When looking for a critique partner, most of us focus on what we hope to get out of the relationship.
👉 "I really need help with story structure and pacing," or...
👉 "I write in rhyme, so I’m looking for someone who’s great with meter!" or...
👉 "I’m struggling with narrowing down the theme."
Alternatively, sometimes we might be more concerned with finding someone who’s a good match for our personality.
👉 “I really want someone willing to Zoom or do phone calls with me," or...
👉 “I struggle with imposter syndrome. I need a writing buddy who will cheer me on!”
In the search for the perfect critique partner, it's easy to get so wrapped up in what we want out of the relationship, that we forget about what we need to bring to the table! But, as the word partner implies, the relationship is not only about receiving feedback…it's also about giving it! And the better you are at giving feedback, the more likely you are to find consistent critique partners who want to work with you again and again.
Plus, being able to give a good critique isn’t just about attracting and retaining writing partners. It’s also an amazing way to learn about the craft of writing and grow as an author. Critiquing other authors’ work can train you to be better at analyzing your own.
So…how exactly do you give a great critique?
Giving a great critique, like any skill, takes practice. And if you’ve never done it before, it can feel a little intimidating!
As a freelance editor and author coach, I’ve been doing professional picture book critiques for three years, and I did close to 200 picture book critiques last year alone! Below are my top tips for how to do a critique of a picture book manuscript.
A great critique has three stages: Preparing, Reading, and Delivering.
⭐️ Stage 1: Preparing
Put your own writing aside.
Take a moment to remove yourself from your own work in progress. Your partner’s manuscript may be totally different from yours: fiction vs. nonfiction, rhyme vs. prose, humor vs. lyrical. It’s important to pause for a moment and go into the critique with an open mind.
Change your hat.
I wear many different hats in my daily life. I wear my mom hat when I’m with my kids, my author hat when I’m writing, etc. To provide a good critique you have to put on your teacher hat!
Pretend you’re evaluating a student essay or project. You’re not reading it for fun, but you’re also not reading it to catch all their mistakes and play “gotcha.” You’re reading it with an eye toward highlighting strengths and improving weaknesses.
Ask the author what they want or need from you.
Is this a rough draft? Or a final revision? Are they looking for help with developing the plot? Theme? Or are they only interested in whether the dialogue is punctuated correctly? A critique means different things to different people, and knowing their goal can help you, help them achieve it! (This isn’t to say you should ignore other problems if you see them. But it gives you a better idea of what the author hopes to achieve and allows you to be a better partner.)
⭐️ Stage 2: Reading
If you’re using Word or Google Docs you can leave comments directly on the text. But it’s also helpful to have a notebook or piece of paper to write down observations as you read.
Read it once.
The first time through, notice your gut reaction to the piece and how certain scenes made you FEEL. Pretend you are a reader picking it up at the bookstore. What confuses you? What is your first impression of the character? The message?
Read it twice.
On the second read, be more analytical. Dissect the story. Start by identifying major story elements. The conflict. See if you can outline the major events in the story arc - especially the climax or turning point.
Notice the pacing. Think about each character and how they change from the beginning of the story to the end. Identify the theme. Sometimes simply identifying these elements to the writer can help them get clarity and see places for improvement.
Read it a third time.
On the last read-through, look for line-level details. Word choice. Voice. Descriptions.
⭐️ Stage 3: Delivering
How you deliver your critique can be just as important as what you actually say. Whether you are sending written feedback via email or having a chat on Zoom, here are some tips:
Be constructive, but above all, be kind.
Remember that it probably took the person sitting across from you a lot of courage to share their writing with you!
Critique the words on the page, not the writer.
Avoid saying things like, “I think you could have described Emily’s reaction better.” Instead, focus on the words on the page. “Describing Emily’s reaction in more detail might help the reader relate to her more.”
Use the Sandwich Method.
The nature of a critique means that sometimes it can start to feel like a list of what the writer has done wrong. The sandwich method of giving feedback says that you should always sandwich a negative critique between two positive observations if possible.
For example, “The argument between Emily and Sam feels really authentic! But I wonder if describing Emily’s reaction in more detail might help the reader relate to her more? Then, at the climax, when she leaves, which is SUCH a great plot twist, they will cheer for her even more!”
Ask clarifying questions.
Sometimes phrasing feedback as a question instead of a critique can soften the blow of negative observations and also help the writer think outside the box and explore their story more deeply. “I wonder what would happen if Mr. Smith didn’t see who broke the cup?” or “How is Duck feeling at this moment?”
Explain your reasoning.
If you’re fairly new to critiquing this can be hard, but this is also where doing critiques for others can help YOU improve as a writer. Consider the why behind each comment or suggestion you make. As you do, you’re training your brain to think analytically about your own writing. Try your best to give an explanation when you can. But, it’s also okay to admit when you just aren’t sure why you feel a certain way about something. A comment like, “This scene feels awkward to me, but I’m not quite sure why,” is totally valid!
Offer suggestions, not corrections.
If you’ve noted a problem or area for improvement and you have a specific idea of how to address it, it’s okay to share that with the author! But do so as a suggestion, not a correction. For example, instead of crossing out the word “ran” and writing in “dashed,” you might say, “Is there a stronger verb that would work here? Dashed? Darted?” That way, the author is prompted to make an improvement, but the actual changes are up to them.
👉 The Takeaway
Giving a critique on another writer’s work is a commitment not only of time and energy to them - but also to yourself and your skill as a writer. In learning how to do a critique (and how to receive them), you’ll find your writing ability improving and your confidence growing. And that’s what it’s all about!
Ready to find a critique partner, but not sure where to look? Check out this post that gives our "Top 5 Ways To Find a Critique Partner," or join our Profitable Picture Book Community! It's full of picture book authors just like you!