One of the biggest benefits to being in a critique group is the chance to learn from your group’s critiques of other writers. You’d be amazed what you can pick up from listening to someone else talk about their reaction to a piece of writing you both read. The different issues that will bother or click for them, the ways they discuss their reactions—all of that is a potential gold mine for a writer who wants to improve his or her craft.
For this last piece of advice, I’d like to show a practice critique.
Read the short piece posted below, and comment. There ’s no need for a line edit.
but feel free to point out consistent grammar or spelling mistakes, word repetitions, or other style issues that jump out at you. Also point out what worked, what didn’t, and what might work better, keeping in mind what we discussed earlier in the week.
There’s no need for an extensively long critique—a short paragraph summarizing your reader response is plenty. This exercise is meant to get you thinking about critiquing, and to demonstrate how interesting it can be to read through your classmates’ responses on the same piece of writing.
Aidan Hill shifted uncomfortably on the hard, metal bench inside Austin-Bergstrom airport and leaned his forehead on the huge plate-glass window. He watched as men in business suits strode by pulling wheeled suitcases and students dressed in Texas orange clung to the straps of dingy backpacks. God it was weird to back and be surrounded by people who weren’t all dressed in uniforms.
His eyes flicked down to the watch on his wrist and then again out the window. Travis should be there any minute. The phone conversation with his mother hadn’t been as awkward as he thought it would be. He had hung up the phone an hour ago with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation, and those feelings only grew the longer he sat there, waiting.
He looked out at the steady stream of cars and recognized a rusted, formerly blue, old Ford pickup truck. It pulled up along the curb and stopped. His cousin Travis sat in the driver’s seat and leaned across the seat to look out the passenger side window. Aidan stood up and waved to catch his attention. He exited through the sliding double doors and headed towards the truck.
“Aidan!” his cousin greeted him.
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s your nickname. It’s a term of endearment.”
Travis rolled his eyes. “I thought six years in the army would have drummed that immature sense of humor out of you.”
Aidan snorted. “Hardly.” He tossed his canvas, army-issue duffel bag into the bed of the pickup truck and climbed into the passenger seat. They circled around the outside of the airport and were soon on the highway, headed for his family’s hill country winery.
Aidan watched as fields of dry grass dotted with junipers and live oaks flew by outside his window. Occasionally a herd of longhorn cattle or horses would break through the wheat-colored landscape. The knot that had begun forming in his stomach at the airport was now being wound tighter and tighter the closer he came to arriving home. It didn’t matter. He only had to stick it out for three months, and then he’d be off again.
“So, how have things been going?” he asked.
Travis shrugged his shoulders and continued looking at the road ahead. “They’ve been going fine, I guess.”
“I heard you took over as winemaker.”
“Yeah,” he adjusted the thick black glasses he wore with one hand while holding the steering wheel with the other. Aidan knew it was a nervous habit. He continued, “Yeah, Cora’s parents retired to Florida a couple of years ago and I took over full time when her dad left.”
Aidan nodded silently, then cleared his throat and finally asked the question that was weighing on his mind. “So, how is Cora doing?”
Travis was messing with his glasses again. He was quiet for a long time, long enough for Aidan to wonder if maybe he should have kept the question to himself and just found out when he got home.
“She’s doing okay.”
Aidan pursed his lips, then sighed and looked out the window again. “Oh,” he said and felt like an idiot for even asking. He knew Travis probably just didn’t want to get involved in the drama of it all. Hell, Aidan didn’t want to get involved either. Damn it. He had known coming home would be a mistake.
Just then they turned off the main highway onto the long drive, which lead up to his parents’ house at the back of the property. The tires made a crunchy popping sound and the cabin swayed rhythmically as they slowly made their way over the loose gravel of the road.
Aidan leaned out the passenger side window and felt the warm October breeze blow back his hair. He inhaled the scent of the oaks and cedar that lined the drive. Beyond that, about one hundred yards away, he could make out the family’s grapevines growing row after row.
He pulled back into the cabin of the pickup and turned his head towards Travis. “I see dad planted even more grapes after I left.”
“Yeah, we’ve expanded our yield by about twenty five percent.”
He looked back out the window and took a deep breath as the tidy little ranch-style house came into view. He remembered the last time he saw it, through the sheets of rain that were pouring down that night. She had stood on the porch, her tears obscured by the raindrops that fell on her cheeks. He consciously pushed the memory aside and concentrated on what Travis was saying to him.
“So what’s the plan, then?” Travis asked.
Aidan pressed his lips together silently, then said, “What do you mean?”
“You back for good, or…?”
“Oh.” He shook his head. “No, I’ve got contracting job waiting for me in Afghanistan, but they’re waiting for the paperwork to come through from the government. I’m just waiting it out here. They said it would probably be about ninety days.”
Aidan thought he could hear a note of disappointment in Travis’ voice. It grated on his nerves. He turned to look at Travis who turned and looked at him for just a moment before turning his attention back to the road.
Aidan sighed and shrugged casually. “Look, I’m not harboring any delusions that anyone wants me back for good—“
“That’s ridiculous, of course we want you back.”
Aidan looked over at him and raised one eyebrow. He didn’t believe that for a second. Travis hitched up the corner of his mouth sheepishly. “Well, I wouldn’t mind, anyway.”
The brakes squealed and a puff of dust swirled in the air and then at last settled onto the dented hood of the faded blue truck. He shifted into park, pulled up on the emergency brake, and then sat back. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then seemed to think better of it.
Aidan opened the door and stepped out into the dappled sunlight breaking through the leaves of the huge live oak, which grew in the front yard. Its branches arched over the roof of the quaint old home. His dad must have recently done some repair work. He noticed the sandstone facing had been cleaned since the last time he had been there, and a fresh coat of blue-gray paint covered the wood trim.
A yellow dog came bounding around the corner of the house and threw itself at Travis, who bent down and scratched its ears. “Yes, you’re a good boy Turbo. I missed you too,” Travis cooed. Aidan looked down and watched the dog lick the underside of Travis’ chin. He snorted and looked away, but froze as he sensed another movement near the side of the house. He looked up and saw his mother. She seemed to be frozen in place, a gardening glove on one hand and the other bare. Her eyes were fixed on him.
He tentatively smiled and raised his hand in a kind of half-wave. “Hi Mom.”
She breathed deeply and seemed to reanimate as if he had pressed play on paused movie. “Aidan,” she said and quickly came forward.
He met her part way and had to bend down to hug her. She pulled back and ran a hand over his hair. “Look at this buzz cut! And you must be twice the size you were last time I saw you.”
“Hmm…I doubt that,” he said but smiled.
“Well, come inside and we can do some catching up.”
Just then the front door opened and a woman stepped out onto the covered porch, the screen door falling closed and slamming behind her. She stood on the top step and leaned against a post, arms crossed. Aidan stood frozen in place. A little thrill of adrenaline ran through him, beginning in his chest, outwardly to his fingers and toes, and then back in, to settle heavily in his stomach, and twist it into a tight knot. He exhaled and realized he had been holding his breath. He knew that form, those arms, those ears. Her face. Even after six years, he’d know her anywhere, in an instant.
“Cora.” The name seemed to tumble out of his chest.
She raised her chin and gave him a look that he swore he could feel on his skin like the needles of a cactus.
“Aidan,” was all she said. But even in that one word there was a cold knife-edge to her voice that cut into him. He bowed his head and swallowed hard before he looked back up at her.
Her dark, almost black hair was pulled into a neat bun at the base of her neck, and she wore fitted jeans and a button down shirt. Although she was older than last time he had seen her, she still had that girl-next-door freshness that had attracted him all those years before.
He was brought out of his spell by the feel of Travis clapping him on the shoulder. “Welcome back, man,” Travis said.
“Yeah, thanks,” he replied and scowled.