When your writing project, whether it be a novel, a poem, or a short story, has reached a place where you feel happy about it, keep in mind that your perception of it is a little like if you pressed your nose against a mirror to check if your hair looks good. You’re simply too close to it to see it properly. Now is the time to add the greatest addition to your tool box. No, not a blow dryer. What you need are the fresh eyes of a trustworthy critique partner. But finding this magical partner and then making good use of the feedback that she offers can be tricky. The following is a list of questions frequently asked by writers who are looking for a constructive critique.
How do I find a critique partner?
The best way to find fellow writers is to take a class. Most towns have universities that offer affordable classes for adult education in various subjects such as creative writing. Here, you’ll have an opportunity to read or listen to your classmates’ writing samples and you’ll soon know whose style fits with what you like or what you can connect with. I don’t mean to say that you want to find the “best” writer in the class and latch onto them, but rather, cue yourself in to a style that resonates with your writing sensibilities and ask that writer if they’d be interested in exchanging a few pages. If it goes well for both of you, then you can suggest exchanging full manuscripts.
Another great place to meet writers is at a writers conference. Given that this is a blog for middle-grade readers and writers, I’ll assume that your interest is in children’s books. So I’d highly recommend becoming a member of
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The SCBWI is, in my opinion, the best resource available. Most regions offer one or two big conferences a year, each lasting a full weekend, and their workshop and luncheon schedule is designed to help writers meet one another.
If you don’t have either the time or the finances for a class or a conference, you can find online writers’ message boards, such as Verla Kay’s Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Chat Board. Verla Kay is a picture book author who started this forum, also called the Blue Board, about ten years ago. It was on this board that I found my critique buddies. And even though we’ve never met in person, we’ve all become close friends as well as cheerleaders for one another’s writing triumphs.
When is the best time during the process to request a critique?
Every writer is different. I know writers who meet as a group every other week and critique each other’s progress, chapter by chapter. This works well for them because it holds them accountable for maintaining their personal writing goals. They can’t procrastinate getting that word count up when they know it’s their turn to present their work on a scheduled date.
When I am first starting a new project, I like to write a few chapters and then pass those chapters along to almost anyone who’s willing to read them (for me, that person is my husband) and tell me if the idea is worth pursuing. If I get a thumb’s up, I’ll keep working on that project until it is completely finished. I may try to revise and polish it up, but if I have a person who’s patient (or held captive, such as my husband) I prefer to let him see the work in its messy but complete phase. At this point I’ll request what I call a “Big Chunk Critique.” I ask things like: Does this scene make sense? Is this element believable? Is the ending satisfying?
After I receive the Big Chunk Feedback, I revise and polish the manuscript according to the suggestions, plus I tidy and tighten up everything else. When it’s completely finished and I feel absolutely satisfied with it, I send it off to my critique partners. Then I prepare for my satisfaction to get turned on its head. It’s okay though because that’s what those readers are supposed to do. I want them to show me what doesn’t work and help me face head-on the manuscript’s problems. I think it’s important to add that my partners are also good at telling me what they liked and what places made them laugh or cry. Not only do their compliments please my ego, but they also help me know what scenes I need to leave alone.
Is a paid critique from a professional worth the cost?
If you’re interested in finding someone to give you a professional edit of your complete manuscript you can expect to pay a lot of money. Check closely the credentials of the person offering the services and make sure your manuscript is of a genre or category that is the editor’s expertise. Most writers I’ve talked to who have paid for an edit have said that yes, it was worth it. Does it guarantee that after you revise according to the suggestions you’ll find an agent or a publisher? Sadly, no, it does not. But usually the paid edit includes a few pages of detailed notes about your story plus comments throughout the pages of the manuscript. This kind of feedback is an education in itself. Even if it doesn’t help you sell this particular manuscript, you may learn something about your writing that will help you write your next manuscripts.
What if I don’t agree with the suggestions in my critique?
It’s perfectly fine to disagree. Accept the advice graciously and if you have questions or need clarification on some of the notes or comments, hopefully your critique partner will let you feel free to ask. Once you understand everything and you’re still not sure how you feel about the suggestions, then put the manuscript away for a while, maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks. When you’re ready to look at it again, pull it out and carefully consider everything that’s been said. Then start scratching off each comment you disagree with and keep the ones that resonate with you.
If you have the right partner, the purpose of her critique will be to help you make your manuscript what you want it to be.
Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of forthcoming The Secret of Ferrell Savage (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, February, 2014).