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There’s a Difference

January 2, 2014

The difference between editing and critique

by Kristen Stieffel

Your role as a critique partner is very different from the role of an editor. An acquisition editor can and often will reject a manuscript on the basis of concept alone. A critique partner should never reject a manuscript. If it offends you, or if it’s in a genre you don’t understand or like, you can decline to critique, but you can’t imply that the manuscript ought not have been written, or that it should be drastically changed.

Developmental editors often shape the theme or concept of a manuscript. But a critique partner’s job is not to change the manuscript’s concept. The role of critique partners is to help writers realize the vision they have for their books. Telling them to change their vision is not helpful. However, if a writer asks for help in shaping their theme or concept, you can provide a sounding board or brainstorm ideas.

A substantive editor helps writers by re-writing clunky passages. In a critique, you want to keep rewrites to a minimum. Usually all you need to do is flag a sentence as “awkward” or “unclear” and leave the rewrite to the writer.

In business we’re often told, “don’t come to me with a problem unless you have the solution.” Critiquing is different. It’s OK and even preferable to identify the problem, even if you don’t know the solution. If you do know the solution, describe it, but leave execution to the author; don’t do the work for them unless they ask you to.

For example, you might put in the margin, “This passage struck me as _____ (awkward, unclear, implausible). Consider rewriting it to _____ (smooth, clarify, plausify).”

The biggest risk in re-writing someone else’s sentences is overpowering their voice. Often when we’re working with, for lack of a better word, amateur manuscripts, we find the voice is a little off—reaching beyond itself for a lofty feel the author can’t sustain. This usually comes across as inconsistent, stilted, or inauthentic. Your job as a critique partner is not rewriting to “improve” the voice. If you do, you may impose your voice over the writer’s. Your job as a critique partner is to help your partners find their voices.

We get to be better writers by writing. When you do the writing for your critique partners instead of letting them do it themselves, you rob them of the opportunity to become better writers. That said, if a critique partner doesn’t know how to accomplish the rewrite, and asks for your help, then you can provide an example.

One key to giving a good critique is understanding the needs of your critique partners and giving them just enough guidance to move forward on their own.

Kristin Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and writing coach, helping writers polish and nonwriters write. She is a member of Christian Editor Network and the Editorial Freelancers Association. Find her at Kristen will be about managing your time and more at the Mid-Winter Conference West and Reading Festival.

  1. January 2, 2014 9:08 am

    Well said. Thank you. I plan to share this with all three of my writing/critique groups.

  2. Lauren permalink
    January 2, 2014 9:48 am



    • January 2, 2014 12:09 pm

      Yep! 😉

      • Lauren permalink
        January 3, 2014 9:25 am

        Ugh. As writers, editors, I think we ought to be conscious of word choice and aesthetics. “Plausify” sounds like corporate, made up language to me. I doubt Max Perkins or Gordon Lish ever asked an author to “plausify” their writing. If I had an editor or critique partner who asked me to “plausify” my writing, I’d be looking for a new editor or critique partner, because I want to be working with someone who loves language as much as I do.

      • January 3, 2014 9:45 am

        Well, we all express our love for language in different ways. I love that English is so squishy I can take an adjective like plausible and add a suffix to create a word (albeit a silly one) that means “to make plausible.” I wouldn’t use it in a novel, and I might not use it in a message to a client (it would depend on the client), but in a blog with a history of being playful and witty, I figured I could risk it, even though I know not everyone shares my sense of humor.

  3. January 2, 2014 5:40 pm

    Excellent and practical, as usual. I’ve never been in a critique group so this is great to know!

  4. January 2, 2014 5:48 pm

    These are great points, Kristen. It’s especially important for less experienced writers to receive the kind of voice-reinforcing feedback you’ve discussed here. Letting your critique partners know what doesn’t work allows them to create a stronger piece through their revisions. However, it’s also important to let them know what does work. Pointing out what you like about how they’ve put their ideas into words will reinforce the strength(s) of their written voice.

    • January 9, 2014 8:38 pm

      True! Saying, “I like what you did there; do more of that” is one of the best ways to help a writer.

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