How to Critique a Piece of Writing (Art)

by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban

The following is the best advice I ever read about giving and receiving criticism.

I found it at the Eastern PA chapter of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators website (

I think it is perfect as it is, so, without further discussion, here it is.


Criticism should be constructive not destructive. “I didn’t like the way you wrote (or illustrated) that” is never valid criticism. It always helps a fellow writer or artist to know the strengths of a manuscript or illustration as well as the weaknesses. A compliment offered first softens a “constructive” negative to follow. Try to tell your fellow writer or artist why something doesn’t work for you and offer possibilities for change. Always be encouraging. Not everyone will respond to a manuscript or illustration in the same way. Those receiving criticism should remember that any suggestion offered can be accepted or rejected. The author or artist has the final word on what stays.

Remember that you are in a critique group to get feedback. Often, your words or pictures can surround you so you can’t see flaws in your work. Try not to be too defensive when you’re criticized; be good-natured about it. All creators feel protective about their “children”.
A critique group can remain strong only when the sanctity of that group is respected. Thus, it is never okay to use the ideas or the research done by another member, to impose upon their contacts in the publishing world, or to reveal to others outside of the critique group the work-in-progress without the author’s or illustrator’s express permission.


Publishing Seminar!

Come Join us at Mercer County Community College on

Thursday, August 12th from 7-9 PM for our informative Publishing Seminar!

Three Women, Three Authors, Three Approaches to Publishing

You finally finished “The Great American Novel.” Maybe you’re putting the final touches on that children’s book you’ve been penning. Perhaps you want to publish your memoirs for posterity.
How do you go from typing on your computer to holding the finished book in your hands? Join authors Mary Fran Bontempo, Carmen Ferreiro Esteban and Chrysa Smith in this two-hour seminar as they share their interesting, maddening, but ultimately fulfilling experiences about writing and publishing their books using traditional, print-on-demand, and self-publishing methods.
Tuition and fees: $65

We’d love to share our hard-won knowledge with you!  This seminar will give you essential information to help you to get your work published.

For registration and more information, click on the link below.

What I look for in a manuscript critique

Writing is a lonely business. A critique group is the writer’s way to connect to others, to get feedback and discuss your characters as if they were real, without your sanity being questioned.

It takes courage to bring your manuscript to other people’s attention, even more so to receive their critiques with an open mind, without taking them as a personal attack and becoming defensive.

Yes, you love your story and you want everybody to love it too. But it’s rare the story that cannot be improved in a rewrite. The comments of other writers that see your work for the first time and come to it from different perspectives could be an invaluable help in creating a stronger piece.

This does not mean you must take all the advice offered. In fact, it may be impossible to do so, because sometimes the changes suggested by different members contradict each other. But if the majority agrees on some point, you may want to reconsider and change that particular part.

A negative critique can be overwhelming, especially for new writers. For me, the best critique is one that is balanced, one that offers both a positive evaluation and a carefully worded statement of the work weaknesses.

I like positive comments not only because I need praise, who doesn’t?, but because it is as important for me to know what is working in my story than what it’s not. A critique that only states what doesn’t work let me wondering whether there is anything at all I should leave as is, or, even worse, whether it’s worth to tell this story in the first place.

That is why I do not take a manuscript to be critiqued until I have a detailed outline and I know where I’m going with it. Too many opinions, especially negative ones, when the story is still a seed in my mind will break it for me. I take it when I have a first draft and want other people’s opinions to consider and incorporate, if I think them appropriate, in my next draft.

On the other extreme, if you believe your story is perfect as it is, don’t bring it to a critique group, as you will probably resent any suggestions for change. If you think it is ready, send it to an agent/publisher instead.

Carmen Ferreiro Esteban

Good writers borrow, great writers steal. T.S. Eliot

Vampires, angels, zombies and fairies have invaded the shelves in the teen section of the bookstores these days.

As a writer of Young Adult novels, I have read my share of them, and enjoyed reading them well enough, while calling it research. But after a while they all started to blend in my mind. The good guys were always young and beautiful, the bad ones, still young, but ugly. And not being either young or beautiful myself, this started to bother me.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to have a wicked and wise older woman as the protagonist? Something like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer with the mother as the slayer?

After bouncing the idea in my mind for several days, I presented it to my friends and fellow bloggers. They both liked the idea and even volunteer to co-author my story. Then, Mary Fran went to the bookstore and found a book which she thought had stolen our idea, and panicked. Wouldn’t we be copying if we wrote ours now?

I told her,”No, of course not. My story is different.” How could it not be when I had not read those other books?

It was only later that I remembered a surrealistic moment I experienced last year when reading Diane Gabaldon’s novel Outlander.

Both, Outlander and my young adult novel Two Moon Princess, involve time travel.

In Outlander, a nurse from 1945 England travels to XVIII century Scotland where she falls in love with a native.

In Two Moon Princess, a girl from medieval Spain travels to modern day California and then back to her world with the American boy she fancies.

But that is all they have in common, the time travel part. The story line, characters, voice and intended audience are totally different.

Yet, when I reached the last sentence in Outlander, I almost dropped the book. The sentence paraphrased eerily close the last sentence in Two Moon Princess. How could that be possible? I hadn’t read this book when I wrote mine.

So, maybe Mary Fran is right. Maybe my vampire book will not be totally original. But that won’t stop me from writing it. After all, according to Plato, there are only six basic plots, so any story we may tell has been told thousands of times already in a slightly different way.

We, writers are like children playing with dolls, dressing them with a new outfit and making them look new every day. And as long as we have fun doing it, why should we stop?

As I did in my previous blog ‘Rejecting Rejection’, I’m going to give you two sentences.—the two endings I mentioned above—and ask that you leave a comment telling me which one you prefer and why.

Please do, you’ll make my day.

#1. “And the world was all around us, new with possibility.”
#2. “Around us, the New World stood still, waiting.”

And in case you wonder which one was mine in the Rejecting Rejection blog, the answer is # 1.

So, congratulations to the winners. Oops, I said there will be no winners. So, I rectify congratulations to everybody that left a comment, and thanks so very much.

Carmen Ferreiro Esteban

If you are intrigued by the premise of my middle aged mom vampire story and want to read the first chapters, please go to

Springtime Thaw on March 20

Bears aren’t the only warm-blooded animals to hibernate. It seems to me, after the Christmas holidays, my world goes into a short state of  hibernation.  Now some of it is of my doing—enjoying the cold weather, gray skies and fluffy, white stuff less and less as I get just a bit older. But some of it, for sure, is set into action by others. There are just these inactive periods when emails don’t get where they’re going, connections get lost because of winter sniffles, aches and pains, and the frenetic activity of ordinary days is lost, as the world slowly arises from its holiday slumber. At this time of the year, my world is the polar opposite of a great sports car—-it goes from 60 to 0 in an instant. Or so it seems.

So, not surprisingly then, our publishing seminar—-the really wonderfully attended event produced by MaryFran Bontempo, Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban and myself, has also gone into hibernation, and somehow that email to sign up for the spring semester, never arrived—-in any of our inboxes. So, just a little plug as we wind up once again to empower ourselves and others to get out there and ‘just do it’, we will in fact be offering another publishing seminar on Saturday, March 20th, from 10am-noon, somewhere in Central Bucks. As soon as we are assigned a location, we’ll let you know. And we promise to come, packing even more of experiences gained from the writer’s life with us.

Check the website for details as the date gets closer:


Wrapping It Up

It’s that time of year, isn’t it? Wrapping it up seems like a good headline to sum up this seasonal time of wrapping presents, wrapping up projects, wrapping up another 365 days. 

So, let me leave you with a bit of end-of-year news and wisdom.

1. Book signings are tough. Without celebrity status or an incredibly long list of devoted friends and family members, book signings can be excruciatingly lonely, boring and disappointing. So, instead, why not come up with a way your knowledge can help others? A talk, a seminar, a workshop is much more rewarding and often a better use of time. When you offer people something, you always gets more in return.

2. Keep the most important things, the most important in your life. It’s easy to lose yourself in all the flurry of activity that writing and publishing books bring with it. But every so often, life comes along and smacks us in the face with the realities of how we spend our time, and sometimes a lesson on how we should.  A child leaves for school, a husband struggles in a business, a parent passes away, a friend becomes ill, couples get divorced, families with kids at home become empty-nesters. These life passages seem to run faster all the time, leaving us square in the path of the cliche, where has all the time gone? Lesson learned: time goes by quickly—-make sure you’re making time for what is truly important in your life.

3. Trust in yourself. Know when to listen to the outer and inner critics. Some are valid; some are not. If instinct tells you to keep plugging, keep plugging. Myriads of editors, publishers, agents and others have been proven wrong over the ages. Proper persistence often pays off.

4. Enjoy the journey. You never know where writing is going to take you. It has taken me to places I’ve never been—introduced me to people I would have never met—exposed me to topics I would never have known anything about. It’s a journey, not a marathon. Plan to enjoy it. If you don’t, take some time to think about your path. Maybe it needs tweaking or a complete makeover. Either way, it’s progress toward where you should ultimately be.

Whatever your genre, whatever your denomination, whatever your status in life—-enjoy this wintery, slow-down of life—this pause to reflect on what is truly important in this life, and focus yourself once again for another 365 days of lessons to wrap, unwrap and maybe even re-gift.

Chrysa Smith

Julia long de vie

View Image

Chrysa Smith

A friend invited me to see JULIE & JULIA.

Great, I thought, the perfect afternoon diversion from teaching a summer camp, talking about writing and working on my own new release. So, we went.  Little did I know that this decision would turn into several weeks of Julia talk, Julia cooking and an effervescent evening of celebration, that Julia herself (I’m sure) would have glowingly endorsed, with a nod, a wink and her signature signoff, Bon Appetit!

But before all the glitz and glamour, I didn’t get a break from writing. After all, Julia’s cookbooks are infamous. However, it was sure nice to know that the mother of television cooking shows and French-American cooking herself, was a many-times-over, shunned author. Her work was too complex, too large, too consuming—maybe too advanced or prolific for the dull mind of the average American homemaker. Little did they (the experts) know, as often happens, that she was actually a Renaissance woman—-a woman with vision, beyond the confines of what present day society and cultural norms dictated to her. She was, quite frankly, today’s woman—a woman with a broader mind, sense of adventure and as it turned out, visionary of what was to come, decades down the line: American homemakers cooking more complex dishes, using good, fresh ingredients.

I loved the struggle. I loved the message and I loved the relationship between the modern day Julie and the Donna Reed era Julia—the woman who would don pearls while serving, yet be so bold and brash as to question norms, stretch limits and tell others, only when absolutely necessary, where and when to get off.  I absolutely loved her. And to this day, she continues to roll around in my head as a new role model— to those of us who go for the gusto, stretch the limits, color outside the lines and refuse to be defined by others.

So, being utterly shameless, I borrowed the idea of hostessing a Julie & Julia dinner party for a group of friends—-friends who recently share something in common (besides liking to eat)—-friends who are all relatively recent empty-nesters. What better comfort to give than sharing and serving good food, good wine and good conversation?

And so it was. Seven of the twelve invited women enjoyed appetizers on the deck, then sat in my breakfast room last weekend, dining on Beef Bourguignon, bottles of French and American wine and fresh French bread. A realtor, accountant, teacher, postmaster, nurse, and two authors were united for a few hours, by a sense of loss, a sense of hope and companionship brought to them by the breaking of bread, the sharing from a bottle, the telling of stories. In fact, I believe it might have also inspired a few future dinner parties to come, because in the end, as purveyors of fine food understand, there is little that a good meal and friendship cannot heal.

Ah, la bonne vie!







I love stories. That is why I’m a writer. And the story behind Kings, an NBC show that just ended its first season, is one of the best I have seen on TV in a long time.

            It’s the story of David, the shepherd boy who defeated the giant Goliath with a sling. A story most of us know from reading it in the Bible when we were children, but retold in a modern setting.

            Kings takes place in a country called Gilboa (Israel comes to mind) caught in an unending war with its northern neighbor Gath.

            The giant Goliah is a tank. And David is the young farmer turned soldier that blows up the tank in the pilot episode. He also rescues the king’s son and by doing so, is thrown into the web of intrigues of palace life, as he blindly at first, cautiously later, follows the orders of the king he worships. A king blessed by God to Whom he talks through rain and thunder. Until the day David comes. King Silas knows his time is over, but won’t step aside and will eventually defy God Itself to stay in power.

            Not only I find the story brilliant, the dialogue is smart and haunting.

            “We give up what we want when we want power,” King Silas tells his son, chewing the words and then spitting them in a pitch perfect delivery.        

            “The mother of the hero,” he tells David’s Mother.

            “The hero of my son,” David’s mother answers, returning her king’s stare unperturbed,

            “You can have whatever you want,” the king offers David, “even the proverbial half of my kingdom.” Then as the boy’s eyes fall on his daughter, “Half my kingdom it is.”

            There is not a simplistic distinction between good and evil in Kings. All the characters are written as complex human beings, from the wide eyed innocent Shepherd (David’s last name) to the queen’s nephew (a perfectly disturbing Culkin Macaulay of Home Alone fame).

            Kings is a fascinating story of greed and love, and trust and betrayal. It is storytelling at its best.

            If you write, if you want to write, or if you simply love a good story, watch Kings. It is available on line at until September 20.

            And if you learn whether Kings has been renewed, please let me know.


Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban

In Search of The perfect Query. Or How Far Would You Go to Get Published?

Carmen Ferreiro Esteban






Dear Publisher to Be,

Zamparo, this guy I met last night over at the Emporium, asked me to contact you if something bad happened to him. He’s dead now, back at the hotel, so I guess that qualifies as bad, and that’s why I’m sending this e-mail to you.

He said you might remember him as you two met last month at the Writers Workshop in Philadelphia and, I quote, “you were impressed with the first chapter of his manuscript, Publish or Perish.”

I’m attaching the complete manuscript to you now as he instructed me to do. Afterwards I will send a press release stating that you have it.

From then on, its fate and yours will be in your hands. Meaning that once they—the men that killed Zamparo—know, they will try their best to stop you from reading the story that would uncover them was it ever to become public. So, it seems, your best protection would be to publish it as soon as possible.

I would if I were you.

You see, Zamparo’s death will give the book free publicity. And with him being dead and all, you will be making all the profit.  What is there to lose except your life? As it will be at risk if you don’t publish his manuscript.

Besides, Zamparo deserves to be heard. He was a nice guy, and he really wanted his book published even if he had to perish to make that happen.

As for me, don’t worry, I’m nobody, just a messenger that never existed but in your mind, and soon will be

Gone forever,


For those of you who wouldn’t want to go that far to get your book published (dying is after all kind of irreversible), here is a link to the Preditors and Editors’ website where you will find expert advice on what an editor is looking for in a query:

From my own experience:

The perfect query is the one that sells your book, whether it’s perfect or not is a matter of opinion.

Make your query professional, but not boring. 

Make it engaging, original, AND specific to your story. To do this, you may try to:

            Write the query in the voice of your character,

            Start with your first paragraph,

            Or ask the question(s) your book answers (this works best for non fiction).

And when you are absolutely, positively sure that your query is ready, send it to Query Shark ( for a critique.

Good luck and Good Writing

Carmen Ferreiro Esteban

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Thoughts on writing, publishing and other things.

j0438487To blog or not to blog?  That is the question.

Actually, it’s only one question in a seemingly endless list of questions when it comes to electronic mediums and writing.  Specifically, just how much time should one spend mining technology when you’re trying to be a writer?

Anyone who has written a book, or anything for that matter, feels the triumphant surge of euphoria when you’ve dotted your last “i” and crossed your final “t.”  Your masterpiec is finished!  Now you can sit back and wait for the money and fame to start rolling in and transform your life.

Well, not so fast.  Unfortunately, for writers, the completion of a written work is only half the battle.  Actually, if someone were to do a statistical analysis, it’s probably only one-tenth of the battle.  Because if you want anyone to read your stuff, your real work is just beginning.

As Chrysa, Carmen and I found out first-hand, the act of publishing your work can be time-consuming and confusing.  There are multiple options available and each must be evaluated for you to find what’s best for you.  But even that can look easy next to the marketing of your work.  Where, oh where to begin?

Which brings us to the technology quandry.  With blogging, social networking sites,  websites and internet organizations for writers, book review sites, and on and on and on, the possibilities for trumpeting your work are endless.  And that’s precisely the problem.  You can get lost in that mess.  If your true love is working on your craft, what’s a writer to do?

The answer is a little bit of everything–the operative words being “little bit” and “everything.”

You should have a website–almost a given for any writer.  Use the networking sites to build contacts and steer traffic to your personal site.  Search out a few sites that cater to writers in your genre.  Many offer marketing tips as well as ways to increase your contacts.

And blogging, despite bearing the occasional stigma of being an excuse for anyone to blather on about anything (not here, of course), can actually be a great way for you to write short pieces regularly, giving your readers a more personal glimpse into your personality and keeping your skills sharp while you try to make that first million from your book. (Since blogs attract the most traffic by being frequently updated, try joining forces with a few writer friends, as we have.  Takes the pressure off any one writer and broadens the audience for all.)

So by all means, blog, tweet, update your website and embrace that technology.  But don’t forget to write.

Mary Fran

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