Tuesday, November 28, 2017

First Rules of Critique—“Rule Two”

by Eva Marie Everson @EvaMarieEverson

Last month I talked with you about the first rule of critique, which is to know the level of the writer whose work you are critiquing.

So, let’s move forward with Rule #2: There are rules … and there is style.

About a year ago, an email came into my Firefly Southern Fiction managing editor mailbox (oh, yes . . . another hat I wear . . . ). In the text of the email was a book proposal. In the text of the email. Well, I knew immediately that this writer didn’t have an agent. As I only work with agented authors, I quickly wrote back (without reading the proposal, mind you), and asked if the author had an agent (knowing full well she would say “no.”).

She wrote back a short while later with, “I do not have an agent.”

Yeah . . . I kinda knew that (insert smile here). So, I thought I’d quickly shoot back that I only work with agented authors. But before I could hit the “compose” button on my email page, a thought came to me. Eva Marie, said the Thought, you are the president of Word Weavers International. You are supposed to offer a word of encouragement . . .

Oh. Yeah. So, I decided I’d peruse the first few lines of the “in the text of the email” work, offer a few “kudos here and there” and then suggest that when the author find an agent, she contact me again. Well, reading those first few lines led to reading the next few lines. And then a few more . . . until I was convinced I’d found the next great Southern writer. I was Max Perkins and this was my Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe all rolled into one fabulous female from Memphis now living in Malibu!

I got on the phone, called the author, and asked (stupidly), “You don’t have an agent?” She repeated that she did not. “Hold on,” I said. “I’ll call you back.” Then I jumped back on the phone and called a Southern Belle agent I know who I thought would be perfect for this Southern Belle writer. After I read the first several paragraphs out loud, the agent said, “What on earth is that glorious writing?”

Long story a tad longer . . .  the writer had a new agent . . .  the agent had a new client . . . and I had a new author.

But here’s the deal. The author, Claire Fullerton, broke one “rule” after the other for the sake of style in her work and, in the process, handed me a most delicious body of work. Months later, when I sent Mourning Dove (releases June 2018) to the proofer, and after she’d done her job on it, she wrote me and said, “She broke every CBA rule . . .  and did it beautifully.”

Here’s the problem as I see it: sometimes rules are made to be adhered to; sometimes rules are made to be broken. For example, I hear writerly people going on and on all the time about the cursed “semicolon.” To which I say, “If God hadn’t meant for us to use semicolons, He would not have invented them.” (Insert grin here.)

But, oh . . .  someone will say . . .  but they stop me in my tracks. Well then, buy new shoes. (More smiles inserted; I’m feeling cheeky today.)

Here’s another one: don’t use ellipses. Honey, Southern people speak and think in ellipses. Therefore, Southern writers have to use them. I’m not sure if that’s a rule, but I think it’s a law.

When we critique work, we must listen for voice. Voice is found within word choices and punctuation. Voice is found in style. Voice is what sets the writer apart from all other writers out there.

If, as a critiquer, you are unsure if the writer broke a rule on purpose, then simply ask, “Is this going to style?” I’m not suggesting that the writer will always know, especially if they are new to the craft. But many times they will.

Repeat Rule #1: Know the absolute rules (periods go at the end of sentences) and differentiate between rule and style. In doing so, you’ll help the writer find her voice.

First Rules of #Writing Critique—Rule Two - from @EvaMarieEverson on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Always, always know the #writing rules, then break the ones needed to make the work sing - @EvaMarieEverson (Click to Tweet)

In case you missed the other posts, here are the links:

First Rules of Critique, "Rule One"

First Rules of Critique, "Rule Three"
First Rules of Critique, "Rule Four"

Best-selling, award-winning author Eva Marie Everson is the president of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and the contest director for Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her latest novel, The One True Love of Alice-Ann (Tyndale), releases April 1, 2017.


  1. Ms. Eva Marie. You just made my morning! I've been writing the way I speak for many years. Your article made it "okay." What a blessing it was to read that one's style is something valued in writing. I may never be on the NYT best-seller's list, but I write the same way I speak with God. At least I know He'll recognize my writing. Thank you so much for the blessing. It's so refreshing to find someone else who understands "Suthin'-ease."

    1. That's right, Jim! We Suth'nahs gotta stick together!

  2. I look forward to Claire's release next June!

  3. Thank you for permission to use ellipses! :)

  4. Thank you for this post, Eva Marie. I know all the rules--but who invents all those other rules, like not to use semi-colons or ellipses? Don't start a chapter with dialogue. Really? To me, that's as silly as why a person shouldn't eat dessert first! Never use filter words. Hmm. What if you "feel" the need to? I could go on, but I'll choose character, style, and tone over arbitrary rules any day. (Me, being cheeky.)

    1. I've got two books on my desk right now, both published by NY houses, both by big-named authors ... and the semi-colons are flowing. I wouldn't even notice them but for the conversations I've had lately.

  5. Enjoyed your post, Eva Marie. We had a CAG member (she passed last spring)who would want me to critique her work. At first I nearly needed to purchase another red pen, but then I realized I had been destroying her classic Southern Belle voice. I needed to back off and let her voice be heard. Remind me to send you one of her stories. Have a tissue handy when you read it.

    1. They sound lovely ... indeed. Read some of Eudora Welty's work. She broke some rules ... and made a few in the process.

  6. Thank you, Eva Marie, for your critiquing advice. I am familiar with Claire Fullerton's previous work, and I agree with you--such a unique and lyrical style need not conform strictly to rules when the voice shines through with grace and impact. Holding my breath for Mourning Dove's release next year!

  7. Very helpful post. You have helped me find th words I need when, as when I'm evaluating a speech project, I have to distinguish between technical proficiency or rules, and personality. Now I can call it voice or style. This is great!