5 Guidelines for Critiquing The Rough/Discovery Draft

On Friday, I wrote about the writing process, and talked about the importance of allowing yourself to write a rough or discovery draft. Manuscriptpage

A question that comes up, and I've had quite a discussion about this lately with my separated-at-birth-sister Candace, is what happens if you are in a critique group and working on a discovery draft.  You want to bring your writing in to get some sense of guidance, and yet you're working on a rough draft, which is going to be, by its very nature, rough.  So do you go back and labor over every scene or chapter after the group has critiqued it? Or should you just not take your work in yet?

There's a fine line here.  I'm a huge fan of writing groups, I could not exist without the one I'm a part of, and I think you sometimes have to guard your work in the early stages.  Because far and away the best thing to do is write one entire draft from start to finish, without getting hung up on making scenes perfect along the way.  Why?  For a couple of reasons:

  • When you get to the end of the first draft, you know a helluva lot more about the story than you did when you started.  Guaranteed.  And part of that knowledge is going to involve rearranging things.  Once you get to the end, suddenly you realize that you have to change things up in chapter six.  And since you're going to go back and rewrite chapter six anyway, there's no reason to make it perfect along the way. 
  • Because it is just way too damn easy to get hung up on rewriting the first 50 pages until they are perfect and never make it to the end of the book.  I've seen this happen repeatedly.  Just write a  discovery draft all the way through to the end and get it under your belt.  You'll be thrilled with yourself.

Should you want to take your rough/discovery draft into your writing group (and I do this all the time), follow these guidelines:

1. Make it clear that this is a rough draft and that comments should be made accordingly.  In other words, readers do not need to dissect sentence structure and word choice at this point.  Have them comment on big picture things, such as if the plot is making sense and characters are acting congruently (which they probably won't until future drafts, but you can start to see where they go astray).

2.  Apply what you've learned from critiques to future scenes and chapters.  If readers say your dialogue sounds wooden, experiment with making in more natural as you continue to write new scenes. 

3. Consider presenting the work in bigger chunks, if the format of the group allows this.  It is often easier for readers to follow threads and throughlines if they can read several chapters at once, as opposed to reading one chapter in isolation.

4.  Take good notes.  I have one notebook dedicated to notes about the current project, and I take notes as I listen to the critique.  As soon as I can when I get home, I go over the notes and make certain I understand them.  I scribble a few ideas about how I'm going to utilize the changes.  And then I go back to making forward progress on the draft.

5. Don't take it personally.  It's about the work, not you.  If you internalize any commentary in a personal way, you'll not be able to carry on with finishing the draft.

All right, time for you guys to chime in.  How do you deal with writing a rough draft?  With taking criticism?

And stay tuned, because over the next few posts I'm going to be discussing each phase of the writing process in depth.

Photo from Photl.  Yes, I've found a new source for photos.  Don't fall over in your chair.


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16 Responses to 5 Guidelines for Critiquing The Rough/Discovery Draft

  1. Candace White 02/07/2011 at 07:31 #

    I view this like I view most things in the writers world, theres more than one way to get at the truth of the story. Inevitability I have to go with what works best for the way I write, when INSPIRATION (fickle witch that she is) is sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear. I don’t want to get to the end, I want to get to the truth of the character, of the scene, of the conflict….And I want it down on a piece of paper in black and white as good as I can get it at that moment. There’s magic in that. Thats my thrill. And here is the truth, I don’t know where this story is going, but I don’t have to, the characters know. If I go back after writers group and re-write some element of the story, I am closer to my “witch” at that point than I will be 6 months or so down the road, no matter how good my notes are. As far as writers group is concerned I want to take the best story I have to offer. I don’t want it to be a rough draft because I want to be critiqued on the vision that I see, as clear as I can make it.
    I get overwhelmed with all the plastic elements of writing like plot and conflict and arch of the story, thinking about all those things makes me feel like I am not doing it right.I feed all that into my brain and trust the story that comes out will have those things.
    I just think that there is not one absolute way to get to the end of the story. Quite frankly I am enjoying the trip as hellish as it gets sometimes.
    But hey thats just me.
    Love your twin,

  2. Charlotte Dixon 02/07/2011 at 08:19 #

    Hey Sis, And my point is that its not about getting to the end–that getting to the end allows you to discover truths about your character and the story that you otherwise would not know. Time and time again when I’ve gotten to the end of a draft and the characters did something unexpected, I’ve then realized that I got their motivation from the start wrong and I have to go back and delve more deeply into that. I don’t consider plot and conflict and arc plastic elements of the story, I consider them vital underpinnings. I may think my character’s arc is one thing, only to get to the end and realize its another. I’ll never forget a woman in my critique group telling me that only after the 7th draft of her novel (now published) did she finally realize what the theme was. There’s another kind of magic that happens when you’ve finished a draft and learned so much about the character and the story.

    And, all that being said, every writer has to figure out the process that works best for her. Trying to fit yourself into somebody else’s idea of what works when it doesn’t work for you is indeed hellish.

    Thank you so much for chiming in, sharing info on what works for you is incredibly helpful to all of us.

  3. Leisa A. Hammett 02/07/2011 at 09:17 #

    Helpful, Charlotte. Thanks!

  4. Charlotte Dixon 02/07/2011 at 09:46 #

    Thanks, Leisa!

  5. Ledger D'Main 02/07/2011 at 10:07 #

    First drafts should be chilled with a frothy head that reaches just a half inch beyond the rim…

  6. Charlotte Dixon 02/07/2011 at 10:08 #

    Ledger, how long do we chill them for?

  7. Ledger D'Main 02/07/2011 at 11:21 #

    Only long enough to eat three pretzels or a handful of stale popcorn, elsewise the bubbles will loose their fizz and not be able to tickle your nose hairs…

  8. Roy 02/08/2011 at 11:13 #

    Hi Charlotte:

    Nice post. For me, I allow the rough draft to be rough, but I do write toward…sign posts.

    I have the work mapped out at a very high level, knowing basic things, like what the catalyst will be, what the climax will be, where the story takes place, what (at least) two or three of the major transformations will be, and who a lot of the characters are.

    But, I allow myself to allow other things to happen, other characters to appear. I push through to the end with a rough draft mentality, but I pause in the manuscript to make second draft notes to myself, usually in ALL CAPS.

    I agree Charlotte: sharing your work at the right time, to the right audience, with specific instructions are essential ingredients to success with a manuscript.

    Stephen King has a lot of valuable stuff to say about this in his writing memoir, On Writing. For example, he writes:

    “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

    Other Excerpts from the book are located at:


    And more of his tips are located at:


  9. Giulietta the Muse 02/08/2011 at 15:53 #

    Hi Charlotte,

    I write essays and newspaper columns and pretty much follow the same process for both.

    Just start writing in pen, scribbling down all sorts of ideas. Then after I’ve got a few pages, I go to the computer and type it in. Then I head back to the beginning to find my intro and keep trying out ones until I find the one I want. I then just keep running down through my draft, weeding out sentences that just don’t fit. Tightening the writing as I comb through. Every sentence must fit smoothly into every other sentence.

    It’s been true that every time I have a sentence that doesn’t work right and I give the draft to someone to read, they pick up on it. I call it being lazy and not wanting to fix what I know doesn’t work.

    Mainly show it to 1 or 2 trusted folks. At this point, I’ve got both writing genres down pretty pat at this point.

    Great article! thx, G.

  10. Charlotte Dixon 02/08/2011 at 16:19 #

    Its funny too, Giulietta, I sometimes fail to heed the voice telling me about those sentences that don’t work right. Then when the editor or group finds them, I’m hitting myself on the forehead, wondering why I didn’t listen to myself. I think you’re right–laziness. Ah, sloth! Gotta love it.

  11. Charlotte Dixon 02/08/2011 at 19:50 #

    Thanks for the great quotes and links, Roy. And you make a good point, that preparation goes a long way to a successful discovery draft. I love your system of all caps for second draft notes. I seem to recall a color-coded highlighting system that you used for critiquing at Spalding!

  12. Roy Burkhead 02/09/2011 at 10:07 #

    Oh, I still do the color code method, but that is between the second and third drafts. That’s more fine tuning of the language, like yellow for cliches and common phrases, pink for adverbs, blue for grammar issues (split infinitives, nouns too far from their verbs), and so on. :)

  13. Charlotte Dixon 02/09/2011 at 14:24 #

    Roy, Love it! Glad you are still doing it, as it is so very Roy-like.

  14. Sharon 02/11/2011 at 11:35 #

    When I was still working on my first draft, I was reading Writing A Novel by Nigel Watts. I was somewhat relieved to read his advice about this very subject. He believed that it would be a mistake to show anybody your writing in its infant stages, because it is too easy to crush the writer’s inspiration/creativity with the wrong comment – it’s too vulberable a stage.

    I kept my WIP pretty close and have only shown two people tiny little bits of my first draft (after it was completed for the most part). I supposed everybody is different though. I lack the confidence to ask for feedback at that stage.

    I’ve been contemplating joining a local writer’s group for a long time now, but, again, I’m not sure I have the confidence for it or the expertise to contribute!

  15. Charlotte Dixon 02/11/2011 at 11:46 #

    Sharon, I so believe it is an individual decision as to when you want to share your work, so bravo for you for holding firm. Being in a writer’s group has helped my writing–and my critiquing–enormously, and I know its not for everyone. I’m willing to bet you have more expertise than you think.


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