Making the Most out of your Conference Critique

Your hands are sweating. You lie awake at night. You can’t stop thinking about your face-to-face critique with the publishing professional of your dreams. On the day of the conference, you manage to stumble to the registration desk, blurt out your name to the welcoming lady behind the table, and get your shiny folder which includes everything you need to know … including your critique assignment.

You open the folder. Lo and behold, your 30-minute appointment is with Agent Fabulous or Editor OMG! Or Author-Genius/Lucky-to-Have-Her-Even-Breathe-on-Me!

What now? How do you prepare? What are you going to do to fill up a whole 30 minutes?

Here are a few tips from someone who’s been-there-and-done-that!  This is your survival guide for … making the most out of your conference critique.

Critiquers are people, too. If you ever feel intimidated by your pending appointment with Agent-Holy-Cow, Author-Bestselling-for-56-weeks! and Editor-No-Freakin-Way, remember this: critiquers are people, too. They brush their teeth (hopefully), burp (hopefully not in public), and my favorite…. have less than perfect writing sometimes, too.

Read the bio. Think up possible conversation topics. Before your appointment, it never hurts to read the bio about the faculty member to whom you’ve been assigned. More than likely your critique will only take half the time to complete and you’ll be left with fifteen minutes to twiddle your thumbs. Thumb-twiddling is probably not what you want to be doing in front of Agent Fabulous and Editor OMG or even Author-Who?! So think about some possible topics of conversation related to the faculty member just in case you end up with a cricket-chirping-silent kinda moment.

Disappointed with your assignment? You had dreams of getting Agent Fabulous or Editor OMG, but you wound up with some author you’ve never heard of.  You didn’t even get (insert keynote speaker here), for goodness sakes!  If this happens to you, fear not!  Yes, the critique can be a great opportunity to meet a famous editor or agent, but having an author as a critiquer is a great opportunity to get feedback from someone who actually does the heavy lifting! Imagine that. Also, during thumb-twiddling time, you can ask all sorts of questions that you would never had had the guts to ask an editor or agent.

If you’re disappointed because your goal was to sell your a book at the conference through a critique, then you are totally entitled to feel disappointment.  Though keep in mind, the purpose of the critiques is to hone your craft, so you can sell a book without the need for a conference critique. Yeah?   Finally, making face-to-face connections with editors and agents is wonderful! But the large majority of books that are bought do not require a face-to-face interaction. It’s a myth that you have to *know* someone to sell a book in this business. So get that out of your head.  Like now. Books are bought and sold on the basis of your work – not how cute you are or how well you can carry on a conversation about weather. This brings me to my next point …

Remember why you’re there—you’re there to discuss and consider new ideas for your writing and your story. Not to land a contract or pitch yourself like you’re the World’s Best Made-for-TV-tomato-cucumber-all-in-one-cheese grater!  (In other words, try to avoid a cheesy sales pitch.)  If you’re sitting in front of an author, chances are a sale won’t happen for obvious reasons. (Though you should not forget that authors are connected, too.) If you’re in front of an editor or agent, you might be able to drum up some interest in your work. However, unless the editor or agent says, “You know, I thought your work was perfect. Let’s chat about our favorite reality TV shows,” you should probably focus your energy on LISTENING to what is being said to you about your work. Note: It doesn’t hurt to visualize though. Though rare, sometimes the beginnings of deals are made at these things (even with an author, yes), so keep visualizing!

Jot down questions. Spend a few moments thinking about what you would like to know about your own work. Make sure that by the critique’s end,  your questions are answered. Questions can range from how strong is my writing when compared to other works that you’ve seen? To …. Should the guy really be picking his nose in Chapter Two?

Take notes. This may seem obvious, but make sure you bring a working pen to your critique and some paper to jot your notes. At the very least, it gives you something productive to do while you think up the next thing to say. At best, you’ll have a record of what was said because you won’t remember a thing afterward!

Try to not do anything that might be viewed as crazy. You always hear stories about how someone cried profusely during a critique, threw up, or even threatened bodily harm to someone. Try to remember that the person giving the feedback may be as nervous as you are. Yes. REALLY! Who wants to think you might get thrown up on if you use the wrong words to say someone’s writing needs some work? So… if you find that your critiquer is hedging with their comments for fear of personal injury, feel free to assure the critiquer that you appreciate honest feedback and are open to suggestions. Say it with it a smile and MEAN IT. Do your best to remember that an opinion is just an opinion. It’s what you asked for by submitting a work for critique. If a person has some criticism for you (constructive or otherwise), the criticism is not a complete slander of your person, your children and your goldfish, too. A criticism is not a dashing of your hopes or dreams. It’s just a critique. An opinion. Keep the emotions under control and you should come out just fine. Maybe even a winner!

If you find yourself feeling defensive … STOP. DROP. ROLL. (Just kidding!) No, stop. Listen. LISTEN. If something doesn’t make sense to you, ask questions that will help you understand the reason behind the critiquer’s comment. Withhold from saying “I meant to do that.” “Oh, that part comes later… you just haven’t gotten to it yet.” That’s the fastest way to get a critiquer to think that you might not be someone who can handle some tough revision. Show them you’re big enough, strong enough, and gosh-darn good enough to handle feedback.

Just because so-and-so said it, doesn’t mean you have to do it. When considering revision suggestions, always figure out for yourself why you should make a certain change. You don’t have to tell the critiquer then and there that you’ll do something they suggest. You just need to say, “That’’s great food-for-thought!” The fastest way to lose yourself in the process of critique and revision is to follow orders like a good soldier. Follow orders, yes, to some extent. But use your brain while doing so. In writing, YOU are the author and ultimately you decide what is best for your story. Do let the critique sit with you a while before you make decisions. It’s amazing what a little space from the criticism can do for your writing and your ego.

Not all matches are made in heaven. It happens. Sometimes the critiquer may openly state (or not!) that the story wasn’t quite right for him. Even so, listen to the feedback. He or she could be suggesting that the idea could be strengthened to make it more appealing to more people. Or… she could just be the wrong match for the work. If the work at hand may seem like a lost cause for the critique, feel free to ask your critiquer about other ideas you have and what he thinks. Does this sound more appealing to them as a marketable work? Or that? Remember: we’re making the most out of the critique! (No one said it had to be about the same work.) NOTE: Do not ask the critiquer to review another work unless the critiquer invites you to send it to them. Even then, don’t expect a full critique.

Hit it off! Sometimes, you can hit it off, and the next thing you know, you are talking about your six-month-old Labradoodle and the best kind of Spanx to buy. There’s no harm in having a good conversation. Enjoy it, but be sure to keep things professional. Don’t probe the critiquer for personal information you normally wouldn’t get during a business meeting. (This IS a business meeting.) And make sure you don’t get so carried away, you can’t remember what the critique was all about. Get your money’s worth and get the advice you need. Take down those notes!

Wrap it up. You’ve survived the critique. You didn’t insult the critiquer. You actually may have managed a smile throughout. It’s time to wrap it up. If the editor or agent is interested in seeing more work from you, she’ll let you know explicitly. Sometimes he or she might give you a business card. Sometimes, he might actually say, “send more of your work to me.” And sometimes, she might say, “it was a pleasure meeting you. Let’s stay in touch.” If the critiquer says none of this, do not think that means “no more from you” either. You should always approach editors, agents, and authors in the same manner. Professionally. A “not right for me” at the critique doesn’t always mean “other-works-are-not-right-for-me.” You can always send in future submissions according to published guidelines.

Make good on promises. If you receive an explicit revision request or request for more work and say you’ll do it, make good on those promises. For revision requests, make sure that the agent or editor gets a short exclusive. Be upfront if the work in question has already been submitted to other houses or agents and you can’t give the editor or agent an exclusive on a revision.

Thank the critiquer. Hopefully, your critique went well (i.e. you did nothing crazy and you felt like you got something out of it). You naturally feel inspired to thank the person right then and there. It’s also a great idea to follow up a critique with a thank-you note mailed to the critiquer’s office. Even if you have less than a fabulous experience, still thank the critiquer for her time and opinion. If you do one thing at all, you show someone else that you ARE big enough, strong enough, and gosh-darn-good-enough to take some criticism (good or bad). Even better? You might just walk away with a few great ideas to improve your work!

Cynthea Liu is author of PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE (Putnam), THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA, A S.A.S.S Novel (Speak), and her forthcoming picture book WOOBY AND PEEP (Sterling). She’ll also be sitting behind the other side of the table at this year’s SCBWI Annual Conference in Los Angeles, hoping she doesn’t get beaten, cried on, or thrown-up on. For more insider tips on writing for children that you’ve always wondered about, but were much too wimpish to ask, visit Cynthea’s website

15 thoughts on “Making the Most out of your Conference Critique

  1. Cynthea (*hi Snoop!)
    This is a great post.

    I would like to add one thing….

    Writers pray they get Agent Fabulous or Editor Extraordinaire, and sometimes they get Writer Wonderful.. and are disappointed. Writers should not discount the help and insight a fellow, more established, writer can give to your work.

    Good luck to you and congratulations to the lucky writers who will sit across from you — bring candy.


  2. Wha?!! Someone will be disappointed to get me and the Snooper?! 🙂

    You are absolutely dead-on about that one; writers do hope they will be assigned to agents and editors. We know it’s true. I’m going to add a special note about that in this article. Thanks!

  3. Great ideas! Wish I was going to LA this year to put those ideas into practice — instead I’ll be practicing my thumb twiddling at home.

    Wondering, though, what you think of taping a critique session? I find that most of the time when I review my critique notes days (dare I even say weeks) after the event, I can’t make heads or tails of notes. Was that “send me a revision” or “end a vision”? Uhhh…

    Would taping make you uncomfortable?

    Have fun!

    Linda Lodding

    Coming Soon!
    THE BUSY LIFE OF ERNESTINE BUCKMEISTER (picture book, Fall 2011)
    HOLD THAT THOUGHT, MILTON! (picture Book, Spring 2011)

  4. Cynthea,
    I just read your article on receiving a critique at conferences. Thank you, it was extremely informative and helpful. My problem is that most are anthropomorphic and I haven’t had the time to revise many. There is a deadline coming up. Do you think I should submit as they stand? I could revise them but risk missing the deadine.

    1. Thanks, Fiona! Glad you enjoyed the article.

      If you want feedback on your manuscript (regardless on the state that it’s in) you still have a lot to gain even if you’re not done working on the manuscript. I often see things that are first drafts, and at that stage, the author is usually looking for help with the premise/concept/story more so than the nitpicky aspects of the writing itself. Incidentally, a critiquer can also help point out a lot of things about the writing even if the work has yet to be revised. So I’d say, if you want ideas for improving your story and your writing, go for the critique.

      Hope that helps!

  5. Definitely ask the critiquer prior to recording anything. If you want a better chance that the critiquer will allow it, stipulate it will only be used for personal purposes and will not be shared with anyone. Personally, I would be okay with it but I do think I would feel more relaxed if I weren’t being recorded. Who wants to think that there’s some recording floating around packed with all your ummmms.. you knows… and so on. *embarrassed*

  6. Thanks Cynthea for the tips on critiques. Mine is tomorrow morning with another author. I am looking forward to hearing the feedback and hopefully I will survive it!

    1. Sorry for the delay in response. I was running around in LA and then dealing with the aftermath when I got back home after being away for almost a week. I hope your critique went well!

  7. Hi Cynthea,
    I met you at the SCBWI conference where you critiqued my manuscript. Thank you — what you said was so helpful. I did a huge binge rewrite last month based on the plot revisions you suggested. It was fun to run across this article. I even posted a link on my blog.

    Hope you’re doing well and thanks again!


  8. Cynthia, thank you so much for such a helpful post. I’m not going to LA this time (recovering from foot surgery), but maybe next year. Meanwhile, when I’m up and about, I’ll go to other conferences and will be looking for critiques, and this post helps remove the “fear factor”. I’m new to your site but will be back on a regular basis. Meanwhile, have a wonderful time at the LA Conference.

  9. I read this a few months ago, but thanks for linking to it again. It was just what I needed to read as my stomach begins to fill with “What If I Get My Dream Agent?” Butterflies. I’m bookmarking it so I can read it yet again in the airport tomorrow on my way to LA!

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