Several Habits of Highly Effective Writers' Conferences: Critiques

Continuing the series . . . Again, agents, editors, and RAs are welcome to chime in with their advice and preferences in the comments.

Organizers: When you send out a packet of manuscripts to a critiquer, please include a cover letter listing all of the manuscripts enclosed, by author and title. This is enormously useful in ensuring that I've received all the mss. I'm supposed to, and then checking off the critiques as I complete them beforehand.

I like a manuscript for critique to include the first ten double-spaced pages of the manuscript plus one single-spaced "description page." This page should have: the author's name and contact information; the genre of the manuscript; the length of the manuscript in page count (not word count; I have never yet met an editor who thinks in word count, so that number tends to be meaningless to us); its working and publication status (incomplete/complete/currently in revision; under contract/agented/available); and then a brief plot summary and/or the author’s intention for the book—what he or she set out to write with it--or both. I've found that ten pages of the manuscript usually gives me a good sense of the author's voice and writing style, and having the description page saves valuable time during a critique where the author would have to summarize the rest of the book or tell me "This book is really about a post-parental-divorce identity crisis" when it sounds like just another paranormal romance novel.

Every page of the manuscript should include a header with the page number, the author’s last name, and a key word from the title, if not the whole title. It is very easy to drop a stack of paper-clipped critiques and mix up all the pages. (Not that I have any experience with this or anything.)

Fifteen minutes seems to me to be the perfect length for an in-person critique: time for the author to talk for five minutes, me to talk for five minutes, and both of us to converse and ask and answer any remaining questions for five minutes. If possible, timers should provide five-minute and one-minute warnings. Also, it is nice to break up the critiques if possible (e.g. do some in the morning and some at night, or have a half-hour break in a ten-critique block) so critiquers can stay sharp and useful to critiquees.

Most SCBWI conferences these days seem to be doing a great job at educating their members in how to receive a critique, and I hope that trend continues. A tip for critique-ees: Never ask “So, would you like to see the whole thing?” If the agent or editor wants to see the rest of the manuscript, or a revised version of the manuscript, he or she will let you know.

Blessed are the conferences whose critique area is furnished with water bottles or a water carafe and glasses, for they shall be called the
oases of people talking at great length and high speed.