I rewrote my novel through a critique group but I’ve lost my way

too manycooks hugo90A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.


I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.

During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?

Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.

A brainstorming draft

If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.

A learning draft

It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.

Take control

Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.

As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.

Get back to your vision of your book

First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?

Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.

When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.

Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.

Now to your manuscript

Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.

Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:

  • 1 initial gems with rough edges
  • 2 gems from the reworked version
  • 3 don’t-minds
  • 4 rejects.

File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.

If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.

Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.

Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments

Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr

nyn1badgeMore about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence



If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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  1. #1 by mgm75 on February 1, 2015 - 7:30 pm

    Completely agree. People in a writing group are loaded up with their own prejudices and expectations. They are subjective opinions held up as objective fact – and this is not greater than when they are expressing personal offence at the subject matter (I wrote a futuristic novel about an oppressive church); whether they are published or not matters very little – nobody knows your book or characters better than you do. It’s great to have that support and you will get some useful advice, but often its 10% good advice and 90% poor advice.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 1, 2015 - 7:38 pm

      Thanks, Mgm! It must be even more difficult if people are expressing a dislike of your subject matter. We need to be careful to show our work to the kind of people who *should* enjoy it if it did its job well enough. But it’s tricky to find them!

      • #3 by mgm75 on February 1, 2015 - 9:40 pm

        I’m not opposed to writing groups now, even though I’m highly unlikely to join another one, but if I did it would be genre specific.

  2. #4 by courseofmirrors on February 1, 2015 - 8:32 pm

    In my experience of a wonderful beta reader, questions are gold, better than suggestions. I raised the subject of revision in my blog post today.

  3. #6 by francisguenette on February 2, 2015 - 3:06 am

    I agree with the idea that a critique can offer a direction for change but seldom do other peoples’ ideas of what that change should entail fit. The writer needs to decide that for themselves. No one, absolutely no one, knows my characters and the story I want to tell the way I do. Of course, that does put me in danger of having blind spots so I welcome the times when a beta reader indicates that something doesn’t work. But please stop there. I’ll figure out how to fix that something. Great post. Glad you resurrected it, Roz.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 2, 2015 - 11:49 pm

      Hi Francis! I like this line of yours: ‘no one knows my characters and the story I want to tell the way I do’. Most of the time I think we’re struggling to work out what that should be, and stumbling around until we find the right questions to ask! Thanks for stopping by.

  4. #8 by Dwight Okita on February 2, 2015 - 7:40 am

    Roz, thanks for sharing. I think one must have a strong inner compass when joining a writing group. You need to keep hold of your vision. But if you are too easily influenced, you are bound to lose your way. I’m working with a writing group and I try to listen to my inner voice which can keep me on track, yet I try to still be open to good intuitions from other writers. It’s so important to learn what suggestions don’t ring true for you. Writing groups aren’t for everyone. I like them because they give me external POVs of my book, and they keep me writing to deadline. I enjoy peer pressure to present my best work to a group.

    • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 2, 2015 - 11:53 pm

      Hello Dwight! Nice to have you here!
      You make some good points about the advantages of critique groups. Especially about how they can keep you to deadline and make you raise your game. And as you say, it takes a certain amount of confidence to know when to keep your vision and when advice might be good.

  5. #10 by Sammy on February 2, 2015 - 5:46 pm

    I think one thing that helps is to briefly skim critiques made by the group or partner and put those critiques aside for a few days while working on something else. After that, you can return to those crits with a less sensitive mindset. It helps you go through comments and suggestions with a good sense of what you want from your novel as a whole. Going through crits deeply the first time might spur you to jump right ahead in changing your novel around them; you have all these raw emotions from reading what people think about your work and might end up making bad decisions to change your book based on those emotions. So skim, put aside, and come back after a good while. Good topic!

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 2, 2015 - 11:55 pm

      Hi Sammy – excellent point about letting a critique simmer down. I advise my editing clients to do this because I know what it feels like to get a long screed of detailed commentary. No matter how much praise it contains, the writer always notices the criticisms! Glad you made this comment, it’s an important piece of advice.

  6. #12 by acflory on February 3, 2015 - 5:08 am

    I’ve never been able to show anyone my writing until I’m 95% happy with it, and even then it’s only to beta readers I trust 100%. Part of the reason for that is nerves – what will they think? will they hate it? blah blah. Mostly, however, I have this idea that once I show someone else, the fluidity of the story will be gone. In other words, I won’t be able to change it as freely as when it was just between me and my pc. And I do believe in change. I’ve been known to completely restructure a story in order to tell it better.

  7. #13 by Sherrie Miranda on February 3, 2015 - 7:12 pm

    Excellent advice! Comments are great too! I got writing advice from about 50 people, maybe more, BUT I never could just accept what someone else said. I may have reread their comments or had them in my head but I never made any change that I didn’t decide was my own. After all, YOU are the writer; YOU know what you want to say; and YOU have to live with the changes.
    I know someone who is the exact opposite of me. She may have 100 versions of a short story because she does everything anyone tells her to do. I fear she will never publish anything because of this habit.

    • #14 by Sherrie Miranda on February 3, 2015 - 7:15 pm

      P.S. I meant to mention that my novel is finally about to be published. Yes, this first one took a long time, but I learned a lot along the way. If I decide to keep writing for publication, I will surely do it much more quickly next time around!

  8. #15 by Sherrie Miranda on February 3, 2015 - 7:18 pm

    Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    Such excellent advice here that I had to share it!

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