It can be very tough for new, unpublished writers, receiving rejection after rejection – or worse, no reply at all – and not knowing why this is. This is where belonging to a critique group could prove to be invaluable. Although most groups are highly unlikely to be made up of ideal members such as experienced editors, literary agents or published authors, this is no reason to bag the idea of joining one! Other writers as inexperienced as yourself can still give incredibly helpful advice.
I found my way into a critique group completely by luck. In the very early days of writing seriously, I had two rhyming picture book texts which I thought were fantastic. I had tested them out on a couple of friends, who seemed to easily ‘get’ my rhythm, and who had assured me the stories really were great. I submitted them confidently to the first publisher on my list – my number one preference of course, why aim low? Several rejections later I began to wonder why no one was seeing what I saw.
One agent had suggested a manuscript assessment – this wasn’t a personal reply by the way, just the bog-standard rejection letter. I contacted one of the places they recommended, and in due course, received my assessment. I remember being very surprised at the comments made – what did they mean my rhythm needed work? And that those words didn’t actually rhyme? Even more bewildering, was the one text the assessor liked and seemed to think had potential, was the one I considered to be the least strong! Of course, in retrospect, everything this manuscript assessment said was completely true. But I simply couldn’t see it!
The assessor suggested I join a writing critique group, which in turn led me to the now defunct online site, Authonomy. Run by Harper Collins, it was a place where writers of all genres could post their work to be reviewed by other writers. Any books you thought were worthy of publishing, you could put on your ‘bookshelf,’ and if your work made it to enough bookshelves, Harper Collins would read and assess it for you.
Although picture book writers were a minority on the site, I created a profile and began to review other authors work. In return, people began to review my own stories. Some people loved them! Others pointed out that certain lines didn’t work rhythm wise, and that some of my words didn’t actually rhyme. Hmmm….
I took all comments with a grain of salt, including the ones with high praise, as seeing other stories they’d given the thumbs up to sometimes made it clear they weren’t necessarily good judges of literary excellence! And eventually one day I had a light-bulb moment – the reason these people were saying my rhythm didn’t work was because certain lines could be read in two different ways! I began to understand the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables, I could now see that certain words could be read with 2 or 3 syllables depending on the reader and so on, and so on. And my writing began to improve immensely…
When Authonomy was shut down, I struggled to find another place like it – there are many online writers sites but nothing I liked nearly as much, or that gave the same level of feedback. Luckily for me, a wonderful picture book author I’d befriended on Authonomy added me to her SCBWI originated online group. Being a part of this group has enabled me to continue to improve my writing – my group members are there to double check my scansion and rhyming, they help fine tune my grammar, often point out plot holes that I would have missed otherwise, and have given lots of great suggestions that have ultimately improved my stories. This group continues to be not only a wonderful help writing wise, but also a place of support and encouragement, and where I’ve made some amazing friends. And I like to think that I help them out sometimes too….
Its never easy opening yourself up to criticism – I’ve seen many cases of people who were not ready to receive negative feedback, and who took it very badly. Lets face it – we all want to be told our work is fabulous and doesn’t need a single word changing! But that’s not the reality – even the best published authors have editors to help them improve their work. And if you want to be published, you need a thick skin.
So join a group! If you can’t find one, start one yourself! Join SCBWI if you write for children and haven’t already – this is a great place to find other authors. And try to remember these tips –
- When receiving critique it is important to remember this is only one person’s opinion, and they are not always going to be right. But at the same time, keep in mind you probably aren’t perfect and there is always room to improve!
- When giving critique yourself, don’t forget to include the positive things – make sure you tell the author everything you did like, as well as where you think they can improve. These positive comments can go an awfully long way for someone’s confidence!
- If you can, try to join a group of authors who write similar things. I learned from my time on Authonomy that people who write science fiction or murder mysteries can’t always give helpful insights on things like rhythm and rhyme! Plus, if you write short picture book texts and they are writing full length novels, it will take much longer for you to review their work than it will for them to review yours!