One Writer’s Journey

June 12, 2019

How to Critique A Manuscript

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:54 am
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In addition to critiquing manuscripts for my students, I am a member of a critique group and an accountability group.  Technically, the accountability group is supposed to hold members accountable for their goals.  But, let’s be honest, we also critique.  How can we not?  Once you’ve heard about the manuscript your writing friend is working on, you want to read it.

Something I’ve learned through the years is that experienced writers are generally, but not always, the best at critique.  Maybe it is because we know what we need in a critique.  Maybe it is because we know what other writers need.

Not sure your critiques are as good as they could be?  Here are some tips.

Know what you are critiquing.  Why?  Because picture books, graphic novels and chapter books all function differently.  You have to know what you are reading to know if it works.

If at all possible, read the manuscript through without marking on it at all.  Then read it again.  The second time through you know where the manuscript is going.  This will keep you from writing things like “I need to know” or “it would be helpful if,” only to find this desire fulfilled in the next line.  In addition, knowing where a story ends can also help you know if the build up works.

Start with what you like.  I know.  Writers need to be tough to make it in this industry.  That’s good that you know that.  But you should also know that people receive criticism better if they know there is something about their story that you like.  Compliment their character before pointing out that their setting feels flat.  Point out the humor before commenting that the villain in the mystery is far too obvious.

Always say something.  This doesn’t mean that you should go on and on about something trivial but it is really annoying for someone who has given you a careful critique to get back . . . nothing.  Not sure what to say?  Then point out what you like and give an impression or two.  Not everyone is going to connect with every single story.  That’s just how it is.  But even when someone workshops a toddler picture book (the bane of my existence when it comes time to critique), I will find something to say.  I really liked X, did you mean to give the impression that Y?

Giving a solid critique isn’t easy but it is a skill worth acquiring.  After all, you want to receive sound critiques and learning what to look for in the writing of others will help you understand what they see in your writing.


June 4, 2019

Working on a New Project: When Do You Share?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:40 am
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I’ve got this idea. (Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay)

Some writers I know will bounce a brand new idea off the members of their critique group.  Some do this because they are so excited they need to share.  Others want to gage the group’s reaction to the idea.  That way they can message it as needed based on the group response.

Other people keep their work to themselves.  I know writers who won’t share anything about a project until they have completed a draft. One writer explained to me that she handles it like this because once she shares it, the energy dissipates.  She has to keep it private until she has completed a solid draft.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle.  I will share a rough draft with my critique group to see where the plot works and where it doesn’t.  This is with fiction – not my strong suit.

But before I have a rough draft, I will sometimes bounce my ideas off my husband.  I do this most often when I know something isn’t working.  I did this the other night, telling him about the rebus I had roughed out that day.  “It needs a twist ending and I’m just not sure how to make that work.  Right now she is riding the train and she sees . . .”

When I trail off, my husband knows that something just caught at my “writer brain,” which may or may not have anything to do with my right brain.  In this case, I knew what my character would see and what I needed to imply as well as what the twist would be.  While the central concept would remain the same, the details would all have to go.  This wasn’t a “move some commas” rewrite.  This was a complete revisioning.

As I ran down the hall to leave myself a note on my desk, my husband called out behind me.  “Glad I could help!”  Yeah, he’s pretty used to the fact that I sometimes have to talk about a problem to work my way through it.


May 22, 2018

Critique: Take the Time to Do It Right

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:23 am
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Strange.  This was supposed to post last Thursday.  Because I was on the road, I didn’t realize it never “went live.”  My apologies.  Let’s see if it posts this time around!


This weekend, I’m going to be at a writing retreat.  I’m not sure how other retreats are organized by this one features time with an editor – both one-on-one with feedback and your work as well as workshops on various topics.  It also includes critique groups, time to get and give feedback.

If you’ve never critiqued another writer’s work, it can feel intimidating.  You want to be honest and helpful but not every work speaks to you.  In fact, you may fail to connect with a piece and not be sure if it just isn’t something that appeals to you or is problem that the writing is somehow off.

I solve this by taking three steps to critique a manuscript.  Obviously, I can only do this when I get them ahead of time but this is my preferred process.

  1. I read the manuscript through without making a mark.  Then I set it aside for a day or more if possible.
  2. Then I read it again.  This time I let myself mark it up.  I check or underline any place I feel moved to make a comment. Sometimes it will be that I loved the humor.  Other times I will point out that a particular word choice pulled me out of the story.
  3. Then I type up my comments.  The last couple of events I’ve been to have asked us to use the SCBWI Gold Form.  We aren’t required to do it but it is encouraged.  I like the form because it doesn’t let me short cut the process.  It asks about strengths, characterization, plot, voice and more.

When you make extensive comments on a manuscript, start with something positive.  It makes the rest easier to take in.

Yes, I’m telling you to be positive.  Period.  Not just if you liked it.  Not all manuscripts appeal to every reader but you don’t want an editor to tell you your work is fabricated so you should play nice as well.

This isn’t always easy.  I am not particularly articulate at critiquing preschool picture books.  So I admit that up front.  Next, I comment on what I liked – the word play, the character, the situation . . . whatever.

Then I comment on what needs work.  It might be the voice.  Perhaps it doesn’t have that read aloud quality that a picture book needs.

And I almost always recommend books.  This is an author who does this well . . . Your piece reminded me of . . .

Take time to do it right when you critique someone’s work.  And then?  Use that same level of analysis on your own work.  You may be surprised at what you find.


December 8, 2017

Critique: An opportunity to improve your craft

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:46 am
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The first Wednesday of every month, I have critique group.  I’m planning to take advantage of an Above the Slushpile opportunity from CBI.  So I brought the first 10 pages and the synopsis of my chapter book to the meeting.  I’d get help proofing and then I could send it out.


“Seriously, this reads like a middle grade.”

“Nope. It’s a chapter book. I even tested the reading level compared to several others.  It is spot on.”

Moan.  Sigh.  Another moan.  I should have just listened.

Because later on as I was taking a shower, I realized that my story has a plot and a subplot.  That’s not a chapter book thing. That’s a middle grade thing.

Moan.  Sigh.  Another moan.

But that’s the great thing about a group of people who knows your writing. They can spot where things are off.  They can let you know what you need to change, or what markets you should really be looking at, before you send it out to an agent or editor.

Having someone critique your work is vital. Often you are just too close to spot the problems.  After all, you know what you meant to write.  If that’s not how it turned out, you may not be able to spot it as quickly as someone who is seeing it with new eyes.

Here are four things to keep in mind when you are looking for a critique group.

  1.  If you are writing for children, find a group for children’s writers.  People who write for adults don’t have to deal with reading levels and developmental levels.  They have probably never studied picture books and how they function. You need someone who knows what they are looking at.
  2. Find a group who has goals that are similar to your own.  I publish traditionally.  At some point in my life, I might choose to self-publish but I need to work with writers who are interested in working with agents and editors.  It is a slightly different mindset.
  3. Some groups like to read their work out loud.  I don’t mind that, but I get a lot more out of reading the hard copy myself.  Find a group that meshes with how you work best.
  4. You may have to attend several meetings before you know if the fit is right.  Not to worry.  Every group is not for every writer.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without solid critiques.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a note to write.  I should let my ladies know just how right they were!


April 11, 2017

You Can’t Please ’em All: Critiques, Editorial Feedback and More

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:28 am
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Recently one of my students came to me with a worry about her manuscript.  How do you know when to accept good feedback (Love it!) vs bad feedback (This needs something more.)?

This is a really tough issue.  Accept every comment as legitimate and you’ll be endlessly rewriting every manuscript you attempt.  You’ll never get it “done.”  Ignore everything but the compliments and your writing will never improve.  The key is to find a happy medium.

Step #1:  Accept the fact that there is absolutely no way on earth to please everyone.  It is impossible.  That means that some negative feedback is inevitable.  But you’ll get a lot less negative feedback if you can …

Step #2:  Identify your audience.  And when I say identify your audience, I don’t mean something broad like 12 year-old boys.  That’s still too broad.  I mean that you should be able to say that your work will appeal to 12 year-old boys and girls who are STEM savvy.  Or 12 year-old girls who love horses.  Or 12 year-old boys who are studying tae-kwan-do.  If you can be specific about who your readers are, you’ll know that you need to pay the most attention to feedback from these readers or from people who know/work with these readers. But even then, you won’t appeal to everyone.  That’s why you need to …

Step #3: Keep an eye on your original inspiration and goal.  What made you want to write this?  What was your goal when you began?  Does this feedback fall into place with these things or is it contradictory?  Only you can say.

It is never easy to decide if you should accept or reject feedback.  Sometimes it is a matter of really knowing the person who supplied the feedback.  Some people get your work and give reliable feedback.  Other people don’t get your work.  Ever.  If the feedback helps you create a better manuscript, run with it!

As we say in my critique group, it is your sandbox.  You just agreed to let me in to play.



September 13, 2016

How-to Revamp Your Critique Group

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:43 am
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Over the past two years, attendance at our critique group meetings had fizzled.  At one point, we averaged 6 to 8 people per meeting.  Lately?  Two.

discussionIt was clear that something needed to change.  Maybe the day of our meetings was to blame.  I asked other members and yes Thursday had become less convenient but the time was still fine.  So we moved the meetings to Wednesday evenings.  At first, it looked like that fix had worked because we had three or four people per meeting. Then it crawled back down to 2.  We had even had 2 new members but with a schedule change one of them couldn’t make it, but he did say that 4:30 would be much better.

Again, I asked various members.  Would earlier in the day work?  Surprisingly, many of them said yes.  So now we are meeting at 4:30.  This past meeting we were back up to six members including one who had returned (evenings no longer worked for her) and a new person.

There are a variety of reasons that attendance may be flagging and, of course, the fix will vary according to the reason.

Does the day/time still work for most people? This one can be trickier than you might think to diagnose.  Many of the people who came to our meetings swore that evenings were still better.  They said that, but they didn’t come.  You may have to try more than one new day/time to find one that consistently works.

Do you still have a genuine critique group?  Socialization is well and good, but your group will only hold the attention of serious writers if you critique.  This means managing the chit-chat.  Give everyone fifteen or twenty minutes to chat and then get to work.

Is there a shark in the waters?  Sadly, a single member can sometimes be the problem.  If you have someone in your group who pulls every conversation back to themselves or who lashes out when a manuscript doesn’t match their views of science or politics, some policing may be in order.  It is never easy to tell a fellow adult to use their nice words or shush, but sometimes it is necessary.

Do you just need a pick me up?  If everyone is feeling a big jaded, start each meeting with a fun writing exercise.  Or bring cupcakes to celebrate the birthday of a noteworthy author.  Or you might take a field trip to a local archive or library.

Is the group too small?  Once a group reaches a certain tiny size, it doesn’t function well.  Three regular members mean that an absence takes it down to one or two.  Put out a call with local writers groups.  Or get your group listed on a web site.  I brazenly introduce myself to writers at various meetings and workshops and invite them to our group.


Sometimes your group will need a little TLC to keep it in peak performance.  It’s well worth the effort.


June 9, 2016

One Manuscript, Two Attempts

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:57 am
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thinkingHave you ever had a manuscript that seemed to morph from one form to another?  That’s been the case with “What’s Up Chuck?”

As I did the research for a  book about why animals vomit, it became obvious that there was a lot of information.  In fact, there was probably too much for a picture book.  I was three chapters in when Get the Scoop on Animal Puke by Dawn Cusick was released from Imaginel Publishing.  Eighty print pages her book touched on a lot of the same animals but didn’t go into the science like I had planned for my book.  Still, I felt that the two books might too easily compete.

I took my manuscript to the Missouri SCBWI retreat and showed it to my critique group.  “Rewrite it as a picture book!” they said.

So then I created the picture book version.  Just as I was finishing that up, I needed a manuscript for the next Missouri SCBWI retreat.  Naturally, I sent the editor “What’s Up Chuck?”  I hoped to get a few hints that would make it sing.  ::cue the music of doom:: To put it simply, the editor likes my voice but thinks this book is way too short to work.

Now I vaccilate.  I’ll be talking to the editor in two days.  Based on her comments, I think she considers this a much better chapter book idea than picture book manuscript.  I still love the idea of this book and I have to admit that I really like the idea of writing it up as a chapter book.  There is so much information and the science is really interesting. Yes, it’s gross but it is also interesting.

But my last critique group was certain it would work as a picture book.  Certain.

I’ll be talking to the editor and I’m running three chapters through the peer critique group.  I know that whether this book ultimately takes shape as a picture book or chapter book, the decision is mine to make.  I just need to make up my mind.

Think . . . think . . . think . . .



June 12, 2015

Feedback: Arthur Slade Offers to Critique Your Work

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 am
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My favorite Arthur Slade book.

Getting feedback on your writing can be tough.  I’m lucky in that I live in a major metropolitan area with a strong writing community.  Not only do I know a number of writers who live in my area, I’m connected on line with even more.

If this isn’t the case for you, getting feedback can be tough.

Arthur Slade is a Canadian author of young adult fantasy.  I “met” him online through another writing friend.

Anyone who suscribes to his newsletter can get a critique of their first manuscript page.  Anyone.  Not one person.  Not three people.  Subscribers.  This means that it might take him some time to get back to everyone but seriously?  This is an amazing offer, but then again he’s just this kind of person.

The offer will go out in the June 16 issue of the newsletter which means you want to get hopping and subscribe.  To do that, see the original post here.



May 5, 2015

Critique: The wonder of a top notch critique group

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:04 am
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grandma's china

Coffee and critique — the best friends of any writer.

One of the best parts of the Misssouri SCBWI Writing Retreat is the opportunity to work with a top-notch critique group.  I have the honor of getting to run one of the groups each year but I have to admit that it’s a socialist affair.  I want to hear about everyone’s groups and then we decide how our particular group is going to work.

What’s there to decide?  Most of the decisions have to do with how we present our work.  Sometimes the author reads the work out loud.  Other times, one of the other participants has that honor.  My group usually just reads things silently and then we discuss them.

At the retreat, we decided to combine techniques.  We read silently and then someone other than the author got to read out loud.

I have to say — I’m sold on reading things aloud.  We didn’t catch any rough spots but we did catch some repeated words that didn’t stick out when you read silently.  We also caught a few places where the ear expected some word play or a chorus and then . . . nada. I will definitely recommend this technique to my other groups.

Other than that, we were pretty informal.  We didn’t go around the circle and make comments one at a time.  In fact, we had a tendency to interrupt each other as we bounced ideas around or asked for clarification.

Sure, we disagreed with each other sometimes but it was always with a great sense of fun, probably because we were all running fun picture books past the group.

If you are putting together a new group, here are some things to consider:

Goals.  Everyone at the retreat wants to publish traditionally but also electronically.  A hobby writer or someone who wanted to self-publish might not have fit in as well.

Time.  We had a tight schedule with only so long to critique.  Since we all had short pieces, we just had to keep an eye on the time.  In fact, we had an official time-keeper.  If you are doing novel length work with your group, you might have to do one novel/meeting.

Written comments or oral.  Some groups do either or.  We did both.

It can take several tries for a group to gel.  We were very fortunate that things clicked at our first meeting, perhaps because most of us knew at least one other person in the group.  If you try to put a group together and this doesn’t happen, don’t worry but do try again.  A good critique group is worth their weight in gold.


September 12, 2014

Critique: Why You Need a Critique Group

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:17 am
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CritiqueAt the Missouri SCBWI conference this past Saturday, many people paid for critiques.  There’s no doubt about it — critiques from agents and editors are helpful.  It is the one way you can find out how they respond to your writing and what you might need to change.  I hope some of you were able to take advantage of this feedback.

As writers, we spend much of our time working in isolation.  Focusing on a piece of writing, its easy to loose perspective.  What works?  What doesn’t?  After a while, it is really hard to tell.  But we don’t an agent or editor to be the first person to give us feedback.  That’s where a strong critique group comes in handy.  Paid critiques are great but a critique group gives you regular access to feedback from multiple people and these people are writers.  We are always learning new things about our craft. You need to benefit from this experience.

How do you find a critique group?

  • Check your local book store or library.  Critique groups often meet in these locations.
  • Ask other writers that you know.  I host a critique group that is open to new members.
  • Check with your groups.  Do you belong to SCBWI or your local writer’s guild?  See if they have a list of critique groups.
  • Ask on Facebook or Twitter.  Make use of your social media connections.  Put out feelers.
  • Look online.  Do you belong to an online community for writers?  See if there is an online group.

As you find out about various critique groups take a look at what each of them offers.  Some will only critique one type of writing; a picture book group will be of no help i you write novels.  Check their goals.  A group of people who write for fun will look at your work very differently than a group of people who want to sell their work.

Going to a group and critiquing the work of others is unnerving if you’ve never done it before.  Check out my post tomorrow on the Muffin for some tips on how to critique the work of another writer.


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