Guest Blogger from Bookshelf Muse–Top 5 Issues I Find When Critiquing

I am SO EXCITED to have our guest blogger with us today. Angela and the Bookshelf Muse (links at the bottom) has been one of my writing staples for a long time. My copy of the Emotions Thesaurus sits safely in my desk within easy reach. Just reading the lists helps me come up with my own ways of describing the emotions of my characters.

Angela has been gracious enough to share with us a Top 5 topic.


Top 5 Issues I Find When Critiquing

I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with revision. I love seeing my story evolve into that bright, glimmering object that I hoped it would become. But the actual process of revising for me is a bit like taking a dust bath in an ant hill–painful.

Luckily I have a secret weapon…critique partners. If it weren’t for these brave soldiers of the pen, I would be utterly hooped. They have the distance I lack, and they see what I cannot. I depend on them, and they in turn, depend on me.

As a moderator at The Critique Circle and avid critiquer, I have written thousands of critiques. Sometimes, I notice certain patterns in what I read–scene-by-scene problems that can weaken a manuscript overall. Any patterns I find go on a mental checklist for my own work. Here’s a few of the issues I often come across:

Too Much Back Story Opening The Novel
Backstory is attractive because it’s an easy way to show who the character is on a deeper level and what motivates them. Often built into the opening chapters of a novel, this pattern is definitely one worth breaking. Every time a writer brings up backstory, it stops the forward momentum with a giant info dump or dip into the past. Not all backstory is bad, but in those important opening chapters, you want to hook the reader and pull them deeper into the character’s current world, not their past. Show who they are by what they do NOW, not by what they did or experienced before the book began, and use hooks to hint at the past for later development.

No Sense Of Movement
In dialogue heavy scenes, another problem I see are characters who interact verbally, but not physically. To add a sense of movement, characters should interact with the setting and each other as they speak. Dialogue should flow quickly, but not so fast that there are no indicators of what’s happening to or around the speakers. Setting is not just a backdrop for the dialogue to take place in–it should be chosen deliberately and have specific meaning to the characters. Balancing dialogue with body language and movement will show emotion, reveal character and remind the reader that the conversation is not taking place in a vacuum.

Physical Description That Gets In The Way
Sometimes as we try to weave in details about our character’s physical appearance or setting description, we go to far. For example: I crossed the grimy black and white tiled kitchen floor, pausing to swipe a burnt piece of jam-spotted toast off the chipped countertop where Gram had left it for me. My blond hair slid forward over my left shoulder as I…etc. etc. Not only is this bloated description distracting, it leaves a mechanical, play-by-play taste in the reader’s mouth. Show the scene with sensory detail, but make sure the prose is tight, especially in places like this where the character is simply in transition, not deep action.

Pacing is worth studying closely, because it really is an art form to get right. So many things can interfere with the pacing of a scene–too much description, dialogue that rambles, info dumps, too much internal thinking from the POV character, too much narration, unfocused action, etc. To keep pacing on track, know your goal as the author for each scene. Once you know what you must achieve, go through the scene with an eye on description, dialogue, action and information, and ask yourself if what you’ve written really needs to be there. Sometimes it’s just a snippet of savvy description that sounds great but has no purpose. Other times, a whole conversation that does nothing but exchange information can be cut entirely. For a scene to be compelling, the pacing must match the intensity of the events unfolding.

A Distanced POV
Something that will keep readers from being drawn into a scene is when they feel like they are watching the scene happen rather than experiencing it for themselves. Usually this means the writer needs to delve a bit deeper because the emotional intensity is lacking. Everything in the scene–description, emotion, beliefs, attitudes, judgement–should come through a defined POV. Thoughts, visceral sensations, body language and action should work together to reveal emotion, and all description and observations should be filtered through the main character’s POV senses. In this way, a reader is brought inside the Point of View and it becomes a more direct, intense emotional experience.

What patterns do you noticed as you critique? Do you ever discover patterns in your own writing that lead to an ‘AHA!’ moment and fresh perspective?

Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression. This show-don’t-tell brainstorming tool contains lists of body language, thoughts and visceral sensations for seventy-five emotions, ensuring writers will find the right description for any emotional moment. Enter our Goodreads giveaway for a crack at winning a print copy of The Emotion Thesaurus!


About charitybradford

Science fiction and fantasy writer and blogger. My first novel is now available--The Magic Wakes (WiDo Publishing, 2013)

Posted on June 23, 2012, in Guest Blogger. Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I'm more conscious of sense of movement now. And I really pay attention to point of view. The first time through a manuscript, it's a bit distant. Second time through, I really put myself in the character and feel the scene through him.

  2. I recently critiqued an entire story for a friend. Before I've always done a chapter at a time. I was amazed to discover how different it is to look at the entire story. Now I'm going back over my story and am able to spot things like deep POV better than I could before.Helping my friend actually helped me.Thanks for sharing these points with us!

  3. Thanks for these great tips. I'm busy finalising my MS and I see how I can improve the whole story.

  4. Alex I agree, that first pass is really about making sure the pieces of the story are in place and make sense. Then once the plot is set and there's a greater confidence that the big elements are taken care of, then it's time to go deeper. I find with each pass I understand the character better and can achieve that strong sense of deep pov, setting interaction and description filtering. Jackie, this is why I am such an advocate of critting! It really is something where you get out of it, not just put in. By reading and evaluating another's work, we see how to strengthen our own. :). Glad you're into critiquing as well!Fiona, happy to help! Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment, and to Charity for hosting me.I am so happy to be here!Angela

  5. Ah, this is just what I needed to read today. I'm about to send a draft off to some new reader friends and I've been agonizing over whether I need more backstory at the beginning for it make sense. Thank you for helping me resist temptation to overexplain!!

  6. That's a good list you have there!Thanks for stopping by and championing me in the Star Wars thing!

  7. Great tips Angela. That's such good advice to know the goal of each scene. I'll be keeping this all in mind as I tackle my next revisions.

  8. Great tips! I'm still working on my pacing – not quite confident in this area yet. I don't think I do the heavy description – although I may be quilty of going overboard in the other direction on that one 🙂

  9. @ Jericha, resist! Resist! LOL. If your readers say they were confused at the start, you'll know that more information is needed, but this doesn't always mean backstory–sometimes it means the book isn't starting in the right place. And if they say they were about to follow as is, then perfect! @Andrew Thanks–hope it helps you as you revise!Hi Natalie! Knowing the goal keeps us on track…it can be easy to have a lot of extraneous info that might be interesting but doesn't add to the story. I think challenging ourselves on what does and doesn't need to be there allows us to keep the pace rolling strong. @Jemi, pacing is SO HARD! I still struggle, and it's something I've studied a lot. I feel like writing is like juggling 20 balls at once–we have to do a set amount of things in a scene to make it succeed as we need it to, but if we slow down, the balls start to fall. Hope everyone is having a great Saturday! :)Angela

  10. Excellent stuff. I especially like this bit of advice about pacing: To keep pacing on track, know your goal as the author for each scene. Pacing is so tricky. This should help me make sure things are moving along at the right speed.Becca

  11. Me too! It's easier for me to get into my characters heads the second and third times through because I know them better.

  12. I love critiquing for friends for this very reason. Plus you get to see some amazing stories you might miss out on otherwise.

  13. Backstory is so hard to figure out. I took out too much and have been "sprinkling" it back in over the last few weeks. Such a hard balance. Good luck!

  14. You're welcome! Isn't Angela awesome. Good luck with the Star Wars thing. 😉

  15. Another place that's hard to balance–description. I've been accused of holding back too much here as well. Keep writing and you'll get it.

  16. I have trouble with pacing as well. Thanks for the writing tips!

  17. These suggestions are all very well said, I think, and useful. Something else that I have been seeing repeatedly in critiquing a friend's novel is the psychological truth of the characters. I have often asked myself "Would that person really say that? Or do that?" I sometimes find that characters behave in certain ways because the writer wants it to happen, not because it's true to the character.David Hutto (

  18. This is such a huge help. I'm working through a tough revision right now, and I have to remember that all this blah blah blah can be fixed. Thanks, ladies!

  19. Becca & Golden Eagle, one day we will all master pacing! :)Rueben, that's very true–knowing our characters inside and out leads to authenticity in both dialogue and action–hugely important.Julie, I sympathize. I just finished one revision and am now neck deep in the next. Oh the joys. But the end is worth the means!!Thanks everyone for the great comments!Angela

  20. I've been doing this exact same thing, Charity! My fear of info-dumping is far too strong I think.

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