Week of February 5: The Power of Critiques
Monday, February 6—Finding a Critique Group
My face-to-face critique group, PB&J (Picutre Books and Java) meets twice a month. Susan first joined our group last April. After the meeting, she emailed:
“I've never had more fun at a critique group and learned at the same time. I'm truly grateful to be a PB&Jer.”
That is how I feel after each of our meetings (and after my online group has critiqued each month). I wish I had found a critique group much earlier in my writing life—for the camaraderie, the inspiration, the help, the friendship. I should have known the importance of critique groups long ago. In writing education we offer critiques, but we call them conferences. Conferences are when we talk writer-to-writer with a student author. That is also the time we find good things in the child’s writing and offer suggestions (usually one thing at a time) to focus on and improve.
After attending several picture book boot camps and intensives and SCBWI regional events, I finally came to the point of realizing I needed to belong to a critique group. Since it took me awhile to find a critique group, let me share a few tips that might be helpful to others.
Even though I live in a metropolitan area and am a member of a very healthy SCBWI region, finding a face-to-face critique group was difficult. I began by going to my region’s web page (to find your region, go to http://www.scbwi.org/Pages.aspx/Regional-Chapters). From there, I went to the web page for the region and found a list of critique groups sorted by cities/counties/areas. (Note: Each region does this a bit differently.) There was a brief description about each group which included the type of manuscripts critiqued in the group, the number of members, frequency of meetings, and if the group was accepting members. On this page I also found the name and email address of the volunteer critique group coordinator for my region. (Note: You can also find critique groups through the Discussion Boards on the SCBWI web site.)
I emailed the three or four critique groups in my area that had openings and I wrote to our regional critique group coordinator. The coordinator got back with me right away and put me on her list of people searching for a group. After numerous emails, I finally found one group that was open to new members.
There were three picture book authors in that first group—everyone else wrote YA and MG. One of the picture book folks moved to NYC soon after I joined, and the author picture book author seldom brought any manuscripts for critique. The group was warm, accepting, and helpful though they freely (and frequently) admitted they knew little about picture books. They raved about my writing—which was flattering, but not all that helpful if you know what I mean.
I soon decided that the reason I was attending those meetings was to develop the discipline and routine of attending a critique group. I was also learning how to read others writing with a critical eye, and to give feedback and constructive criticism in a positive way. Though I have since left that group to form a face-to-face picture book critique group, those critiquers remain my friends and we connect at conferences and the like.
Each critique group determines its own guidelines and has its own distinctive personality. If you’re helping start a group, you get to determine what your group will be. If you’re joining an existing group, you’ll be expected to fit in with the established norms of that group.
I’ve been a member of three online critique groups. The first critiqued multiple genres and had around twenty members, the second was a picture book critique group with four members, and the third is a picture book critique group I started which now has six members.
Like face-to-face groups, each online groups works in its own unique way. Some post every week, some every other, some once a month.
My one caution about critiquing online is to be careful what you type. When you are face-to-face, people understand your humor, see in your eye that you mean well, and you can explain what you mean when someone doesn’t understand. When online, feelings can easily be hurt and typed words can easily be misunderstood.
You can find online critique groups by searching the Discussion Boards on the SCBWI web site. My friend, Lisa Michaels, wrote an article about online critique groups for the SCBWI Bulletin, April/May 2011. The link to the issue is: http://www.scbwi.org/Pages.aspx/Current-Issue.
Many people offer paid critique services (including me). I only use these services IF I know the person (through a conference, his/her writing, etc.). A paid-critique service is not for a first or second draft or even a third draft. That’s what your critique group is for. Use a paid-critique service ONLY for a polished manuscript that you've taken as far as you can and don't know how to take it to the next level.
Paid-critique services vary in cost from $25.00 to $125.00 or more. Usually the higher the price, the more extensive the critique. Some services are completed totally online, others via snail mail.
Paid Critiques and Consultations at Conferences
When you attend a regional or national SCBWI conference you often have the opportunity to pay for a critique. The purpose of this critique is totally different than your on-going critique group or even other paid critiques. When you are paying for a critique (or consultation as they are sometimes called) at a conference, you will usually be assigned to an industry professional (a published author, editor, or agent). You want to wow that person with your manuscript. You want your manuscript as perfect as possible, because not only are you receiving a critique, you are also pitching your book. Yes, you will get constructive feedback, but you ultimately are hoping for more!
It’s Your Turn!
1. Do you have a critique group? If not, start your search today.
2. If you are a member of a critique group, thank your lucky stars (and maybe your fellow members).