful voice in my head didn’t care. I was practically a murderer, and painful loathing branded my heart. By my own selfishness, I’d robbed my sister of everything that mattered to her—her beautiful future and her dreams of becoming a pro barrel racer.

I couldn’t get the carnage out of my head; the brutal image of her unmoving, violently twisted body spattered in inky blood and churned up muck. Ever since, even the sight of cows could trigger a panic attack in me. But it didn’t matter how stupid or irrational the fear was; those cows were our livelihood and my responsibility. It had to stop.

Over time, Selena convinced me to face my demons, and we’d been working on it for months. Today, on the anniversary of the accident, I somehow let her convince me to touch one, which I regretted from the moment I said yes.

In the midst of this insanity, that regret intensified, making it difficult to breathe. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and flexed my fingers. My gaze froze on the little strands of half-masticated hay protruding from the side of the cow’s mouth.

“It’s not rocket science,” Selena yelled from behind me, much louder than was necessary given the short distance.

“Not rocket science? Really?” I shot the half-strangled retort over my shoulder without taking my eyes off ol’ Bessie and ignored the stinging sweat dripping into my eyes.

“Look at her. She’s not gonna bite.”

“I am lookin’ at her.” My heart rate sped up just saying the words.

“Well . . . .”

“All right. All right.” I took another deep breath and lifted my shaky hand toward the fence.

The cow took one step closer, her head stretched over the rail, probably hoping I’d give her a treat. The thought hadn’t occurred until then. Maybe it would have made the whole ordeal easier.

“Wuss!”

Eyes narrowed, I gritted my teeth and laid my numb hand on the cow’s muzzle. A jolt of pure adrenaline screamed through my muscles to run. Selena’s taunt echoed in my head. I wasn’t sure if it was real, but it was distraction enough for the coarse texture of fuzzy skin, stretching taut over the cow’s nose, to finally register to my touch. The lazy beast pressed her damp nose into my palm. Achingly long seconds passed, but my heartbeat slowed and shoulders sagged.

“Hey there, girl.”

Tentative, I reached and rubbed her face with both hands, my relief as palpable as the grittiness of dust lingering in the air. I leaned forward and rested my forehead against hers, knocking my cowboy hat to the ground. Silent tears streaked down my cheeks. For once in a long while I didn’t feel lost. I didn’t deserve this freedom, but I couldn’t let it go.

A hand rested on my back, and I raised my burning eyes.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Selena said, low and husky. “I never blamed you and neither did Dad. And you know if the cancer hadn’t have got him, he’d be here right now, cheering you on. You know that.” She took a shuddering breath. “I’m okay and you need to be, too.”


Wrapping It All Up

So that’s it!

That’s how a critique partner can be a huge help in improving your story. Take what you need and leave the rest. Use every opportunity to make your writing the best it can be, even if it means swallowing your pride. 🙂

If you participate in Blog Battles and win a round, Cathleen has offered the winners her talent at critiquing. It is definitely something worth taking advantage of if you get the chance!

Any questions? Any comments? Please feel free to leave them below!

 


34 thoughts on “What Might a Peer Critique Look Like?

  1. This is a great example of what critique partners/beta readers can do! I’m glad you shared this with us. 🙂
    I miss the Blog Battles, but I know I have to stay focused and get my last draft done. Hopefully after that I can jump back in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We misssssss you!! ❤ I'm so excited to hear how things are coming with your writing, though. We will be here, ready and waiting for you to join back in, but more so, to read your booook!!!!! EEK! 😀

      Like

      1. With my writers group we did line by line critiques, but not quite that in depth. Simply do to the time constraints. We used the Word comment tool, which I like a little better than embedding the comments in the text. This was highly informative. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I usually use the comment tool in Word too! 🙂 We mainly did it this way so that it would translate to blog. That’s a good reminder, though! We should do a blog post about using Word’s comment tool to critique work. I love that feature!

          Liked by 1 person

            1. That’s another reason to make a trustworthy base of writer friends to share critiquing, I think. I think that’s where using places like Scribophile, Authonomy, and the like gives writers a small sense of security when it comes to their stories. Word’s comment tool is still better, in my opinion, for tracking and clarity. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I would be so nervous to have someone critique me. Especially one that in-depth! I guess part of my fear comes from the fact that I am a casual writer – I don’t claim to be an expert or most eloquent. I just blog for fun 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s really no need to worry about it unless you are interested in publishing professionally. If it’s all for fun, just do what you love without worrying about the critiques! 🙂 It is definitely nerve wracking to think about someone picking apart my writing, but every time it is totally worth it. And most people, even when this in depth, are super nice. Most of the time, they like your story, but they want to help you make it amazing! 🙂 Thank you for sharing, Abbey! It takes courage to say even what you did about critiquing. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachael, I liked your story before, but I love it now. My advice would be to have a different pair of eyes take a look at your revision and then submit it. Adding more polish to your word-smithing made your story sparkle. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cathleen. I used to dread having people read my work, but I’ve learned through several painful critiques that constructive criticism is a wonderful tool to improving! You’re a gem to help others and offer this help to our Blog Battle winners. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I wrote three drafts before I had someone beta read one of my books. She caught a lot of mistakes, so I corrected them and sent it off to another beta reader. He caught plot holes and grammar errors – much more than the first beta reader. So I fixed all his corrections and gave this fifth draft version of my book to my editor. She sent me a six page comprehensive edit report and her line edits could be found on almost every single page of my manuscript. So I’m working on the sixth draft now and I’ll be sending it back to her for a seventh draft. Hopefully the eighth draft will be the one that gets picked up so I can get back to work on one of my other novels.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good system, Daniel! Some stories need a lot of work to polish. Personally, I think there comes a point where we stop improving the story in revisions and end up with just a different story. I didn’t explain that well. haha I hope you are please with it after your next edit! It can be an arduous process. Are you sending out queries on this next revised manuscript?

      Like

  5. This is really interesting. 😃 It’s amazing what you can learn from just reading someone else’s critiqued piece. I’m thinking i shall have to get back into blogbattle. I’ve been a bit intimidated by the new way it works, to be honest. But fear exists to be conquered, right? 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It is super helpful to see examples of how critiquing is done. I also think it’s informative to practice critiquing others’ work as well. I miss you in the battles! And not too much has changed expect we added a “genre” style to give an extra push. Plus, you get the next month’s list of words and genres on the last Monday of the current month! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am a bit intimidated by the idea of critiquing others’ work like this, cos I feel like it’s one of those skills that you don’t get “taught” how to do. :/

        I am thinking of giving next week’s battle a go. Just need to fit in a writing session for it!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I totally get that, Phoenix! I think the best way to approach it is to have a heart full of kindness and a mind attuned to the kinds of advice you yourself would like to receive if the tables were turned.

          I am so excited you might be able to join next week!!!! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I only work for free. 🙂 It’s a labor of love.

      To be fair, though, I don’t critique novels in this depth because I’d have to write as much as a first draft. But I believe this is the real strength of short story writing. Because they are short, a critique can weigh every phrase, every word. And Rachael has a similar luxury when it comes to revision.

      In fact, I’ve noticed that when I’m stuck editing a novel–when it’s not quite there and I don’t know what else to do–my best course is to write a dozen short stories and get them taken apart like this by people I trust. Then I revise and get the revision looked at.

      The benefit of a critique like this isn’t all to the author. Part of the reason I improve is that in return for my story thoughts, I critique stories by others. Articulating what worked for me and what didn’t in their tales helps me to remember it in my own writing. When I return to my novel, then I can suddenly see what I need to do to take it up a notch.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Critique at this level can get very expensive if you are paying an editor for it. The best thing to do is to become an awesome self-editor and also to exchange critique and/or beta reading with other authors in order to help each other out to improve your writing and their writing. They say “those you can’t do teach,” but I say “those who teach learn best.” 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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