Friday, April 2, 2010

The Value of Critique?

I have a question about conference critiques. At our regional conferences, attendees can pay a little extra ($35) to have one of the editors or agents attending the conference critique up to ten pages of a manuscript. Writers are encouraged to do this--to have their work read carefully by someone in the publishing industry.
My question is this: how seriously do editors take these critiques? I've heard enough different things that it seems the critiques are a crap shoot--some editors take them seriously and do a good job, others blow them off. Are there standards for these critiques? Something the industry adheres to? I'm confused because one thing new writers are always told is not to pay an agent or editor to look at their work, even if they offer to critique it. Are conference critiques different? It just seems silly to spend the money since by attending the conference, you're allowed to submit to the editors or agent anyway, and get your work looked at.
The advice about not paying people to look at your work is to help newbies avoid scam "agents" and "editors", not to help them avoid the legitimate professionals that are invited to conferences. But if all you want is for your work to be looked at, and the editors attending are going to offer to read submissions from the conference, then yes, critiques are a waste of your money.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a few editors do blow this responsibility off, as critiques always take a lot of time and mental energy, and the manuscripts presented are sometimes... of a daunting quality. (Though clearly that's a disservice to the conference an editor has agreed to attend; if an editor isn't willing to do the work of a conference, they shouldn't go to them.) There's no industry standard. I do my best with critiques, and every once in a while I suggest a writer submit to me.

But I'm not certain critiques are really that useful to most people, in the end. Sometimes I have market-oriented advice, which is something editors can be good for, but more often the advice I can offer is the sort of thing anyone could get in a writing class.

I'd be thrilled to hear in the comments of readers' experiences with conference critique. But if you're wondering why writers are encouraged to sign up for them, it's financial. Conferences make a meaningful piece of their profit on critiques.


Kara Parlin said...

I've only had one paid critique, but I was thrilled with the feedback. The editor pointed out my story's strengths and made suggestions for improvement. She even told me it should be longer and that I could submit my revision to her.

We happened to be in the elevator together later on and she had more questions, so we chatted for a few more minutes (The critique session had a time limit).

Not only was the feedback helpful and encouraging, it was great to network and just get out there and feel comfortable talking about my work. If the fee is reasonable, I think it's worth attending at least once.

Sarah said...

I've had critiques at several regional SCBWI conferences. The people who looked at my submissions took it very seriously, and the feedback was helpful.

In one instance, I sent the submission to the conference, and then had my critique group look at it later. (But still before the conference.) The editor's feedback mirrored the critiques I'd just gotten from my group. I already knew my group was good, but it reinforced to me how my critique group was on the right track with their feedback.

When you're beginning to write with publication in mind, it's hard to know what feedback to listen to. So much of it can seem conflicting. Learning to sort through feedback is part of being a good writer- and conference critiques can help with that.

Sarah Laurenson said...

My first paid critique was probably not any more helpful than a freebie with peers, but it did introduce me to my mentor and that has been invaluable.

I had one that seemed to not be helpful but a lot of the problem was my not understanding what the critiquer was trying to say. That was not done in person and I did figure out what was meant - eventually.

EA - Is it the conference or the critiquer who makes the money? Or maybe a bit of both?

Wendy said...

While there's no industry standard for critiques, you can ask the conference organizers about what they expect from their critique staff. I've noticed some of the savvier conferences require editors/agents to submit at least a page of comments for each writer to ensure that nobody's being blown off. (I always write comments anyway, but I also like knowing that the amount of work I'm doing is consistent with what the other editors and agents are doing.)

I also sort of wish conferences would discourage folks from getting the same story critiqued multiple times. I feel like at every conference there's always someone who shows up with the same thing year after year, getting more and more confused from the endless suggestions, and it gets frustrating for everyone involved.

And finally, I don't recommend paid critiques for folks who are just getting started with their writing, because invariably the advice is to simply move on from those first efforts. Save the expense for when you're further along (at least a year into it) and you'll get more bang for your buck.

I guess my larger point about conference critiques is that a little planning and forethought can help make the most of everyone's time and efforts.

Anonymous said...

I've been to a workshop where my manuscript was critiqued by a group of people and that was so helpful for me. Lots of good information that I was able to use for that manuscript, and then for later manuscripts.

I paid for a critique at a conference that was worthless. $35 and she mentioned two minor, minor things that I might fix. And that was it. It took like two minutes and we were done.

Either my manuscript was brilliant (although she wasn't interested in it) or it was so bad she didn't even want to try.

Anonymous said...

At the level many conference attendees are at, they would benefit much more from a critique with one of the faculty authors than with an editor, but they don't want that.

As a frequent conference volunteer and organizer, I can tell you that too many people buy the critique thinking of it as a way to bypass the slush pile rather than as an opportunity to learn.

If you think about it that way, $35 is a bargain to be assured that your ms will be read in a timely fashion by an actual editor and the editor will then sit down with you face to face.

Where that all falls apart is when the attendee doesn't get the expected response of "Please send me the rest at your earliest convenience." Or worse yet, is assigned one of the authors instead of an editor. I've read many many feedback forms where the chief complaint is that the attendee didn't think the author critique was worth $35. Or they've flat out demanded a return of their money, saying they had expected time with an editor. Time, not knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I signed with my agent because of a paid critique at a conference. He reviewed my pages, gave very helpful feedback, and asked to see the rest of the story when I was finished with it. Six months later he signed me.

Even if he hadn't, getting such a positive response from a professional really bolstered my confidence. I agree with Kara -- if it's an affordable fee, it's worth it.

ae said...

I had one amazing, amazing, amazing critique of a pb biography from an agent a few years ago. It was so marked up that I nearly fell out of my chair when she handed it to me. She then asked me in-person questions but I was left temporarily dumb. (She told me not to cry... JK)

She clearly spent a heck of a lot of time on it and asked me questions along with the mark ups.

Then I took it home and sat with it a while. I went back to it over the course of months and revised it line by line, the easiest things first. Then I dummied up the ms.

It hasn't sold to the few places I shopped but is has received personal feedback. I love it and maybe someday it will find a buyer.

It is full of energy like the man himself.

Thank you agent!

I think that the problem tho for most critiqued mss is either they are not something the house does or can use... or a BIG one... they are not marketable.

It is really great tho when you get a detailed, constructive critique to work with. And great in-person advice both writerly and market oriented from a professional.

I agree about writing classes. I've had two. But they are not always up on what is marketable and why. My class mss weren't at all. Good writing was stressed but not hooks and such. They should teach market smarts more in writing classes. But maybe that isn't feasible.

Madelyn said...

I've had a few paid critiques at conferences. Some have been helpful and thoughtful, manuscript-wise, some have not. But they've ALL been helpful in demystifying the process/showing me that editors are real people. For me that was worth the $35.

Anonymous said...

If a writer wants a free crit, go to It's run by Harper Collins. You need to register and upload a book that is over 10,000 words.
There are over 6,000 books on the site.
A writer can get a lot of information in the forums, when the fights aren't breaking out.

Martina Boone said...

I have heard great stories, like Kara Parlin's, from writers who have been invited to submit their work to an agent or editor as a result of a conference critique submission. But even if that doesn't happen, and even if the editor's comments don't tell you how to "fix" your work, I believe seeing and hearing how a professional reacts to your writing tells you something important as long as the conference organizers are up front about what you can expect.

Thanks for an interesting post!

Editorial Anonymous said...

Sarah-- it's both. I didn't mean to imply that the critiquing editors don't get a share of that money.

Frankly, I would refuse to do critiques if I were not being paid extra for them-- because they are extra work. (The talks I prepare are work, too, but I can use them at other conferences to mitigate the impact on my time.)

Michael Grant said...

I was on the other end of this at SCBWI in MIami. They were trying something new in which I'd read a 2 page series pitch and then give the person 5 minutes or whatever it was.

It was strange. I felt like I was on the wrong side of the table. And I don't know that anyone felt it was very useful to them. But then I've never understood the whole critique thing. Writing isn't a group activity.

mb said...

It's definitely a crapshoot. I've had three of these conference critiques. Two were positive but unhelpful ("This is great. I don't know why you're getting rejections. I don't edit this genre, though."). At the third, it wasn't clear that the editor had actually read the pages at all. She spouted vague writing advice that had nothing to do with what I'd submitted.

Needless to say, I'm never signing up for one again. And yet, I hear positive stories from others.

Jimmer said...

I'm really an illustrator, but I did do a paid critique once for a picture book that I had dummied up; it was with Emma Dryden, so I was fortunate--but like others have said, since it was one of my first efforts, it wasn't worth the time of such a notable editor. She did like my title, and looking back at the ms now, I'd have to say that that's the ONLY good thing about it. But it was a worthwhile experience. Made me feel more relaxed about the business side of things. I'd recommend it, but only after you've been writing/reading your genre for a few years.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I just wanted to echo the comment that many beginning writers especially would benefit more from an author critique. It's less stressful, for one thing, and the writer can relax and focus on the feedback rather than worrying about making a sale (which isn't the point of critique anyway).

Anonymous said...

I only had a paid conference critique done once, last fall, and it was worth it for the wonderful boost of confidence it gave me. But that was mostly luck, because it turned out BRUCE COVILLE was the person assigned to do my critique, so I can say to myself "Bruce Coville thought my writing is intriguing and non-sucky!" every time I start thinking that I'm a terrible writer and should just give up. Perhaps a random editor who DOES do this professionally WOULD also be a bit of a pick-me-up to get encouragement from, but it's not the same as saying "Bruce Coville doesn't think I suck!" to yourself.

Anonymous said...

I think "profit" is the wrong word in this context. The critiquer gets part of the fee but the amount that goes to the conference is not "profit." SCBWI conferences are not run for profit. Critique and other conference fees go toward planning and paying for the next conference, including paying for conference venues, flying in editors, agents and top authors and putting them up in hotels.

TK Roxborogh said...

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a critique panel for those who belonged to the society of authors but who had not been published.

We did not get the writing before hand. The poor authors gave us their pitch and then handed us five pages of writing.

One writer's story so amazed me I asked if I could read his manuscript. I told him that I didn't do this ever and it wouldn't cost him anything. I was just hungry to read the story.

As an aside: it's cold here so I've pulled the puter into the living room where it's warm and the dang hubby has just put Star Trek on (the latest one) - waaaahhhhhhh

Anyway the author was a lowly history teacher as I was a lowly English teacher but his story was wonderful.

I told him how I thought he could work it to make it publishable. He worked it. It's now published.

No money changed hands. I'm just pleased I had a part of bringing a wonderful story to the world.

TK Roxborogh said...

oh, and another thing, I paid a manuscript assessor 1000 bucks to assess my two Mid grade novels because the publisher wasn't sure (think - major publisher who'd published two of my previous works).

The assessor said: wtf these are great (but did suggest some tweaks that any editor might). I sent the manuscripts back to the publisher with the well regarded assessor's notes.

End of story? both books published and sold very very well.

Thank goodness I could claim back on the expense.

Should not have had to do it in my humble opinion.

tammi said...

I have had some dud conference critiques but......

In 2006, I had a conference critique with an editor who not only gave great feedback, but she asked to take my ms to acquisitions. That ms happened to be too similar in setting to another book that was on an upcoming list. BUT...the editor liked my writing style and we kept in contact. Since then I have sold her three mss.

In 2007, I submitted another ms for critique. That editor asked to take the ms to acquisitions and she made an offer a few weeks later.

I always urge writers to submit their BEST work for conference critiques because there is always a tiny chance that great things can happen.

Amy said...

I'd been writing fantasy for years. Then I wrote a fantasy romance and figured I'd better join the RWA to learn more about romance writing, and I was surprised by all the contests offered. They cost money ($15-35), but you get critiques for that money, and of course a shot at winning the contest. It feels like a form of paid critique. Are these worthwhile to enter? I was intrigued, and I've already entered my manuscript in one of them.

Sarah McElrath said...

The one conference critique I've had so far was a bit of a let down. The agent had obviously read it, but said she didn't believe in writing anything down. That was the most disappointing part for me because at the time, I was too nervous to catch everything she said. I think it would have gone better if it had been on the last day of the conference rather than an hour after I got there. I would have asked more questions.

But like some others have said, it was worth it to gain the experience. I'll do better next time.

Anonymous said...

I've had my work critiqued three times at conferences, each time by authors. While I was lucky enough to have had authors who actually read my work, I always ended up with authors who didn't know a darn thing about my genre (romance) and in one case, the author was a bit of a misogynist who hated romance. In the end, all three authors resorted to really basic comments, like, "Good job on how you formatted your manuscript!" Similarly, I watched an editor who had no connection to the YA market tell a writer his book belonged in the inspirational Christian market because an angel was the main character - even though it wasn't by any means a spiritual book.

After the third time, I decided to save trees and not waste paper or critiques.

Anonymous said...

I paid for a conference critique with an agent -- a well known agent, who, as it turned out, was arrogant and unhelpful. He literally said my ms was unpublishible -- and saw nothing I could do to improve it. Hogwash. It got published a few years later (that very same version). But, after that critique I stopped writing for quite a while; I didn't know how subjective the business was.

I suppose it's always a concern -- editors and agents not wanting to discourage writers and at the same time they must see lots of dreck. But when what you've written isn't dreck, it can be devastating to have it labeled as such when you are so green. This agent's m.o. is that he does a lot of "debut" books -- I always wonder if that's because his clients run away screaming after working with him, or what?

Anonymous said...

"This agent's m.o. is that he does a lot of "debut" books -- I always wonder if that's because his clients run away screaming after working with him, or what?"
--Anon 2:56

No, it's because he fires them when their books sell below expectations.

Kudos for you for not giving up when this fellow stomped on your dreams.

Anonymous said...

"It just seems silly to spend the money since by attending the conference, you're allowed to submit to the editors or agent anyway, and get your work looked at."

It's true that if all you want is for an editor or agent to read your work and give you a thumbs up or down, you can just submit through the slush pile and save your money. But what the critique buys you is a sit-down with that person to discuss your work, to ask why it is or isn't working, what it might need in the way of improvement. You aren't guaranteed that kind of feedback with a regular submission.

I do agree that a paid, professional critique is a step best taken after polishing a manuscript and getting peer critiques; when you think you're ready for market.

Bron said...

I had a paid critique at a conference last year. I knew someone who had had one the year before at the same conference, and I was expecting the same type of feedback as her, which was basically line edits. I got more general suggestions. It was somewhat helpful but it wasn't what I was expecting. It was a different editor and I should have known better, but I thought the conference might give specific guidelines as to what feedback should be given.

She did tell me that my concept was marketable, which was very valuable. Now if it doesn't sell I'll know it's the writing :-)

I think they're worth having, but don't have expectations. I also agree it's better to wait until you have something polished.

Christine Tripp said...

I really think it all comes down to who the Editors are. Is it an Editor from a well known publishing house? If so, more then likely they will take the critique very seriously, read the manuscripts carefully, jot down their thoughts and use the 15 minutes or so with the author well.
I'm the SCBWI Illustrator Rep for Canada East and I've heard both positive and negitave feedback from Authors that have paid for the critiques. Not surprisingly, the ones that got postitive feedback are happy and the ones that were gently (or not so gently) told the work was not good are unhappy. An authors initial reaction to a less then positive critique may be a knee jerk one. Feelings are hurt, the first thought is to blame the editor and not to entertain the notition that the critique may be right. I like to think that, once the day is over and the critque sinks in, they find the positive in the negative and learn from it rather then fight it.
I have to disagree EA that the charge for the critiques are to make money (at least with our Chapters experience) The editors will usually only accept 10 or so submissions and they are paid most to all of the money collected for the critique. Occassionally the invited editors will turn around and donate back the fee to the Chapter... and that is very generous of them, though not expected at all, as there is a lot of work involved in doing a proper critique. We have had only one editor who did a horrible job in his critiques, hadn't read the manuscripts ahead of time, forgot to bring his copies with him to the conference, and then read the pages quickly in front of the authors and hastly said whatever to them after reading a few lines.
We ended up refunding authors (obviously they should have their money back after that) and the guy took his fee. Sigh, happily he has been the exception.

Anonymous said...

I've had four critiques at conferences, and only one was worth the money. At our conferences, they're all written critiques--no sit-downs or face-to-face meetings. The last one I got was such a sorry excuse for a critique that I've sworn them off. I get more thorough feedback from my critique group.

I know people who have had luck with conference critiques, and the one I got that was worthwhile was very encouraging and helpful. I wouldn't tell anyone not to do it, but I would encourage them to find out if the conference organizers give editors any guidelines or requirements. I would also encourage them to find a good critique group.

Michael Grant said...

Writers are not going to get what they need from a bunch of friends in a sewing circle or from a professional editor at a conference who is not getting paid nearly enough to tell you the truth.

Look, 90% of people who want to be writers are never going to make it, because 90% of them don't have talent. But has any editor or agent at a conference ever told a writer to give it up, stop torturing themselves and go get another job?

No. Because conferences are all about pandering to the mistaken notion that anyone can make it if. If they follow some guideline, if they listen to a critique group, if, if, if.

No one in your critique group and no one at a conference is going to tell you the truth. Not if the truth is "Give up, you don't have it." But in the vast majority of cases that's the truth.

If you have the talent, and you have the ambition and the pragmatism and the sheer force of will to make a living as a writer then you don't need a $100 dollar editorial hand-holding at a conference. You need to get your shit together, do the work, and send it to someone who can either write you a check, or can get you to someone who can write you a check.

If you write as a hobby, God bless, have fun. But if you are trying to get published then you have a simple problem: get someone to write you a check. Do what it takes and don't do anything else.

Anonymous said...

I've had really good experiences with critiques by editors at conferences. One was a paid critique as an add-on at a conference, and the other six were included with the cost of the different conferences (so technically I paid for those too). None of the editors blew off her responsibility, and although some were more thorough in critiquing style, I learned something from all of them. I think it's always worthwhile to get guidance from professionals.

Christine Tripp said...

I have to disagree Michael about the "handholding" of Editors at conferences. You may have experienced such a wishy washy ed but what I have seen is editors that are honest with their critiques, sometimes brutaly so. They have nothing to gain or lose at these events and though they do not wish to dash anyones dreams, they most often tell it the way it is, or, at least, the way they see it. (also, it's not $100, usually in the $35 range)
I've paid the extra for portfolio critique and it's been hard to set yourself up for such a thing. While I may have been one of those that came away not sure if I wanted to believe the opinion of the art directors, I did learn from it. At the very least it inspires one to do better, be better and often there are comments that aid you in just that. I've had AD's tell me which images in my portfolio are weak and why and that has been most helpful because most times you are just too close to your own work to judge.
I do agree with you on your other points but, as with all other professions, it takes spending some money to make money.

Dawn Maria said...

I entered my novel in the RWA's 2009 Chick Lit contest for $35. For that I received the judging rubrics which contained helpful and encouraging feedback.

Later that year I paid an editor $20 for 20 pages as a way to test the waters. It was worth the $20 to see that that editor probably wasn't the right one for me or my story.

Finally, I paid for a critique last Nov. at a conference. It wasn't with an editor or agent, but one of the keynote speakers, NYT bestselling author Jane Green. That hour has saved my novel. Not only did Ms. Green thoughtfully read my synopsis and first chapter, she completely understood the genre.

I'd gladly pay for another author critique again.

Anonymous said...

In my small fishbowl of a writer's critique workshop, the crusty old expert author crabs like my adult fantasy novel.

When I submitted this novel to a contest and paid $40 extra for two critiques, one evaluator liked my work and the other didn't.

It's two months later and I'm still trying to wrap reason around a comment that "this works best as a picture book."

It's like Shakespeare's mortal wound in a literary block sort of way. All I've been able to work up since are a few political rants about health care and the economy. It might take all summer to forget picture books.

Lenore Appelhans said...

A few years ago I found a retired editor recommended by SCBWI who did book dummy critiques. I sent her a dummy of the book I was working on and pre-paid her fee. She then contacted me and said she would need more money to finish it, and if I didn't pay more, all I would get would be line edits (not what I was looking for anyway). So even though I felt jipped, I paid the money. When I got the critique back, turned out the editor was very offended by one of the illustrations and basically spent 3/4 of the page long critique talking about how offended she was.

I also sent the same dummy to another editor recommended by SCBWI who was less expensive and gave me 5 pages of very helpful feedback. Though she had a lot of positive things to say about the story, it was clear I'd have to do major revisions, and at the time, I just didn't have the headspace to deal with it.

I put it away for a few years, and then pulled it back out and totally reworked the story keeping her suggestions in mind. Now I am confident that it is ready to submit.

But if I had had just that one editor's opinion, I might have really given up on it.

Eileen Price said...

There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where the most important thing will be working in honest good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around things like that, but I am sure that your job is clearly identified as a fair game. Both boys and girls feel the impact of just a moment’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.
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