Tales From a Critique Ninja

For the month of February, I was a "Critique Ninja" at 12x12. Each day I would stalk the "full manuscript forum" and select one to critique. It's still not clear if the selected manuscript (and writer) was lucky or cursed. In total, I gave my opinion to 24 or 25 pieces. (I did take a few days off.) Here are my takeaways from this experience.

What I Avoided

I don't feel qualified to critique rhyme. So I avoid those manuscripts for the most part. I also stayed away from anything over 700 words. IMHO, these are just too long. This year I didn't review any non-fiction, but that was more just by chance.

What I Found

Quite a bit of talent! Every manuscript I critiqued had potential. Some days, I got lucky and the first post I clicked caught my attention. Other days, I'd read 3 or 4 before selecting a manuscript. So even if I was harsh in my critique, there was something that drew me to that manuscript's potential.

I'm Brutal

Think of me as your mother-in-law. I complain about everything. I'm never happy. Even with my own work. When I read my published books aloud at schools and bookstores, I still edit. (I drop a few words every time I read Excellent Ed.) We can all be a kind kidlit community, but when it comes to critiques, I prefer the brutally honest folks.

My Most Common Criticism/Suggestion

I found myself asking this over and over. Is this a short story or a picture book? I think most new PB writers have a tendency to write short stories. They leave no work for the illustrator.  We should aim for a 50-50 split in the breakdown of the story telling. The words alone should not tell the story. The pictures alone should not tell the story. It's a happy marriage. Do you need to write Matthew was a crocodile? Won't the reader know this just by looking at the cover? (That's a very simple example, but maybe it illustrates my point.)

My Second Most Common Criticism/Suggestion

Tie the ending to the beginning. Something in those first lines should be reflected in those last lines. I love it when it's very direct. Maybe even the same exact words. Or a change of 1 or 2 words. Once you have a satisfying ending, I encourage you to go back and see if you can tweak the beginning to reflect or hint at the last pages. Or look at the opening and see how you can put those feelings, words, or intentions in the last few lines.


After completing my critique-ninja tour of duty in 2016, I'd mentioned that I wanted to draft a list of trends, or a list of what I saw over and over again. I never did this. (I'm easily distracted and constantly under deadline--that's my excuse.) I remember a lot of bath books and dog books last year. I started avoiding bath and dog books by the end. Maybe agents and editors feel a similar fatigue. I'm not sure. Here's a list of what I saw frequently in 2017. (12x12 members can do this unofficial research on their own. This is solely my experience. And I'm doing it from memory. No notes. Not going back through my files.)

  • Ninjas. There were more than critique ninjas floating through the forums. They were popular characters.
  • Characters named after their species. A duck named Duck. A bear named Bear.
  • Friendship. Stories about making friends or making-up with friends.
  • Engineers and Scientists. And most of these STEM characters were girls.
  • Characters' Names in the Titles. Bill's Day at the Beach. Fred and John. (Not actual examples.)
  • Too Much Info in Opening Paragraph. There seems to be a tendency for the author to explain his/her objective or worries in a paragraph above the manuscript. (I tried not to read these or only read them after.)

Parting Wisdom

Keep writing. And keep critiquing each other. Writing--it's easy to fall into the trap of revising the same manuscript again and again. And yes, a manuscript will require 6, 7, or 20 rewrites. But that can't be all you're doing. Take a break between revisions and start something new. I promise your brain is still working on manuscript-A while you are writing manuscript-B. Critiquing--I was reading manuscripts nearly every day this month. And I'm a better writer for it. I see "problems" in other writers' works that are also in my own. I notice the strengths too. Make a commitment to read a manuscript every other day (or every third day) and make at least 1 constructive comment (not just I-like-it comments) and I promise you will learn and your own writing will improve. Good luck!

PS: For the most part, I do not go back and read any follow-up comments to my critiques.