Tag Archives: critique group

Feedback vs Feel Bad

“Well, I tried to read it, but… sorry, I couldn’t get past the first page.”

If you’ve ever put your creative work out for other to see, you likely did so wincing with trepidation, unsure what to expect.

Do they love it? Do they hate it?

Did he just laugh? At what?

Did she just raise her eyebrows?

Is that interest at a cool turn of phrase, or disgust at some mistake I didn’t catch?

Sometimes the response you get back is empty of value. Other times, it’s thoughtless and crushing.

One of the hardest steps we take as amateur writers is giving others the opportunity to read our work. It feels easier to leave all our poems or stories in files on the computer than to face the judgment we fear.

But unless it’s a private diary or journal, reading is an essential part of the writing process. The audience is the intended recipient of all our word-smithing, and their response is the tool we use to discover what we’re doing well and where we’ve missed the mark.

What if we could witness those important cues and responses in a friendly setting, a “safe space” of sorts? What if we got insight from other writers on a similar journey–people who know not just what we’re going through but how it feels–rather than from “professional readers” whose replies lack technical detail or depth?

Enter the feedback group.

I’ve written about the value of such groups before, so this time, I thought I could show an example of what good feedback looks like:

What He Would Have Wanted–Full Critique

The Word document at that link is a combination of comments and discussion points over aspects of grammar, description, dialogue, and format. I love the comment feature on Word and similar programs for this purpose.


Kyle writes epic fantasy, and he also pays great attention to detail. He uses AutoCrit among other programs and services to dig into the weeds on his own writing.

One good example of such detail is that in my original draft, I used “then” 12 times. As an example of the constructive type of feedback, Kyle not only pointed these out but also provided re-writing suggestions for how to avoid them.


Jessica is an avid fantasy reader and helped me see what worked really well in my descriptions.

A newcomer to the group, Natalie mentioned how a portion of dialogue struck her as possibly too modern for the setting.

Judy is a professor at one of the on-base colleges. She saw a lot of meaning in the imagery and word choice that I didn’t anticipate or intend. I can use that feedback to do a better job intentionally incorporating those aspects in future writing.

One point that isn’t captured in the document (because I forgot to add it as a comment): I described Fleuris as having hair the color of carnations… but there are many varieties of carnations. Judy and Kyle assumed red, and Jessica pictured a light pink–which is what I was aiming for. Lesson learned: it’s not a clear description as written.

At the end of the session, Natalie–a newcomer to the group–remarked that the experience was better than she expected or feared. In her career dealing with military writing, she’d seen arguments over whether to use “or” or “and” in order to highlight some meaning in an article. “People spend hours bickering over these minor details,” she said. “I guess I thought it might be like that.”

That fear is common when joining a new community or putting our work out for others to see. But like many things in life, the fear is often far worse than reality.

In a good group, everyone has the same vision of constructive criticism in order to make each other’s work better. In that light, while it may sting a little to realize I’ve made a mistake, I develop from the insight of others and hone my skills for next time.

For anyone wishing to grow as a writer, I can think of no greater resource or method than a solid, constructive feedback group.

Military Community Writers currently meets every two weeks from 10:30 to 12:30 on Saturday at the Kadena Base Library. Our next meeting is July 29th. Got something to share? Come out and take the plunge with the rest of us.

Top Ten Posts

I’ve been making an effort to reach out to more people online, and as a result (no surprise) I’ve had more visitors.

With an eclectic mix of topics, I fear people will show up and discover that a blog isn’t what they expected. It’d be better perhaps if a viewer could get a quick idea of what content they’ll find.

So here’s the (slightly revised) Top Ten blog posts on my site, part based on views and part based on interaction, with a little explanation for each.

1. D&D Next: Character Creation – I play RPGs, and a friend and I started testing the rules for the new system of Dungeons & Dragons. I posted my experience creating a character, and it receives attention every week. <em>But those rules are out of date!</em> I’ve posted a new synopsis of my experience with 5th Edition rules at this link. If you’re familiar with D&D, and curious about 5E, check it out. If you’re not familiar, maybe take a look and see why this game is the most popular RPG of all time.

2. Yes You Can – This post’s success, I think, is a fluke based on the title. It also gets views every week. I wrote it during a Democratic National Convention, so the “Yes We Can” slogan was constantly in my ears. But this is only an inspirational post about determination in achieving goals. Hey, if you need a little encouraging pick-me-up, there you go.

3. So Help Me God – The interplay between faith and politics is of interest to me, because sometimes it leads to amazing frustration on both sides. Case in point: the Air Force recently tried to prevent an atheist from reenlisting to defend our country because he would not say “so help me God” at the end of his oath. This caused a big stir among my atheist friends, and it also garnered some emotional responses from “patriotic” believers out there in the Web. I made a case in this post that requiring this phrase in the oath was an absolute waste of time.

4. 40th Anniversary Poem – My parents recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, and I was asked to write a poem for the occasion since the military was going to move me overseas months prior to the event. I struggled for a bit, but all the Sunday School stories in my youth paid off. I was blessed to be able to deliver the poem in person.

5. Pride – This is a short story I wrote–completely fictional as an event, but something I’d hope I’d actually be able to live out. Certain songs reminded me that Christians are too often known for what we’re against than what we’re for, and this was my response to those thoughts. It starts off with a bit of stereotype that would have been best left out. But that’s what I wrote. As-is, it’s the post that has garnered the most comments & interaction on my site.

6. Who is My Neighbor – This was born out of discussion about illegal immigration, when proud patriots were stopping buses full of people shouting “We don’t want you!” and when people heard about some of these poor immigrants being given money to acquire food at Wal-Mart. Immigration reform is a difficult, multi-faceted issue. But there’s something to be said for mercy, and I hope I said it well.

7. Song: My Savior’s Love – I modernized a favorite hymn and added a bit of a chorus to it. Lyrics are provided, along with a link to SoundCloud where I have an amateurish recording of the song.

8. Elements of Critique: Appearance – This post started my 2014 A-Z blog challenge, covering topics related to critiquing writing. My favorite experience of my recent 2.5 years in the States was the special Critique Group I joined. I learned so much from each member, and my writing improved drastically.

9. D&D Next: Skills – If you still aren’t sold on the kind of fun and creativity that D&D and other RPGs can inspire, here’s the second-highest-viewed post on my D&D playtest experiment, covering how a character’s skills can get them out of (or into) trouble in the game.

10. Free Critique Group Guide – As I said before, I loved my experience in Critique Group… so much so that I made it the focus of 30 posts for an A-Z Blog Challenge this year. These were well received by my writer friends, so I compiled them into one 64-page PDF and put it on my site as a free gift. Why? Because nothing–no seminar, no discussion, no online article, no book–<em>nothing</em> has made the difference in my skill and passion as an aspiring writer so much as being in a good Critique Group. If you’re in one, this may give you new ideas on what to look for, what sort of feedback to give, and what pitfalls to avoid. If you’re not in a group but wish you were, the last three chapters are all about how to run your own. Free gift. Enjoy. Because I know I have.

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you find something you like. Let me know if you do, because I’ll be visiting your site looking for something fresh and new for my blog reader as well.




A Critique Feedback Method

Last night, I chatted with an old friend and former co-worker who is also an aspiring writer. It turned out he was looking for a writing accountability partner. I was happy to oblige, as I can always use another kick in the rear to get me motivated.

Here's some feedback for my lazy butt.
Here’s some feedback for my lazy butt.

He suggested a feedback system that I thought balances the positive and negative very well. It captures some important overall aspects without necessarily digging into line-by-line details (which is what I normally do in my current critique group).

I thought I’d share it here as another option, perhaps less intrusive, for getting some feedback on a writing project.

After reading, answer the following questions:

1 – What did you like best overall? (Feel, characters, tone, etc.)

2 – Best lines (hopefully 1 or 2)

3 – Things that worked (made you want to keep reading)

4 – Any other comments


1 – What doesn’t feel right?

2 – Worst lines / paragraphs

3 – What confusing thing needs further clarification now (i.e. not an intriguing mystery to be explained)?

4 – Things that definitely don’t work

5 – Other constructive criticism or funny/biting comments

I think this is a great idea, and I am eagerly looking forward to how this partnership develops.

Any thoughts about additions to this feedback method? Are there any aspects you’d want to see covered if it was your piece getting reviewed? Let me know in a comment.

Also, I really can’t say enough about the importance of getting a real person’s feedback on creative writing. Critique group has been the most wonderful experience thus far in my short writing journey, and it’s the school where I’ve learned the most lessons in the shortest time.

I documented many of those lessons in a series of posts in April, discussing Elements of Critique that I look for when critiquing a piece of writing. These lessons are condensed into this free e-book .pdf for your use: Elements of Critique

It’s designed to help any critique know what to look for, and to help anyone set up their own critique group if they don’t have one available to join.

If you find it helpful, I’d love to hear about it.

Critique Group Freebie

In April I participated in the annual A-to-Z Blog Challenge, with “Elements of Critique” as my theme. I wrote from A to Z (plus 3 extra posts) on everything to look for when critiquing someone’s writing, as well as a suggested method of running a critique group.

The series was well-received, and I committed to compiling the posts into one handy document.

Finally, the 64-page PDF is available, set up for easy digital viewing with hyperlinked chapters and table of contents.

It’s free for personal use, because I’d love for other writers to get the benefits and joy I received from attending a positive and helpful critique group.

Elements of Critique

If you find it useful, I’d love to know. It’s also going to remain on a permanent page at the front of my WordPress site.

Thanks for the encouragement along the way. I hope this serves you well.

Elements of Critique: Plan

I’m about to go to overseas with the military, and I don’t think I’m going to find a writers’ group like the one I’m leaving here. Perhaps you can relate to not finding a good group where you are.

What’s stopping me from starting my own group? Fear of a challenge I’ve never tried before? Fear based in lack of experience? Worry that I wouldn’t know where to start?

After the A to Z and the two add-ons, I’ve covered the essentials for how to critique. The only question I can think to answer now is, “How do I run a critique group?”  It’s simple once I have a plan.


To answer that question, I’ll steal from the guidelines used at the lovely group I attend. This is a starting point; these can be altered to suit whatever an in-person group needs, and can easily be adapted for an online group.

1. We set up a monthly date. Ours is the fourth Tuesday of every month. A monthly group means I’m not always critiquing or writing a submission. It’s manageable for me. Your mileage may vary.

2. We say submit up to 1200 words a week before the meeting. Setting that limit helps ensure we can all read the submissions even if we have busy lives. We’re pretty flexible about it; I usually submit a longer piece with a 1200-word spot marked so that if someone is willing to critique more, they can.

3. We have a standard format for submission. This seems nitpicky, but there’s a reason “A” is all about appearance. I got a comment from someone judging a competition, stating that the vast majority of submissions were disqualified because people failed to follow the guidelines on format. Ours is: header with last name/title on left, page number on right. First page upper left has name, address, email, and word count. The whole submission must be Times New Roman, double spaced.

4. Our guidelines restate that we should submit a week ahead, but they leave room for late submissions and encourage participants to come offer critique even if they didn’t submit anything that month. Everyone’s input is valuable.

5. We normally submit by email, but we’re trying out a Facebook group where everyone can “submit” by uploading their document to the group’s page. That way the documents don’t get lost in the shuffle of email.

6. Our group usually has five to eight participants. Eight borders on too many for our two hour meeting to cover well. We aim for a short 15-minute social time at the beginning, followed by 15 minutes of critique per submission. We actually use a timer visible for the whole group to keep everyone on track. When there’s time, we read a short portion of each entry (perhaps a page or two at most). Then we go around the room for critique.

7. Our guidelines reinforce what’s expected when your submission is being read and critiqued. Don’t cringe; no one’s out to hurt anyone. Don’t jump in to explain or defend (since we’ll never get the chance to explain our slant or ideas to an editor). Don’t apologize for what’s written. Listen fully; take what you need and leave the rest.

8. After each person’s piece is critiqued and read, they receive hard copies with comments and highlights, or they receive an email with an electronic document marked with comments and highlights.

That’s all there is to it. Seems easy, right?

It is. It doesn’t take much, it doesn’t require some amazing author or insightful editor to organize. All anyone needs is a host, a location, and some willing writers.

Adapting this to an online group is even easier: no need for a host or locale. A group could agree on a monthly timeline and submit critiques back-and-forth via email, or use an online chat feature like Google Hangouts to share together while geographically separated. And if all attempts at forming a group fail, there are online pages like Scribophile which are all about building community while getting and giving useful critique.

But this covers the basic framework. I can’t say enough good things about how beneficial a critique group has been for my own writing. I feel like a critique group evangelist when I meet other writers, and I have to tone it down so I don’t scare them off.

Perhaps you know of a group that runs differently in some key way. I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

And that’s all, folks. Everything anyone needs to at least kick off a group of their own and begin offering meaningful critiques. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this month-long journey and providing encouragement along the way. The feedback has been valuable to me beyond the power of words to convey. If there’s any question or concern not covered, shoot me a comment and I’ll be happy to respond with my take on it.

So with that, farewell. What are you doing reading blogs anyway?

There’s writing to get done!

Elements of Critique: Participation

The success of any group depends on the combined effort of its members. While a strong personality or two can carry a group for a while, everything will fall apart in their eventual absence.

The more the members know how to communicate and contribute to the whole, the better chances the group will be successful and sustainable.

So how does this work in a critique group? What makes one a good critique group participant?

Like many things in life, the answer boils down to the Golden Rule: Give what you’d like to get.

The biggest part of this Golden Rule participation is: Be timely. Ironic, as I scramble to get this written and posted (three minutes later than my planned publishing time). No one’s perfect, but we keep trying.

Most of what matters to good participation is wrapped up in how we use our time. Submission, preparation, sticking to the main point, and sharing the limited time with others–all of these require being timely.

I try to submit work on time or as close to on time as possible. But life sometimes gets in the way and delays that effort. If I know I’m submitting late, I understand that may mean my work doesn’t get the indepth level of critique I want.

Likewise, I only submit to the group ahead of time (though sometimes late). If I haven’t gotten a submission out before the group meets, I will not bring some printed copies for everyone to read during the session. First, that eats up time, because now everyone is expected to stop and read. Second, the rushed critique will be off-the-cuff, not the thoughtful and reflective critique members might prefer to give. Usually if someone does this, a polite way around it is to say “Can you e-mail me a copy so I take some good time to read and critique it later?”

I also try to be timely about critiquing. I want to give other participants’ work the thoughtful attention I hope they’re giving mine. So I try not to skim, to rush, to read at the last minute. I confess sometimes while others were sharing critiques on one piece, I was reading the next one. But this is unsatisfying for me, and I fear the shallow critique is obvious to the recipient. So I make more effort to carve out time for critique.

Finally, I have to watch the time when I am sharing my critique. I can get wordy (no, you couldn’t tell after almost 30 posts on this subject), and I love pointing out what I think will help. Timely participation means I say my peace and let others take their turn. I don’t want to dominate the time with my indepth review. So I (try to) prepare key points ahead of time, to ensure I hit on what I think is most important.

Everyone has something to share, too. When someone else is talking, I won’t butt in unless I’m certain I can help clarify a moment of confusion. When someone is critiquing my work, I won’t speak unless I must answer a question posed to me, and then only to answer the immediate question.

I like giving helpful advice, and I love it when it seems to make sense to the writer. When they hear it, nod, and agree, I can hope I am helping strengthen their writing. Since I like them to listen to my advice, when it’s my turn in the hot seat, I have to shut up and listen to what others think of my work.

That means I must be open.

Getting defensive is natural. These stories or articles are our babies. We want to stick up for them, or at least justify the mistakes by explaining the intricate thought process that led us to write a certain way. But defensive ears don’t receive advice.

And finally, I must be thorough.

The quality of my critique should be what I hope to receive from others. I want good critique. Thoughtful, constructive, indepth, pointing out both good and bad parts. So that’s what I try to give my fellow group members.

When most (if not all) the participants share these values and strive toward these goals, the critique group will be a powerful resource to improve not just my own writing but everyone else’s involved.

And it’s as simple as “Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.”

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Now that the A-Z blog challenge is done (thank God!), I thought I’d return to the theme I chose in order to cover three aspects that came up during the month of blogging. I’ll hit on perspective, participation, and planning, so that with the A-Z plus three posts, anyone could in theory organize and run their own critique group.

Three more “P” posts, for the price of none.

One of the keys to good criticism, noted in my ‘C’ post, is that it’s constructive. Critique is not about tearing down a fellow writer until they put up their pen or delete Word from their computer. It’s about working together building ourselves up into the best writers we are capable of becoming.

With any construction project, there are plans and considerations. Some of these will involve the overall style and aesthetics of the future building. Some will involve the math and physics required to ensure stable and lasting architectural integrity.

The math and physics are going to be objective – not contingent on anyone’s opinion. Will a support of such size hold up a roof of such weight? Will a foundation only so deep be able to bear the load of a building with so many storeys? There are equations involved, and these have to follow the rules of math in order to determine correct answers.

The aesthetics are subjective – open to interpretation and based in opinion. These probably involve the input of a designer and the owner. Will a large open welcome center suit our purposes? Would the project be better with a more curved appearance to the structure? Does the design suit the intended purpose? There’s no math for this.

Critique is exactly the same. But to offer good critique we need to understand the difference between what is objective and what is subjective. How we offer advice changes based on this distinction.

“I feel like perhaps some words are missing in this sentence, and it’s just my opinion but you seemed to jump from past tense into what felt like present tense, so maybe that’s a problem?”

I might as well say “Well, you know, I feel like two plus two kind of equals four.”

There’s no need to be overly careful about rules of grammar and punctuation. If we lack confidence, we can do a touch of research and make sure we’ve got the right idea about how the items in question should be formatted or used. Then we can speak objectively – with authority – about the use of a particular punctuation mark, breach of point of view, or format of a sentence.

Of course we cannot present objective critique in a cruel manner. We’re there to build up, not tear down. But if the math is wrong and the structure is inherently flawed, the building will collapse without corrective action.

So if I have the time to do a good critique, I will not only mark something as wrong but provide an explanation or reminder about what’s proper, based on objective rules. I may also present a helpful method for finding errors before submission.

When I do this, I take into account that the solution I see may not be the only option. And since I’m offering possible solutions, this is where my subjectivity starts to come in. “You could separate this into two shorter sentences or use a semi-colon to link the two parts. I’d suggest…”
This is where we start getting into the design of the building. What will look good? When talking about our writing, however, we each have an individual voice or style we follow. If my critique of someone’s writing turns their piece into my voice, then something has gone wrong. I want to savor and enjoy the distinctive “design” of their piece, so I tone back and make subjective suggestions in areas where no true rule applies.

We can’t critique tastes like a math teacher grading a paper. What I see as an awkward sentence may not be to everyone else. My thoughts on what is subtle or what is “authentic” dialogue, my take on whether a hook works well, these are subjective things. When a particular phrase seems weak, or I think something might be clearer in a different order, that’s my opinion.

I have to take into account my familiarity or lack thereof with the writer’s intended genre or audience. My style and tastes might not fit what is expected of their kind of writing.

Our writings are our babies, our darlings. If I say the baby’s ugly, then that puts the writer on the defensive. Defensive ears are notoriously unreceptive to advice. And while I could hope that everyone would be humble enough to receive input from even the most insensitive source, the fact is, we shut down or start to argue our side when we feel our writing is under attack.

So I try to offer my subjective input as an encouraging suggestion, expressed as “just my take on this,” or “this is what worked for me.” I won’t state my opinion as a fact like “this is a mistake you must correct.”

Recognizing the difference between what’s objective and subjective permits me to sound authoritative and encouraging at the same time. Hopefully that keeps defenses down and allows the writer to get the most from the critique.

Of course, we as critiquers can only do so much to communicate helpful feedback. The recipient has to be willing to receive. That’s the subject of the next add-on post: being a good critique group participant.

Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?

Never Gonna Give You Up.

Nickelback, or Creed.

Amy’s Baking Company. (It’s from an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that created a viral outlash on the Internet.)

Some things are universally reviled. (Seriously, the baking company episode is amazing and horrible. My wife is watching it now and like a train wreck, I cannot avert my eyes.)

While compiling my list for the A to Z, I saw ‘y’ and the first thing that came to mind was the much-hated ‘-ly’ of adverbs.

Soon after joining a critique group, I discovered that “-ly” words have a huge target painted on them. They were one of several problems highlighted with comments and lengthy explanations from our hostess. At first, I thought, “Surely they’re not so bad. I can occasionally use them, right? Sometimes they help clearly and fully communicate the meaning of the sentence.”

I was wrong, or at least too optimistic.

It’s so bad that I find submission guidelines for magazines with statements like the following:

We do not use adverbs in our magazine. If a sentence is written with an adverb, rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb.

The general rule is that adverbs are a form of telling instead of showing. I feel I’m breaking my ‘R’ post of repetition since I talked about showing versus telling already. But adverbs show up so often, and receive so much negative feedback, I wanted to devote an entire post to this subject.

The problem is, using an adverb tries but fails to tell the reader how a thing is done, which makes for weak writing and less interesting reading.

If a character is walking slowly, writing “walking slowly” doesn’t give the reader a picture. It tells the reader how a thing was done, and does a poor job of it. What does that even mean? How slow is “slow” in this case? Is it a careful kind of slow, a stumbling gait, or a casual stroll?

“Snow fell quickly” is… something, I suppose. My mind pictures more snowflakes fluttering down to the ground with the adverb present, sure. But is it a blizzard? Is it blinding? Is it building up or melting away, weighing down branches and covering rooftops? Who knows?

“The wind blew strongly in Lyllithe’s face” tells nothing. Is she uncomfortable or is she hypothermic? Does she struggle to make headway? Are her clothes flapping with each gust?

On the other hand, “Lyllithe stumbled through knee-deep snow, shivering and rubbing her arms in the driving wind” is showing the reader a picture through action.

The difference is obvious. So I look for adverbs when I critique, and point out these problems where applicable. On my better days, I’ll provide a suggested verb or two.

The magazine’s standard is a good rule of thumb: When an adverb feels necessary, consider if there’s any other stronger verb instead. There are exceptions, and we’ll see adverbs in published material. (I even used an ‘-ly’ adverb in my fourth line.)

These don’t have to be forbidden, but they should at least be rare. After all, even “Never Gonna Give You Up” is good sometimes for a laugh or a rick-roll.

Elements of Critique: X

When thinking through my list, I came to X and wondered what to choose. Algebra came to mind first:

7 + 2x = 19
Solve for x.

X, or some other letter, is substituted for a number. And that made me remember times when numbers in writing stand out.

X also means the missing piece of information, the solution we need. That calls to mind times when there’s something missing in a piece of writing.

So today, let’s solve for x.

First, what are the rules for using numbers in text?

The Air Force rule of thumb is to write out single-digit numbers in words, and type numerals for anything double-digits or above. That makes great sense in professional or academic writing, where figures and statistics might come into play. It also works in personal writing like blogs where a sudden appearance of numerals won’t likely distract the reader.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire took place 200 years ago. Eight nations sprang up in the ensuing chaos.

I started writing 35 years ago, working for two different newspapers, earning 12 cents an article.

In fiction, however, the reader’s attention is on the words telling a story. Interjecting numerals in the text sucks away the reader’s focus. We expect words but find numbers. It looks wrong. For example:

The ancient Cerune empire collapsed 10,000 years ago after a 500 year war with the barbarians of the north.

Compare with:

The Bloodsworn hordes crawled over the mountains, ten thousand strong, racing toward formations of Aulivar’s finest. The militia lined up in Suns of five hundred spears, shifting and trembling at the oncoming threat.

Oddly enough, the general rule is that the professional style writing can handle numerals, while the entertainment style of a story requires a more formal spelled-out number.

So when I critique, I pay close attention to the way numbers are used, because they will get the attention of readers.

I also try to notice when x is missing. Writing shouldn’t feel like an algebra problem where the reader is not provided crucial information.

To clarify, I don’t mean that stories cannot have an element of mystery. No detective story could meet that standard. Good storytelling in most cases leaves juicy tidbits, a breadcrumb trail that consumes the reader’s interest, a question that needs an answer. That’s required.

What I mean is when a piece of writing feels off.

It doesn’t connect. It feels flat. Maybe there’s no clear symptom or issue, but the reader is left with a general feeling of “bleh” like a case of a common cold. Perhaps “common” is the problem–the writing feels just like something familiar and expected, nothing that stands out.

I may not be able to identify the cause, but I know x is lacking in the piece. So I will at least highlight that sensation.

However, unlike math, critique is sometimes subjective. (Expect a post on this once A-Z is done.) I may feel that this piece has a fundamental yet unidentified flaw, and point that out. But I will clearly state this is merely my opinion.

It’s like ranch dressing. I hate it. Plenty of people love it. If I feel it’s wrong, I’ll offer my take, while recognizing my take’s value.

How much is that? Solving for x, I come up with an answer of “two cents.”

Elements of Critique: Tense

Some of my favorite sci-fi stories involve time travel.

Back to the Future was a fun and silly adventure when I was younger. The first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I remember clearly involved an alternate timeline created by a starship accidentally traveling through time. Later, movies like 12 Monkeys and Terminator 1 & 2 echoed elements of some of the classics I read in high school English, like Oedipus. We also read the short story that captures the meaning of the term “Butterfly Effect.”

These all posed questions like, “If you know the future, can you change it?” Or “If you can travel to the past, could you affect the present?”

Though it can be fun to wonder and read stories that give possible answers, we may never know. Time travel seems impossible.

Even so, it’s something I look for when critiquing a piece of writing.

By that I mean I look for changes between past and present tense.

One of the fundamental decisions a writer makes is selecting the tense of the piece. Will this be written in present tense – actions as they happen – or past tense – actions completed?

Which one chooses doesn’t matter so much. (I mean, yes, of course there are debates that could go on about what tense is best for which genre, for which POV, for which type of story, and so on.)

What matters is consistency. The tense cannot change mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-article, mid-chapter, mid-novel. Writers can give us glimpses into other times through their creativity and skill, but they must not make us travel through time through failure to maintain the verb tense of their piece.

Consider this example:

I looked across the room and my eyes met hers. She walks over to my table and introduces herself. “Hey there,” she said. “My name’s Amanda.” Her lips part into a sultry smile and she winks at me.

Pick a tense and stick with it. All past tense completed, or all present tense as it happens.

Most often, I’ve seen first person POV writing use the present tense.

I turn to him and level the gun at his face. “You can’t take her,” I say, “unless you go through me.” The hammer clicks back. His look tells me he doesn’t think I’ll do it. Then he lunges.

I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

The idea here is that, like life, we see what’s happening as the POV character does. We react to emotions and events because we’re in the passenger seat right next to them as this roller-coaster plot careens down the tracks. It can make for interesting action, though first person POV comes with its own set of challenges.

Certainly a first person work could tell the story in the past tense. A personal account of an experience as an example in a self-help article is an instance of this kind of writing. It’s the friend sitting over tea saying, “Have I told you what happened to me twenty years ago? Well, I struggled with self-loathing for years, and it got to the point that I considered…”

I’m personally not a fan of a novel or fiction story written in first person past tense unless done exceptionally well. I don’t like the idea that the character in the book is recounting to me the way things happened in his or her story. (For one, that’s almost always a good spoiler clue this character survived whatever conflict the story contains.) I’m not saying it’s impossible, just less common.

For third person works, most often I see verbs in past tense, actions completed, events written as though they already happened long ago.

She turned to him and leveled the gun at his face. “You can’t take her,” she said, “unless you go through me.” The hammer clicked back and she noted the sneer in his smile. He doesn’t think I’ll do it.

He lunged at her.

She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.

Even though all these actions are written like they happened in the past and the conflict is already resolved, our brains process the story like it’s happening now because we don’t know what happens — er, what happened next.

So what might seem like a boring, conflict-already-settled choice actually creates a dynamic tension in the reader. It’s just like how no one watches a movie thinking, “Well, this story has already been filmed completely. The ending is set. All these events already happened.”

Third person present tense is also an option not commonly seen, but possible to pull off with great skill.

She says to him, “We aren’t meant to be together.” So he grabs her arm, demands her affection one more time, and counts off all the reasons she ‘owes’ him.

She slaps him across the face so hard his nose starts bleeding. The other women in the room spontaneously cheer and give her a standing ovation as she stalks off.

To me this has the feel of a guy at the bar telling a wild tale. “You wouldn’t believe what I just saw happen.” I’m not a fan.

Past tense is generally preferred in 3rd person.

But sometimes a sentence may start with a past tense completed verb then show an ongoing action: “She thrust the spear at the bandit, yelling a formation command to her troops.” Even in that case, it’s clear that the action happened in the past, and another action was happening at the same time. It’s a way of depicting what’s going on in the “present” moment of the past tense story.

I’ve heard both sides of debate that such a formation is wrong or acceptable. I personally use it. And I don’t care one way or the other.

The only thing I’m looking for as far as verb tense is concerned is consistency. I’ll borrow a David Tennant Doctor Who quote here:

The Doctor: People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.

No, it’s not. Not in good writing. Broken verb tense creates a mess even the Doctor cannot fix.