Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

How to critique

Ecritique  |  How to critique


By Chitra Soundar

With thanks to Nicky Schmidt and other ecritique members who participated in the discussion

1) How many words is manageable for a single critique request?

Picture book groups are easier – like editors, the whole manuscript is preferred. Although do remember that the length of the picture books in the market are getting shorter and shorter. A story is usually today between 300-500 words (max), less the better. There are picture books less than 100 words too. Non-fiction picture books might go up to 1500-2000 words depending on the publisher / location (US/ UK variances exist). For longer works including early readers, young fiction, YA and higher, the submissions per month are between 2000 and 3000 words. Sometimes people prefer to submit one chapter at a time (upto the limit of 3000 words). We do not recommend anyone submitting the whole novel or more than 3000 words per submission per month.

2) How many submissions per person per month are recommended?

We recommend and enforce one submission per month from each critique group member in each group.

Sometimes a member might choose not to submit that month. If the member is not able to submit more than two months, they should get in touch with their moderator. Sometimes a member might feel that after submitting for the first time in a month and having received a lot of great feedback, has worked on a rewrite. He/she might want to submit again in the same month. However we try to discourage that broadly and leave it to the moderator to decide in special circumstances like when the member is entering something for a contest etc.

The urge to rewrite quickly is a common malady and our advice is to put it away for a few days and then resubmit the next month if you still wish to. Also for groups that have older fiction, there is a lot to read in a month and it wouldn’t be fair to ask the group to read more than the usual.

3) How long is a critique?

There is no hard and fast rule about the length and other questions in this FAQ might lend more insight into the content of the critique. Having said that, critiques should be well-considered and thoughtful and not top-of-the-head short and snappy texts.

Critiques should be able to explain what you think didn’t work, if you know why (sometimes the critique provider might not know why) and sometimes (only sometimes) might be able to suggest alternatives. Critiques which are just 1-2 lines long are more ticking the box than adding value. And if you continue to give limited critiques, others would reciprocate as well and it would turn less constructive.

As Nicky Schmidt, one of our senior moderators and the first e-critique coordinator says, “I’d be inclined to want members of a new critique group to be posting something more of the length than 1-2 sentences. It shows that one’s fellow critiquers are taking time and trouble with the critiques – and that’s so important in building the trust/respect dynamic of a critique group. The critiques vary in depth and length. Very often those coming to critique later, will find that others have already said what they wanted to say, so they keep their crits shorts, simply saying, "I agree with the others" and maybe adding in one or two of their own comments and suggestions.”

4) What is the difference between a critique peer and a fan?

A critique peer should be willing to point out the good bits and not-so-good parts of a piece that’s being submitted. A critique peer should not feel bad about giving constructive criticism.

A fan on the other hand is in awe of the writer and is gushing and flattering. Even if the writing has not met its standards – because they are willing to overlook the problems because they love the writer.

Perhaps the writer’s ultimate goal is to get a fan, maybe millions of fans – like J K Rowling, Julia Donaldson, Malorie Blackman. But in a critique group, we are not looking to be fans. We are looking to be honest peers who want the other person to succeed. While it is important to be polite and constructive, it is not good to substitute “fan-like comments” to critiques.

5) What should a critique at a minimum comment on?

Paraphrasing from Nicky again, here are some things YA Critique group include in their critique.

• YA Critique focuses on characterisation, show vs tell, story arc, plot, pace and voice. We don't do line by line or copy edits – though we may occasionally pick something glaringly obvious. Ultimately typos, spelling and grammatical mistakes are up to the individual writer. Generally though, we stick to the big picture.

• Questions one might consider could include:

o Is the voice right for the age group? 
o Is the voice credible? Does omniscient authorial narration creep in?
o Is the dialogue realistic?
o Does the story keep moving and hold the reader's interest?
o Do we want to follow the protagonist's journey?
o Are the characters credible and three dimensional, do we have a sense, through them, as to their journey?
o Are there too many characters cluttering up the story? (think "killing your little darlings")
o Is the writer showing rather than telling? Is there too much description, too many adverbs, too much passivity?
o Does the chapter ending have a good hook?
o Does the chapter have a natural arc to it, i.e. a relevant beginning, middle and ending that makes sense within the chapter and within the greater story?
o What is the chapter trying to say, and does it do so successfully?
o Is the plot credible, is it sufficiently dynamic?

6) What is the group moderator’s role in a critique group with respect to inadequate critiques?

Just as people need to learn to write, so they need to learn to critique. If you have members who regularly show that they are just not spending time on critiques, then you do need to have a word with them.

Critique groups are all about trust and respect – and it's very much a two way street. People also need to understand that what they put in, is what they'll get out. Having your work critiqued teaches you what is and isn't working in your own writing, critiquing the work of others teaches you about writing per se – as you spot the obvious things that don't work in another's writing, so you learn not to make the same mistakes in your own. One gains as much from a critique as from giving critiques.

7) Is there a checklist writers can use to review submissions?

This link is quite useful as it gives you a list of things to consider for various aspects like conflict, plot, pacing, tension, setting and locales, Point of view, Voice, characters, dialogue etc. 

8) How does a critique peer provide effective feedback?

As a person who is critiquing, there might be a lot of things to focus on. So it would be good for the writer to ask for specific feedback as well, especially if they have specific and/or over-arching concerns about the piece they have submitted.

For Example: 
i) I'd like comments about my plot and pacing please.
ii) I'm not sure what's wrong – can you tell me how it reads. In the first instance, it is a specific question – you are asking about plot and pacing and therefore the group should think about it and answer – they could of course give you additional comments on characterisation or dialogue – but primarily they should help you with the problem they have. In the second case, the question is open – and this is when we should consider the questions in the checklist – what subset of these questions we are able to answer in one critique is a different story- but the critiquer should consider all of these aspects (or as many).

9) How does a writer ensure he/she best utilises the expertise and consult of their peers?

It is the responsibility of the writer to fix all spelling and grammar mistakes and the critique peer should not focus on just the semantics. It is very distracting when the content is badly formatted, filled with typos and grammar mistakes. Some will creep in anyway – that is unavoidable.

If the writer acknowledges some of the missing content ahead – for example – I have not done descriptions of the place yet – ignore that and critique the rest should be a good way to make your critique group focus on the right aspects of the writing you want their help on. It is important for the writer to do their homework and treat the submission to the critique group with the same seriousness as a submission to an agent or editor. Taking your group for granted often will erode their trust and confidence in your professionalism.

10) How should a member deal with critiques?

Read the signs – All critiques are individual opinions of the person who is providing them. However, if the same type of feedback is coming from many of them, then the writer should take a closer look at the manuscript.

The writer should review all comments and review objectively. Perhaps the “what’s wrong” is not consistent between the various people who commented. But the fact that something is wrong is highlighted when everyone comments about it.

Be Selective – Sometimes our critiques are coloured by our personal bug-bears, topics we love and hate. Sometimes our critiques are simply a matter of personal taste. Remember, agents and editors are the same. They would accept or reject based on their tastes. Therefore there is no reason why a writer should accept and take on board all comments unconditionally.

Be Inspired – Sometimes critiques might provide solutions to a plot problem or a story arc problem. Accept those suggestions with gratitude. But there is no need to rewrite your story to incorporate all of them. Read all suggestiosn objectively. Maybe those ideas spark something else in your mind. The changes you make should reflect what you want to change in the story – not because everyone is saying so. Sometimes rewriting a story to incorporate some of these ideas might help – it might show you what works and doesn’t.

Listen and Accept – As mentioned before, all critiques are personal opinions of your peer-group. You might like some, you might hate some. But it is important to listen to the feedback and ponder over it on your own. Do not engage in a detailed defence of your story or your choices. You submitted a story inviting critiques. When such critiques are provided, thank the critiquer and take it away to think about it. If the writer constantly argues, explains, defends the writing in the group, others are reluctant to give detailed feedback. Then everyone would start glossing over their feedback and say only nice things. That defeats the purpose of being in a group.

Looking for a critique group or partner?

Here at SCBWI-BI, we are keen advocates of critique, whether you've been published for many years or you are at the beginning of your journey to publication.

Looking for a face-to-face critique group? 

Browse our network pages, find your local SCBWI network and get in touch with your local organiser to find out about any groups near you.

Geographically challenged and can't meet a critique group face to face? 

We have some wonderful options for you:

 – We have created a Critique Group Finder Facebook Group just for SCBWI members and friends. Here you can meet others who are looking for critique partners or groups and join up.

– We have many SCBWI members from all over the world congregating on the Blue Boards at the main SCBWI website. Here you can find critique groups from all parts of the country and perhaps there'll be just the one for you.