Confessions of a Children’s Book Author … About Critique Groups

Contribution by Jean Matthew Hall, author of the soon-to-be released God’s Creation Series

As a writer, especially one that is just getting started, we often hear from agents, editors, and fellow authors that joining a critique group is important and joining one should be a part of our writing plans. But, what is a critique group and why should we participate?

A critique group is a writing group that spends time together reading and giving feedback on each other’s work. They meet weekly or monthly to share both their struggles and their accomplishments. In my opinion, every serious writer needs to consider participating in at least one critique group. While receiving input from writers who write for different ages or categories can be helpful, it’s really best if the critique group is made up of authors writing in the same or similar genre.

What does it actually mean to critique someone else’s work? Let’s focus on fiction works and start with what is NOT a critique:

It is NOT pointing out grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. That may be a small part of a critique. But, a serious writer needs to find and correct those errors themselves using the editing portion of their word processing software. Also, it is NOT simply stating that you “don’t like the story“. It’s important to explain specifically what you disagree with and why.

The real point of offering a critique is to help an author identify and strengthen the elements that make a manuscript excellent. It’s also to encourage the author to keep writing and learning, so remember to be positive and point out what you do like along with what can be improved upon.

Our monthly blog, Confessions of a Children's Book Author, focuses on how participating in a critique group helps an author identify & strengthen a manuscript. Click To TweetObviously, your ability to address these issues depends on your own level of skill and experience. As you grow as a writer, you will be able to recognize and help with more and more of them. Meanwhile, you should look at the elements you believe you can help with and share those as clearly and concisely as possible. Here are 14 specific areas of critique that should be reviewed.

  1. General Impression – Did I like it? What did I like best? What needs the most work?
  2. Characters – Are characters believable? Well developed? Age-appropriate?
  3. Plot/Arc – Does it revolve around the main character and their problem/conflict? Is there enough conflict? Does the main character solve the problem themselves?
  4. Voice – Is the author’s voice consistent throughout? Does it fit this story, this main character and this age group?
  5. Scenes – Is the story told in scenes? Is the main character important to every scene? Are transitions between scenes smooth?
  6. First Sentence/Page/Scene – The shorter the manuscript, the sooner the main character and story problem must appear.  Can I see the main character and the problem/conflict/need on the first page (in a picture book, in the first sentence)?
  7. Story Problem – Does the main character have a need, desire, problem, or conflict that is important or urgent to them?
  8. Hooks – Does each scene or chapter (or page turn for picture books) leave the reader hanging, ready to turn the page to see what happens next?
  9. Dialogue – Does it sound natural? Age-appropriate for the characters and readers? Too much slang? Does it reveal something about the character or move the plot forward? Are tags simple (“said”)? Is it always clear who is speaking?
  10. Originality or Cliché – Has this idea or main character been done 1,000 times before? Has the author put a new twist on a familiar story?
  11. Theme/Premise – Can I tell in one or two words what this story is about (love, family, fear, death)? Can I put into one sentence what the story is about for the main character? What did they learn or how did they change and grow?
  12. Point of View – Does the author keep me seeing the story unfold from inside one character at a time in each scene? Is this a first-person story? A second-person story? A third-person story? Omniscient?
  13. Appropriateness for Target Audience – Will the story appeal to the target age/group, gender, culture it is intended for? Will they be able to read and/or understand it?
  14. Illustrations (picture books) – Can I see in my head 10 or more different illustrations for the story?

When you are new to a writing group, it can be a bit overwhelming to receive so much feedback at once, especially after spending so much time writing alone. That makes the key component to participation remembering that the ultimate decision as to whether or not a writer follows someone’s suggestions is personal. Each writer must decide what makes their story work best. There’s no need to feel obligated to change something simply because someone said so. However, on the flip side, if several people point out the same problem or concern objectively, then it would be in a writer’s best interest to realize that there IS a problem and it needs to be corrected.

Properly done critiques help a writer to improve, not just with their current manuscript, but all future ones. It also helps the person giving the critique to learn and recognize areas they can work on in their own manuscript.

“Without guidance, people fall, but with many counselors there is deliverance.” Proverbs 11:14 (HCSB)