Friday, November 7, 2014

Training Yourself to Critique Like a Pro

I touched previously on the usefulness of critique groups, and how to determine if yours is working for you.

But what about how YOU do as a critiquer - are YOU being helpful to others?

I learned to critique through trial and error; through feedback gained as an intern and reader for other agents before taking on my own clients.

But if you don't have access to the feedback gained through an do you learn to critique like an industry professional?

Here are my tips:

Participate (Silently) in Online Pitch Events
Use online blog contests (where authors post queries and/or first pages) not just to catch an agent's attention - but to train your critiquing eye! Read through the submissions and compose your thoughts before reading anything else; then see what agents/editors have to say when they comment! How are you comparing?

Write Your Own Book Reviews
You don't need to share them; this is for your own trial and error. Read books in your genre, write a review, and then read other reviews (take a look at both big sources like PW or Booklist AND blogs for a mix) to see what you missed and how your thoughts compare. Is there something you're consistently missing (like theme, writing style, etc) from your thoughts? If yes, read up on how to improve that area with writing books!

Study the Sales
A big part of agent critique is in regards to marketability; do NOT rely on what is on shelves to speak to that - instead, read announced sales on Publishers Weekly, and pay attention to trends in #mswl; what genres are agents and editors hungrily looking for? What genres AREN'T they advertising they're looking for? Agent and editor tastes will change with market trends.

Think of Comp Titles
Not just for your books - think of what titles your critique partner's books are like. Shy away from comparing them to blockbusters; think a little deeper to true comps - can be a mix of "characters from X meets the atmospheric presence of Y." In fact, this mix is ideal; if your comp title is basically the same book but with slightly different setting and characters, no dice. It needs to be unique. Once you have the comps, take a look at the number of reviews on Amazon and sales rankings (did it hit any lists? What # is it on Amazon?); did that book do well? A comp title is useless if it was a total flop.

Ask to See Notes
If you have friends with agents, ask if they wouldn't mind sharing the notes and revisions they went through with their agent before submission. Ideally, you read the book before it changed, or can have a copy of the original to read first, and had your own thoughts; how was it further strengthened? How do your thoughts compare? Why does what was done work? (Keep these confidential, of course!!)

Read Through Slush
Take a look at queries being posted in Absolute Write, Critique Circle, #pitmad and Querytracker; read through 50 at a time. That's what an agent does. Feeling your eyes glaze over? Why? What stands out to you? What makes something feel fresh and unique? If you happen to think that a query letter is fabulous, you can consider asking the author for request rate, or secretly cyber-stalk them a little to see if that's posted anywhere. Is what you're picking out as great something agents also think is great (by request rate success)? If no, go back to looking at market trends and comps; do those titles fit what agents are looking for? Too similar to other books?

Hone Your Craft
Practice the following revision techniques on several novels, not just yours, so you can think critically from a more objective standpoint:

When writing notes, be as harsh and realistic as you want; you don't have to share raw thoughts with the author! Do not think about hurting feelings when you're learning; again, it's for your OWN trial and error. However, it's very important that for each negative critique, you list out one or two ways the author could improve; this gets you thinking more critically - if it isn't fixable, why? And how do YOUR fixes compare with what was done? (When looking at agent notes)

It's good practice to pick out what you enjoy and think is done well, too - it's just as important to know what works as knowing what doesn't.

The biggest challenge to tackle when learning to critique like an industry professional is wrapping your head around your end market; it ISN'T the public reader. It's an agent. Or editor. Or publisher. Marketability is huge, and it can't just be "enjoyable" or well written. It has to be fabulous; it's being read by someone who reads HUNDREDS of things a year. Enjoyable and well written need to be paired with hook-y and marketable.

If you have your own tips and suggestions to add to mine, please do so in the comments below!


  1. Great post for those of us who have crit buddies depending on us. And seeing it from the agent/editor perspective is eye-opening...thanks, Natalie. :)

  2. " And how do YOUR fixes compare with what was done?" This is THE question. I am learning the art of critiquing. The result? It has improved my writing. I do want to offer good advice to the writers in my critique groups. There is so much to learn. Thank you, thank you so much for this.

  3. I learn something every time I critique a piece for a partner.