Critical Mass

hot_fudge_brownie_sundae_by_deathsseraphim‘Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armour and attacked a hot fudge sundae.’ – Kurt Vonnegut

Well, I don’t have a lance or chain-mail, you’ll be glad to hear, if your work ever comes under my scrutiny. It might, you know.

I do critiques for SCBWI British Isles – in a local group, on-line and at the conference, and also for Womentoring . I review books for Serendipity Reviews and Fantasy Book Review. All of this has positive effect on my work, I like to believe – but more importantly, I hope I am helping other writers.

“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”
― Abraham Lincoln

I’d like to help them avoid the muddy puddles of messy point-of-view, the deceiving marshlands of too many similes and the spiky thickets of dialogue attribution. I try to see what they are meaning to write, and help them bring it out.

A critic can only review the book he has read, not the one which the writer wrote. -Mignon McLaughlin

The Night Before Critique Meet is a well-established SCBWI-BI tradition at the annual conference. If you’re a writer for young people in any age group , I encourage you to give it a go. Have no fear if it’s your first attempt – our primary rule echoes Hippocrates – ‘First do no harm’.


The advantage of such face-to-face meetings is that the critic can see the effect of her observations on the writer. If they are ready for more incisive remarks, then it’s all well and good to get the scalpel out. But if the writer flinches, you can pull back. It wouldn’t do any good anyway if they are not prepared.

A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections. – Joseph Addison

There is a difficult borderline between enough and too much. I have been so grateful for colleagues’ honest opinions. For me, at any rate, it’s no good just picking out the good bits. OK, it’s cosy for both parties but it doesn’t focus on what causes agents to reject my work, or such like. Gangrene has to be excised – and so does awful prose.

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
― Aristotle

In the reviewing part of my life, I do see books I think could have been better edited. However, once they are out there, what would be the point of remarking on what’s wrong? Making me look superior?

Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.- Sibelius

Fundamentally, reading as a writer and passing on my opinions is about motive. What am I really trying to do? I must beware of the desire to sound cool, as if I know it all. How presumptuous would that be? It’s not about my ego, but the health of someone else’s work. I’ll leave the last word to one of my literary heroes:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
― Neil Gaiman


Neil Gaiman

9 thoughts on “Critical Mass

  1. I haven’t heard that quote before and I should keep it in mind when I’m dishing advice. Great piece as ever! I was just thinking today of how grateful I am to have my critique circles!

  2. Really interesting to read this after getting your critique of one of my draft scenes- I can confirm that you practice what you preach with well balanced and helpful comments. Great piece, and some fantastic quotes! 🙂

  3. I have to remind myself not to ignore the really good bits in work I’m critiquing, believing the author must be aware of these already: yet so often in my own writing am I amazed at what readers find engaging etc. There’s a danger of losing the baby with the bathwater in an edit, unless you’re told.

    • That’s a really good point. On one hand it shows your respect for the person’s own awareness, but on the other, we all like to know when we’re doing it right.

  4. Pingback: Ten-Minute Blog Break – 3rd March | Words & Pictures

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