Getting the Most out of Your Critiques: Tips from a Professor
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
In my “day job,” I am an academic, conducting research into the interaction among physiological and psychological factors on the aging process. As part of my professional duty, I regularly conduct what is called “peer review”—an exercise which involves reading through and critiquing the research design, methodology, conclusions, and writing of a fellow researcher in my area. When I have a study to publish, I also benefit from others’ taking the time to critique my work in this way.
When I first dipped my toe into the world of children’s writing, I had no idea that the process toward publication usually involves a similar, although less formal, process—the use of critique partners, critique groups, or even paid critique services is seen as an essential step in getting a manuscript into a state that is ready for a publisher or agent to see.
I am now a member of an online critique group of picture-book writers/illustrators, formed via the SCBWI Blueboards. I also participate in any local, in-person critique events that pop up, such as the one hosted by the SE Michigan Chapter of SCBWI that I attended this past weekend. Having now had the opportunity to critique multiple works, as well as to have received critiques on multiple stories of my own, I’ve noticed that my academic Peer Review background significantly informs my process and experience.
Based on this, here are some tips/points to consider the next time you conduct (or get back) a critique. Note that most of these relate to emailed/online critiques, although many of them can apply to in-person/real-time critiques as well.
First, the role as the "critiquer:"
1. Always read the manuscript all the way through first before starting the evaluation. This is a standard step one for academic peer reviews, and I’ve adopted it for my kidlit critiques as well. This helps ensure that you understand the big picture of the story, setting, character, etc. before starting your comments/markups, and keeps you in the “flow” of the story rather than breaking it up with intermediate edits.
2. Always start with positives—what is done WELL? We know that a goal of critique is to IMPROVE the manuscript, meaning many comments will be pointing out flaws or limitations; but it is important not to crush the author’s spirit, or focus so much on the negatives that the positives are lost. So always tell the author what is GREAT about the story before getting into the more critical elements. Even if it’s just that they used the right statistical approach, I always tell my fellow researchers that there is something excellent about their work.
3. Be sure to re-read your comments/edits for VOICE. If you were reading that comment about your own work, how would you interpret it? Would you read it as constructive, or would it come off as mean-spirited? Particularly in the context of online reviews, where critiques are typically conducted via Word comments and emails, we must make sure that our suggestions come off in the supportive way we intend. When I am writing a Peer Review of a research study, sometimes my first-draft comments read something in the spirit of, “how could you possibly do something this STUPID?” I take care to go back and rephrase these into supportive, constructive suggestions before sending my review back to the author!
4. Always remember the GOAL—supporting one another. In academia, we are all trying to ensure that the research we put out is high quality and as accurate as possible, and see this as a group effort. In kidlit land, we are all in this together, and want one another to succeed—we all celebrate each others’ book birthdays, right?? By approaching a critique as an exercise to build a fellow author up, rather than point out everything that is wrong with what they did, we go a long way in furthering the supportive writing community that we all rely on and benefit from.
Second, the role as "critiqued:"
1. When sharing something to be critiqued, be sure it is as polished and “ready” as possible. When I think a research manuscript is flawless, that is when I submit it to a professional journal editor; when I think a children’s story is so perfect that I’m tempted to submit it directly to a publisher, that is when I share it with a critique partner. This is because I do not want the critique suggestions I get back to be things that I already know are wrong with the manuscript and could easily fix (think grammar, awkward rhyme, etc.). This wastes my critiquer’s time, and also means that I likely don’t receive as many helpful, substantive comments because the critiquer had to focus their time and energy on editing my slop.
2. Don’t expect it tomorrow. In academia, the waiting window for peer review is typically ~3 months. Although this is drastically longer than the window for the typical (online/email) kidlit critique, it is not fair to ask for or expect a turnaround of a manuscript in a few days. Even a week could be challenging, as many of us have full time jobs, families, and myriad other obligations tugging at our time. Share it, be patient, and only follow up to check in if it has been over a week.
3. When you get the critique back, let it rest. Our writing is our heart, and we get very attached to our “darlings.” When a critique partner, in a good faith effort to help us improve our work, tells us that we need to “kill our darlings”—perhaps remove that one sentence that we absolutely adore, or alter key aspects of a character so that they no longer reflect the person we were modeling them after—it can cut us to the quick. It is therefore important that we are in an open, positive frame of mind when sitting down to read critiques. If we read critiques while in a defensive state of mind—“oh, she didn’t read that right;” “well he just doesn’t get it;” “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about”—then we are not going to benefit from the process, and we are not going to improve. In my academic experience, I have received some harsh critiques on a given study or paper; the comments sometimes even make me angry or emotional for a time. But when I come back and read through them from a more objective perspective, I see their merit. The resulting revisions always make the research manuscript stronger, and pave the road to publication.
4. Remember that you don’t have to change EVERYTHING. Critiques are, at their core, opinions. Writing is a lone-wolf undertaking, and can be quite isolating; when it comes to opinions, we spend most of our time with only one (our own). Critiques let us get multiple perspectives on a given story or character, and more perspectives make for stronger writing. However, there are times when a critiquer’s suggestion may not be the best for your vision of the story; or when two different critiques suggest exactly opposite changes. I have had two different peer reviewers tell me to do completely conflicting things in revising a research manuscript. In these situations, you have to retain authorship—consider the comments and their merit, and then decide what you need to do about it. If it is make changes, then make the changes; but if it is keeping something the same, do it, and justify it. At least now you are keeping that element that way after thinking about it and considering the alternatives, which means your story is more purposeful and thought-out than it was before.
The bottom line?
Both the role of “critiquer” and “critiqued” serve to help us further develop our skills and our writing, and as long as we can approach the exercise in a collaborative, constructive way, we can all help each other toward publication!
Keep writing, and don’t forget to share any of your own thoughts/tips for the critique process in the comments! :)