What A Writer Wants From a Professional Critique

Thursday, July 09, 2020
I think it was May when I watched a children’s author’s free webinar. Following the webinar, a limited number of critiques were available for purchase. And because I was impressed with the author’s webinar, not to mention his slew of humorous picture books, and having recently come into a windfall (Thanks, Stimulus Check!), I signed up for a critique.

But mostly, I had a funny picture book myself and I wanted to start sending it out into the world. Except before I send a manuscript out into the world, I like to get a professional critique (or two. Or twenty). And then the critique instructions landed in my Inbox with this question: “What do you want to get from this critique?” or something along those lines.

Well. I had to think for a moment because I couldn’t put down my first want, or even the second want. And honestly, I don’t think I’m that different from most writers who sign up for a professional critique…

When I have a manuscript all polished up and ready to start sending out in the world, what I first dream of from that professional feedback is absolute affirmation. Yep, I want that multi-published author or agent or editor to say, “Oh my goodness, Cathy C. Hall, this is wonderful! I love every sparkling word and how you’ve fit them all together in every sparkling paragraph!” If it’s an agent, I want immediate representation; from an editor, I want him or her to take my manuscript—as is—straight to acquisitions! From an author, I want an offer to take the manuscript to their agent because it deserves to be published.

Anyway, after a few moments of indulging what I suspect is every writer’s fantasy, I moved on to my next want. Which might also be every writer’s secret desire. I call it the “Just fix it!” feedback. Because most of us have spent hours and hours and hours on a manuscript, revising and rewriting and whatnot, and really, we just want to get it published. So if our critique guru is not going to lavish us with praise, the least he or she can do is fix all the glaring problems that are so obvious to their expert eyes. Just tell us in no uncertain terms how we can make the manuscript perfect—and if he or she wants to be truly helpful, make the corrections so we can move everything along.

But an agent or editor or multi-published author doesn’t have time (or any desire, secret or not) to rewrite a manuscript. And upon further thought, though it seems like it would be the easy route, I eventually remember how annoyed I get when a critique partner marks through a sentence and rewrites it. So I suppose I don’t want anyone, despite their expertise, to make what he or she considers the proper fixes for my entire work. What I really want is suggestions for how I can fix my work so that I can decide how or if I want to make those changes.

In the end, when it comes to a professional critique, I want to know if my premise or concept is unique enough and marketable. And I want ideas as to how to improve the manuscript so that I can sell it.

That’s how I answered the question, and that’s exactly the detailed feedback I received from this author. Worth. Every. Penny.

(How about you? Tell me what you want from a professional critique. Submitting writers want to know!)

~Cathy C. Hall is still in the ruminating stage on this particular manuscript, but once she makes her rewrites and edits, she'll be sending it out into the world.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I had to laugh. I started reading what you (initially/truly) wanted from the critique. And I thought, 'But Cathy hasn't gone far enough. She isn't going to go alllll the way into a writer's fantasy life,' but then you did. I (secretly/truly) want the same things. I want instant publication or representation offers. I want the things that need to be fixed to be fixed--by the editor/publisher.

I've only had professional critiques done three times. Once, with a horrible manuscript (one that will never see the light of day) that was purhased to coincide with a semi-local writing conference. (I'm sorry, Sue Bradford Edwards. You gave me wonderful feedback. Fortunately for you, I don't think the sample was enough to reveal the true awfulness of it.) Margo Dill also critiqued my manuscript (a different one). This one was equally awful, but in a totally different way. Margo gave me a detailed list of specific suggestions, as well as specific praise. (I then hired Margo to re-critique the same manuscript, after it was completely rewritten.) The other was a writing contest through WOW. Chelsey Clammer was also extremely helpful. She pointed out specific parts that weren't working (and why they weren't working) along with parts that were well-crafted. I appreciated Chelsey's critique so much (thank you Angela, for paying for that critique!) that I entered a more recent WOW contest, and I paid for a critique... because I want to grow as a writer. If it sucks, I want to know why (or how) it stinks. Still, a small part of me wants the fantasy version of a critique (instant fix and then instant publication) but in reality, I want to know about the parts that works, the parts that don't, and some suggestions how it can be revised.

I can't wait to hear more about that humorous manuscript...

Cathy C. Hall said...

I'm glad you laughed, Sioux! And I'm glad you're getting those pro critiques. It's all part of the process (and we need to laugh along the way). Onward!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I had forgotten about that critique!

I want to know what works and what doesn't. Frequently I'm trying something out - I wonder if this will work? And need to know if it makes sense to anyone but me. I mean, if someone wants to tell me it is brilliant as is and here's a contract, I'm not going to object...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Sioux, I'm so glad you got a lot out of Chelsey's critique. She really digs and gets to the root of an essay and offers specific suggestions to make it better. She's an essay doula! I'm glad you opted for the critique. :)

Cathy, I also laughed at what you wanted from a critique. ;) Lol! As far as your answer about whether or not a manuscript is marketable, I'm the complete opposite, and here's why: I think critiques are extremely subjective, and one agent or editor might think a manuscript is unsaleable or not unique enough or marketable, while another may think it is. The truth about marketability is, no one knows what will sell. Most publishing houses put the majority of their marketing budget behind ONE title, and the rest of the books that quarter or year get a tiny budget. Of course, the book with the six or seven figure budget is going to do the best. The sad truth is that if publishers would share this info with their authors then the authors would be better prepared by choosing to do their own marketing in tandem. The publishing industry works by taking a chance on a bunch of titles and hoping one or two will be a bestseller. The rest lose money. They determine which one has the most chances of doing that (which is also subjective) and put the majority of their marketing dollars behind it. It's a messed up system. So I don't think any critique will be able to predict marketability entirely. Of course, they can use their best judgment from years of experience.

Sorry to ramble on! Lol. I care more about the excavation of the story--whether I'm going deep enough or not. Mechanics can be fixed, things like making dialogue more realistic or adding sensory details or tightening the plot, but the heart of the work and the resonance is what I'm most interested in. I have a tough time with it. So I look for what can help make my piece the best it can be as a work of art, whether or not it is published.

Angela Mackintosh said...

PS. I meant I laughed at your fantasy version! I think that's what we all want. :)

I'm curious, what kind of marketing critique did she give you?

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sue, yes, I often ask if the humor is working because...well, humor's subjective (and I always think I'm hilarious). :-)

And Ang, LOTS of good points there! I wonder if there's more leeway in adult markets as opposed to the children's publishing markets? In SCBWI, we use what's called a Gold Standard for our critiques which has form questions. One of them relates to marketability but I'll admit it's one of my pet peeves...we should write a post on that someday, like are we losing our freedom to write what we want to write???

And the author who critiqued me was a he. :-) And he basically said yes, there's a great concept here though he wanted me to play around with the form (as it wasn't working as well as the humor was working--pretty much exactly hat Sue was talking about!)

Angela Mackintosh said...

I think you're hilarious, too, Cath!

Yes, there's definitely more leeway in adult markets as far as critiques and topic marketability. Sometimes the topic can be boring or something that's been done a million times and still be marketable as long as the writing and insights are unique. I guess this is why I put more emphasis on the emotional resonance in a piece. I admit, I don't know anything about writing for children.

It sounds like you received a helpful critique! Form is such a fun thing to play with and can make a huge difference. That is another thing I look for in a critique, so thanks for sharing that. :)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Aw, thanks, Ang! About the only people who think I'm NOT funny are my kids. :-)

And you are clearly getting it right on the emotional resonance in your work. Remembering that essay you wrote still gives me chills.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

The Question about marketability is on the SCBWI gold critique form because the organization has two principal goals. 1) Promoting professionalism. 2) Helping people publish. And marketability is something a lot of people have troubles understanding.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yep, Sue, I know there are always lots of questions about marketability! I've filled out the form many times and I always think of that Yeats line:
...Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

True. But I see it as two different issues.

Write what you feel compelled to write. Write your dreams. Write what won't otherwise leave you alone.

But know what is selling. Know what industry standards are. If you want to traditionally publish, konw how to market your work.

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