How to get the best from a critique

hear no evil by SoCal Photo DesignCritiquing is never comfortable for a writer. Your ego and your dreams for the manuscript are on the line when you pass your work-in-progress to another person and ask for constructive feedback. But it’s a necessary evil – and, if you think about it, it’s not evil at all. Critiques are the route to making your story as clear and compelling as it can be. And that’s what you want, right?

“Getting the best from critiques” was the topic of our teach-in here at SCBWI Southeast Scotland on 27 September in Edinburgh. We swapped what we had experienced (and read) about critiquing, looking at how to get the best from the critiquing process, whether one is giving or receiving feedback.

The teach-in was the latest in a series of get-togethers Louise and I organise as part of our work coordinating the Southeast Scotland network of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI British Isles). Our members include a range of children’s writers and illustrators from books and television, from picture books and middle-grade books through young adult. Why not join our team, or try one of our master classes? The next is tentatively planned for March 2015, when the inimitable Nicola Morgan (WRITE TO BE PUBLISHED, DEAR AGENT) offers Perfecting your Agent Submission, a hands-on workshop in Edinburgh. If you want to craft a cover letter and synopsis that can help you get the attention of agents or editors (in a good way), don’t miss Nicola’s workshop! If you want more details when they’re confirmed, drop us an e-mail.

Top tips on giving and receiving a manuscript critique

But now back to critiquing! Here are the collected tips from the SCBWI members who came to the teach-in.

  1. Hopes and fears: our discussion revealed we all have similar hopes for the critiquing process. While we secretly dream the critiquer will say, “This is perfect! Don’t change a word! You’re a genius!” our sensible selves know that early drafts need help; we hope the critiquer’s reaction will reveal whether we’ve told the story we thought we were telling. We talked about various fears, including fear of our own reaction to the feedback (Anita wisely said that all feedback is a kind of rejection, and writers need to cope with that). Others said they feared feedback that cuts them off at the legs; the kind where the reader simply doesn’t get it or tell us to “give up now,” or “this will never work.”
  2. Questions, not comments: Anita gave us all a eureka moment when she shared her top tip. She selects her critiquers carefully and for some readers, she will ask them to come back with any questions they have on the manuscript – not comments, questions. This frees them up from having to pass judgment and is a quick way to learn whether readers are receiving the story the way you’d intended.
  3. High-status critiquers: Emily (author of new Scottish picture book CAN’T DANCE CAMERON) is a screenwriter in addition to her other writing work for children, and shared a brilliant tip she’d heard about having “ready replies,” especially if one is receiving feedback from a high-status critiquer like a TV producer or senior book editor. Phrases like “I see what you’re saying there; that’s a good point” can give you something handy to say when your heart is breaking in the immediate aftermath of some verbal feedback. It also makes the critiquer feel validated rather than dismissed.
  4. Confidence and hope: Emily summed it up nicely when she mentioned the ideal outcome of a critique: “Good feedback challenges you to get better, but encourages you at the same time.”
  5. One-on-one with industry pros: Louise mentioned that one-on-one industry critiques — such as those offered in the amazing SCBWI annual Winchester conference with top-notch editors and agents – are a great opportunity to see your manuscript through the industry’s eyes. Those critiques, which often look at some of your pages as well as your synopsis, can see whether there’s a disconnect between how you summarise the story and how you’ve written the opening. They can also give you a hint of how editors might sell your book internally (“This is a love triangle, and that’s perfect for this young adult audience.”)
  6. Yes, Maybe, and No No No: Don’t react on the spot when you receive critique comments. The modus operandi for critiques like the Friday night sessions at the SCBWI conference is for the writer to listen without commenting, for example. It’s also good not to respond straightaway to an editor whose feedback has left you feeling shredded. In SCBWI’s ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WRITING FOR CHILDREN (free for members to download at, the wise Linda Sue Park puts critique comments into three columns when she receives them: Yes, Maybe, and No No No. That helps her decide which ones to tackle, and in what order.
  7. What Darcy said: for some of us Darcy Pattison’s NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS: UNCOMMON WAYS TO REVISE has become something of a Bible. It was first recommended to me when I participated in the Book Bound Retreat, and I’m essentially stopping people on the street and telling them to buy it. Louise read out Darcy’s wise words on critiquing (if the first 108 pages weren’t enough reason to buy the Darcy book, this section would do it). Here’s what goes through Darcy’s mind when she receives a critique:

“When I get an honest critique, my courage fails me,” Darcy writes. “I thought that I had communicated my intentions well in the first draft, or I would’ve changed it before you read it. But you say that you don’t understand, or that I’m inconsistent, or that I’m unfocused. How could that be? I see it so clearly. And if my vision of my story is so skewed, then how will I ever get it right?”

She’s hit on what we all feel when we receive a critique. But remember. It’s necessary, and not evil. Thank you, Darcy, and thank you as usual, SCBWI folk, for being your amazing selves!

If you’re near enough to southeast Scotland and writing for children, drop us a line at For more information on SCBWI, the international professional organisation for writers and illustrators of children’s literature, visit SCBWI British Isles. If you enjoyed this blog, please consider sharing it online. Thank you!

Image courtesy SoCal Photo Design on Flickr

6 Replies to “How to get the best from a critique”

    1. Thank you Sue for your comment! Another thing that didn’t make it into this blog is something I try to remember – especially when I am getting a critique from someone very experienced, such as at SCBWI conference one-on-ones. Try to tune in to what they say you are good at, because they know! I keep that as my “light” that I follow, and try to accentuate or build on that in future drafts of my work in progress or other stories I might write.

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