Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Get Critique Feedback from a Pro

Expert writers often share advice
I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from the chapter on Critiques. So far I've shared the intro to the chapter and advice on getting feedback from family and friends; discussed some basics about critique groups; shared challenges to watch out for in a critique group, and listed specific character types to watch out for in your critique group, and taking classes to improve your writing. Now let's look at one final option, hiring a professional editor or critiquer.

Hiring a Pro

It’s tempting to stick with trading manuscripts for free, and you may get some excellent feedback that way. However, getting feedback from family, friends, and even other writers might not be enough to perfect your work. Many critique partners won’t want to read your manuscript through multiple revisions. And unless they are experienced writers and writing teachers, critique partners may miss issues a professional editor would catch.

Hiring a pro may provide better advice. You might ask a friend to help you bandage a scraped knee, but if you have a bone sticking out of your leg, you’re going to the hospital. When the situation is serious, professional experience counts, so if you are serious about your writing, consider using a professional editor.

Professional developmental editors can help writers shape their manuscripts. They can help beginning or intermediate writers identify weak spots in their skill sets, acting as a one-on-one tutor. They provide expertise that family and friends, and even critique partners, often lack. A professional editor will prioritize your work because it’s a job.

Some of my critique clients have mentioned that they’ve taken a manuscript through a critique group, but they know it still needs work. They’ve gone as far as they can with critique group help, so they’re turning to a paid critique. If someone is paying me several hundred dollars to critique a novel, I’m going to devote my time to getting it done well and quickly. I’ll dig deep and be as tough – but helpful – as I can be. My novel critique letters typically run five or six single-spaced pages, with comments broken down into categories such as Characters, Setting, Plot (Beginning, Middle, and End), Theme, and Style. Most critique group members don’t have that kind of time, even if they have the skills to identify the problems.

If you aren’t sure if you need professional help, do a trial run with a manuscript you’ve finished. Send out a half dozen queries to agents or editors and see what kind of response you get. I’ve had clients come to me because editors have turned down a manuscript they “didn’t love enough.” This is a good indicator that the idea may be strong, but the writing isn’t there yet. No hired editor can guarantee that your manuscript will ever sell, but a good editor can improve the manuscript and also teach you to be a better writer.

If you are writing purely for your own enjoyment, or to share your work with family and friends, you don’t need to worry about producing something of publishable quality. But if you are writing for publication, and agents or editors don’t seem impressed with your work, a professional critique can teach you a lot.

Preparing for the Edit

Even if you decide to hire a freelancer, you’ll get more from the experience by turning in a draft you’ve already edited. According to freelance editor Linda Lane, “Carefully preparing your manuscript for an editor rather than simply forwarding the latest draft saves dollars, because freelance editors often charge an hourly rate.” (Use the tips in Chapter 14: Editing in You Can Write for Children to revise your manuscript as much as you can on your own.) If you have critique partners, revise based on their feedback as well.

I'm an expert!
Then start looking for a professional editor. However, if you want a professional critique on the content of your book – the plot, characters, overall writing style, and so forth – don’t wait until you think you have a completely polished draft. If it turns out you have major problems with the plot or character development, it’s better to identify those before you’ve gone through 10 drafts and have proofread the whole thing.

Ask other writers for recommendations to editors. Try the SCBWI online discussion boards or local writers’ groups. Make sure the editor has experience with the kind of writing you are doing. Someone who only writes for adults is probably not the best editor for your children’s picture book.

Communicate clearly with a prospective editor to make sure you know what you’re getting. Typically content or developmental editors look at the big picture items. Copy editors and proofreaders can catch inconsistencies and spelling or grammar errors. Start by working with someone who will focus on content, structure, and stylistic weaknesses. Don’t pay someone to fix your typos when you might still have major changes to make. Ask questions or ask for a sample to make sure you are hiring the right editor for your needs.

Professional Editors

This list provides past and present instructors from the Institute of Children’s Literature who critique for a fee.

You can get this whole essay, and a lot more – including a chapter on Advanced Critique Questions – in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

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  1. Excellent advice as usual, Chris. I have picked up a few projects over the years...and I can tell they haven't been edited or proofed by the writer. A writer should go through the few steps you mention, before asking for professional help. I don't like to waste my time on fixing things the writer/critique group should have found.

    1. Insight from a professional editor! Thanks, Karen. Some writers may simply not be able to edit or proof their own work. Some of us tend to see typos, and for some reason other people don't. And some people may not have access to a good critique group. Obviously these people need a professional editor that much more. But it definitely makes for a smoother relationship with the professional if your work has already been edited and proofed first to some extent. Of course, you don't want to polish so much that you've wasted time fixing every typo if you're then going to get a big picture content edit.

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