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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Are You Sure You Want To Be Critiqued? (You’d Better Be Certain)

by James L. Rubart

Back in the mid-nineties I was doing a lot of magic shows. At one of them, another magician approached me about developing an act together. His idea was strong: Dueling magicians set to the tune, Dueling Banjos.

The setup was I would be a heckler in the crowd as my partner started the show. 

After three or four barbs from me about how even I could do better magic than him, Jerry would call me out and challenge me to come up on stage for a magicians duel to the death. I would come up and we’d do trick after trick—in which I would always blow it and he’d shine.

Finally, I’d get so frustrated I’d pick up a gun, fire it at him and he’d catch the bullet in his teeth. Then we’d go on to do another 20 or 30 minutes of magic.

Our reputation grew till one day we played a rather large venue north of Seattle. The place was packed and judging by the crowd response during the show and afterwards, we killed it.

That Monday morning, I asked my business partner (who had come to the show) what he thought of the performance and what we could have done better. I was ready for lavish praise, but that’s not what I got.

“Well, your blocking was a little weak. And you should have had some music or something when you brought volunteers up on stage. It was like dead air on a radio station as they walked up. Your banter was good with each other, but a few times it went on too long. And that one trick with the paper balls is awesome for adults, but it’s over the kid’s head.”

I sat there stunned as he went on and on. What did he think he was doing? It felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I was ready to hear how awesome we were. How loud the applause was. 

Funny! Mystifying! Had the crowd in the palm of our hands! I wasn’t asking for him to hammer me. Except, that is what I asked for—what we could have done better.

My business partner was right of course. About everything.  

You understand the application to our writing so I won’t go on.

Sometimes we need encouragement. Sometimes we need critique.

The encouragers will keep us going. Those who critique will make us better. We need both.

Just know what you’re asking for—and who you’re asking. Your stomach will thank you for it.

James L. Rubart is the best-selling, and Christy award winning author of six books, including his just released novel, Spirit Bridge. During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing, which helps authors make more coin of the realm. In his free time he dirt bikes, hikes, water skis and take photos.  No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his amazing wife and two sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at


  1. You can critique anything of mine ... except my water skiing technique. I already know I look like a water buffalo being pulled behind a boat on snowshoes. For the skiing, all I want to hear is how good I look.

  2. My stomach will explode, my heart will amplify its arrhythmia as my blood pressure soars, and my skin is so thin it's like onionskin paper (about that crinkly too), so: no. I'm not a good student at this late date. I can hear the editors gasping from here. ;)

    1. You sound like a writer to me, Nicole. :)

  3. Replies
    1. Every now and then, Lisa, but it's rare. Mostly close up magic for friends.

  4. I was smart enough to know I didn't know anything and needed critiques. I've been with my crit partners for 10 years. I depend ont hem. As the years have gone by, what we have to suggest to one another has lessened, but they still put a spit shine on my work. You know them: Genghis Griep, Ludwig von Frankenpen, Attila the Holmes and Hannibal Dotta. If I can survive them, I can survive anyone! Contest crit? Piece of cake!

  5. Critiques are like a sunburn compared to publisher's edits. HOLY SCORCHING EGO BLISTERS! I love my critique partners, and my editors. They keep me from being horribly humiliated later, when it's too late for corrections!

  6. I'm one of the weird ones who likes my manuscript hacked to pieces....if it's by someone who knows their stuff. I'll admit I have learned not to ask just anyone to critique me. Your story is a great reminder that we never "arrive" and can always use some guidance.

  7. Jim, maybe it's because I don't "play well with others," but rather than being in a critique group, I depend on my wife, Kay (who has studied the craft and reads voraciously) to be my "crit partner." I know that when she likes something, I've done well. When she suggests changes, I always bristle but eventually come around to her viewpoint. It's a true test of the marriage sometimes, but whether it comes from someone in your own household, your crit partner, your editor, or a reader, a critique of your work is hard to take. Thanks for sharing this post.

  8. How do you suggest getting a critique partner, one who is at least at your own level? I would like one but don't know how to find one.

    1. Diane, if you're a member of ACFW, we have a large crit group where you can find others your level and work with. After you've formed bonds and trust, ACFW will give you your own private loop to crit one another on. It's a fantastic program!!


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