How I Write: Critique Groups…And Five Strategies for When You’re Revising on Your Own

I’m going to write about my graphic novel process soon, but before that I wanted to address a reader question.

To paraphrase, the reader asked:

Are you part of a critique group? Or do you have trusted readers who help you prepare your manuscripts? Or is your agent the sole person you turn to for that?

The short answer is: all of the above! Different approaches have worked for me at different times, and they all have their pluses and minuses.

In-person critique groups

I was part of an in-person critique group that met weekly for six years. (My involvement ended because I moved.)


–Being in a critique group that met so frequently put a lot of pressure on me to actually write, as I needed to have something to bring into the group.

–Reading my work out loud over and over again helped me get used to sharing something that felt so intensely personal with others.

–Being critiqued in person helped me learn to listen to and absorb feedback without becoming defensive. And I learned a lot by hearing from perspectives very different from my own.

–I learned to critique others in hopefully helpful ways.

–I was exposed to styles and genres of writing that I didn’t necessarily read.

–It was really fun to be connected with other people who loved writing.


–Big time commitment. After I moved, I just haven’t found myself in a place where I’ve felt like I can make that type of time commitment again.

–I found that this type of critiquing (reading the work out loud and then critiquing on the spot) worked way better for me for picture books than for longer works.

Online critique groups

I was also in an online-only critique group for six years, where we exchanged picture book manuscripts monthly. (My involvement ended because this group was specifically focused on picture books and lately I’ve been focusing on longer works, so I couldn’t keep up the monthly participation any longer.)


–Online format is convenient.

–Again, having a critique group commitment helped me stay motivated to create new work

–Writing is a quite isolating profession, so, again, it was fun being connected with other writers!


–It can be harder to communicate and get to know each other as well when things aren’t in-person.

Online critique partner match ups

I see references to these sometimes, and I even signed up for one once (I can’t remember what site I used). It seemed good at first. I was writing a kids’ fantasy novel at the time and was matched up with someone working in the same age group and genre. But, after exchanging a few messages, the other writer ghosted me. Maybe she didn’t like my writing (understandably—it was quite bad at the time)? Who knows! However, I have heard of some people having great luck with these, so might be worth checking out.

Paid professional critiques at writing conferences

I haven’t been to very many writing conferences, but I did go to the Oakland, CA SCBWI writing conference several years in a row. It was nice because it was fairly cheap and only a one day time commitment. A couple of times, I even paid to have one of the faculty critique a chapter of my work-in-progress. (One time I cried because they didn’t have anything complimentary to say…but that was a good lesson in toughening up!)

Since being published, I have been on the other side of this equation, critiquing submitted work at the MD/DE/WV and Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conferences. My advice to anyone who is paying for one of these would be to make sure that your manuscript is following basic industry guidelines first. For example, with picture book manuscripts it is the industry standard to submit the manuscript unaccompanied by artwork (unless you are an author/illustrator). If you’ve made sure to follow basic guidelines first, it’s more likely that the critique will focus specifically on improving your story.

Critique connections

Though I don’t have a regular monthly or weekly critique group anymore, I’m still in touch with some of the writers I met in those groups, plus a few others that I’ve met in other ways, and I’ll often reach out to one of these writers to trade critiques or see if they have time to give me feedback on a certain project.

Working directly with my agent

Usually I prefer to send my agent stuff that I’ve already workshopped with some other people first, but sometimes I’m confident enough in a project that she’s the first one who sees it. My agent is an editorial agent, so we often go through several revisions (even if I have shared it with critique partners before sending it to her) before something’s ready to be submitted to editors.

Working directly with an editor

I’m usually only working directly with an editor if they’ve already acquired my manuscript for publication. Occasionally, an editor who is somewhat interested in acquiring a manuscript might have some revision ideas and say that they would be willing to take a second look if I am willing to revise. (And I’ll almost always give this a try!)

Five strategies for when you are revising on your own

Finding someone to give you useful, constructive feedback just doesn’t always work out. It’s not easy to build a writing community, especially if you are really pressed for time and/or money. Conferences and writing retreats are expensive and time consuming. And it’s difficult to spend time making writing friends when you are barely squeezing in enough to time to actually write in the first place. Lots of people seem to succeed at building community through social media, but sometimes seeing so many authors interacting like best friends online can leave you feeling even more isolated.

And then there are other possible barriers to getting feedback, even when you have found a critique group or critique partners. For me, sometimes I write something that is just really different from what any of the writers I know are writing. (This happened to me when I started writing graphic novel scripts–I didn’t know anyone else writing them.) Or, I’ve asked for too many critiques without being asked to return the favor yet. Or I have a deadline and I can’t line up critiques with the timeline I need to work with. So, I’ve come up with some hacks to try to critique and revise my own work with a more unbiased eye, on my own.

1. Print it out and retype it. (Yes, even for a novel!) This can really help me become conscious of big problems and get the brainstorming going again.

2. Read it out loud. This helps a lot with improving the flow of the sentences and strengthening the dialogue.

3. Even if I’ve made an outline before writing, sometimes I take the draft and deconstruct it into a new outline. This can help highlight structural weaknesses.

4. Give it time. Even if I have a deadline, I try to work on the project, then squeeze in some work on a completely different project, then go back to work on it. Time away from the project really helps me return to it with fresh eyes     .

5. Get re-inspired. Sometimes the difficult part about revision is that I no longer remember why I even liked this project in the first place and I just want to give up on it already! Taking some time to think about what initially drew me to the project can really help me get re-inspired to dig deeper and improve the manuscript, whether it’s by thinking about connected memories, listening to music, looking at art, getting outside, watching related movies, or reading related books. For some projects I make playlists or Pinterest boards that I fill with things that put me in the mood to work on it.

Whew! Hopefully there’s something helpful in there. Best of luck with your writing!


How I Write: Fifteen Questions for Picture Book Revision

Paper Mice, written by me and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl

Now that I’ve thought of an idea for a picture book, written a rough draft, and made sure I’m in a good mindset for revision, it’s time to revise my picture book manuscript. Here are some questions I ask myself as I tackle a revision. (I might be thinking about some of these questions when I’m writing a rough draft, too, but overall I don’t get into a very analytical mindset until I’m revising.)

  1. How can I strengthen the plot?

Because I focus on capturing a narrative voice—or even just getting some rough ideas on the page—in the first draft, it’s during revision that I start analyzing how to craft a plot. My picture books tend to be on the quiet side, but it’s still important to me that I use at least some elements of a three-act plot structure, with a problem, rising action and then resolution.

  1. Will it improve the story to incorporate a classic picture book structure?

I’ve already mentioned the three-act structure—found in all kinds of storytelling—but picture books also have a lot of traditional structures specific to the format. Some common structures include: concept (theme-based, like FINDING WILD), circular (IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE), cumulative (THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT), reversal (LITTLE PEA), contrast (what is happening is the opposite of what the text says—usually used for comedic effect), the yearly pattern of the seasons, the daily patterns like from morning until bedtime, etc.

  1. How does this story connect with a child’s perspective and experiences?

While many adults enjoy picture books as an art form, the main intended audience is children, so I always make sure to consider that audience as I develop a picture book. What do kids, in general, love and hate? What do they struggle with? Have fun with? What are the patterns, themes, and general experiences of their lives? Some examples from FORT-BUILDING TIME—building forts, creativity, friendship, community, the seasons. And BUILDING BOOKS—sibling dynamics, building, reading, the challenge of trying new things, creativity.

  1. Can I cut down the word count so it’s under 500 words? Under 300 words?

When I give critiques, I find that many people are very resistant to trimming their word count. If the thought of getting the word count down to under 300 words stresses you out, just make a copy of your document and try to cut the word count in that doc. Instead of thinking of it as a revision, you can approach it as an experiment. You might be surprised at how much you are able to cut and still retain the voice and content of the story.

  1. How original is my idea?

Does it seem like there is space in the market for this idea, or has it been done many times before? If it’s something that’s been done before, then what new twist or theme am I bringing to it?

  1. What’s the hook?

In the context of picture books, I think of a hook as what a parent might say to another parent, or a bookseller might say to a customer, to recommend a book. Being able to pare my book idea down to a pithy pitch isn’t just about selling it—it can also help me refine and home in on my idea as I revise it. Here’s how I would describe FINDING WILD: a lyrical exploration of the joys of being outside and appreciating the big and small wonders of nature. And PAPER MICE: two paper mice bravely explore their new home at night and find what they didn’t know they needed—each other!

  1. Am I trying to write a rhyming picture book?

I usually stay away from rhyming, because it’s very hard to write good rhyming stories and rhyming just isn’t something I’m passionate about. But I’ve tried it out on a few projects. If rhyming isn’t a really important part of your writing to you, I would definitely suggest trying to rewrite your story in prose, as there are a lot of challenges unique to writing in rhyme. But, if rhyming is central to your vision as an author or to a certain story, this rubric for a Best in Rhyme Award might be helpful.

  1. Can I envision how my text could interact with illustrations on the page?

During the revision process, sometimes I staple a little book together based on the typical layout and lengths of picture books (I use Tara Lazar’s templates). Then, I write out my manuscript to see how I would break up the text page by page. It helps me to gain a better understanding of the page-by-page rhythm of the text and see if there are any page-turn moments I should be taking an advantage of (page-turn moments are an amazing opportunity in picture books). It can also help me see if my word count is too high. (Of course, a publisher won’t necessarily break up your text in the same way you envision, and there’s no need to include page numbers in your manuscript.)

  1. If I have art/illustrator notes in my manuscript, do I actually need them?

I know some writers include more art notes, but personally I prefer to use them very sparingly, and usually only when there is something that I envision in the art that is essential to understanding the story. If it’s not essential, but something I still think is valuable enough to include, I try to phrase it as a suggestion. FINDING WILD, for example, had no art notes. It’s important to me that I respect the illustrator’s creative space and don’t try to art direct the book.

  1. Am I using text to show things that the art cannot?

The illustrations in a picture book can show SO much of the story. I love it when the text adds something that can’t be seen in the art alone—like lyricism, more humor, repeated phrases, sound effects, dialogue, and incorporating the other four senses (since the visual will already be on the page).

  1. Could my first and last sentences be doing more?

Because the first and last sentences function as the entry and exit points of a book, I try to pay special attention to strengthening them. One strategy I use is to have my first sentence introduce at least two elements of the story (such as mood/style, theme, problem, main character, etc.) For the last sentence, I try to really put that perfect period on the story—whether with one last heartwarming burst or a gentle settling bedtime story feeling or a final punchline (and often, with picture books, the art can add one more beat at the end).

  1. Have I considered this manuscript in the context of We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices?

I try to critically analyze my motivations for telling a story, how it is inspired by my specific life experiences and perspectives, and how it connects with broader cultural issues.

  1. And, related, is my story free of stereotypes and harmful tropes?

I try to do my homework and make sure that I’m not using harmful tropes and/or perpetuating stereotypes. For example, I’ve found that non-human and animal characters in picture books tend to be male. So that’s something I pay attention to with my picture book manuscripts—am I making characters male by default? Because even when something doesn’t match up with your reality, it’s easy to fall into the patterns you’ve seen repeated in books and other forms of storytelling.

  1. How can I incorporate feedback into my revision?

If I’ve shared my previous draft with critique partners, early readers, or an editor I’m working with, I have their comments to review in revision. I try to seriously think about any feedback I’ve received, whether someone is suggesting a simple word change or overhauling my approach to the entire story. However, I also try to remember that just because someone had a reaction to something in my manuscript doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily pinned down the right way to fix it. Their questions and concerns are valid and speak to a change being needed, but I might need to find my own way to adjust the story.

I also want to note that while it’s easy to focus on the negative, I find it just as helpful to think about positive comments. If there’s something that readers love or are connecting with in a story, I often look for ways to expand this element. For example, several people who read my first draft of PAPER MICE commented on how much they liked the voice at the beginning. When I revised it, I ended up throwing out everything except that beginning and rewriting the entire story to be more in that vein. No one writer is perfect at every single aspect of writing, so while it’s important to work on improving your weaknesses, at the same time, why not play to your strengths?

  1. What is the “heartbeat” of this project?

For every manuscript I write, I try to identify the “heartbeat” of that project–the one or two aspects of it that are the most important to me. They are the reason(s) I wrote the project. Maybe I wanted to explore a certain theme, or I have a character I just love, or this specific narrative voice just came to me, etc. Once I’ve identified these one or two things I love the most about a project, then I try to be ready and willing to change pretty much anything else. (This includes being open to shifting the project out of picture books and into a different age group.) Striving to have this combination of a devotion to the central thing I love about my story + a flexible attitude about all other aspects of it has really helped me be willing to take on bigger, and ultimately more effective, revisions.

How I Write: My Revision Mindset

all my picture books at the indie bookstore Curious Iguana (last year)

Before I go into my revision strategies, I wanted to share some thoughts about the mindset I try to lean into when I revise. Coming up with ideas and writing rough drafts has always been the easier side of writing for me. Revising (and revising and revising) has always presented more of a challenge. I often get discouraged, want to give up on a project, and, in the past, would want to give up on writing altogether, etc. Developing a healthy mindset towards revision has been a crucial part of leveling up my writing and developing a professional writing career. Here are four facets of the revision mindset I’ve adopted over the years.

  1. Setting the manuscript aside

It’s really important to me that I take enough time between drafts to be able to approach the manuscript with a more balanced and less biased eye. And I don’t just take time off, I work on other writing projects in the meantime. Rotating through different projects helps me take the pressure off any one project, which, in turn, helps me to be willing to revise ruthlessly and sometimes even completely toss that draft to start again.

  1. Staying focused on goals within my control

I am somewhat obsessed with focusing on writing goals that are 100% within my control. Things I haven’t been able to control over the years: whether any editor wants to acquire my work, whether any given person wants to read my work, whether anyone who reads my work actually likes it, whether there is currently a place for my project in traditional publishing as a business, whether any given project ends up being “on trend” or not, how much time I have to give to my writing vs. the other responsibilities in my life, etc. Things I can control: making my work the best I can currently make it, using the time I do have for writing in productive ways, trying to carve out more time for writing, and working to improve my writing skills over time. When I go into revising a project, I try to block out the many aspects of the business and of life that are out of my control and zero in on what is in my control—crafting this particular manuscript into the best possible story I am currently capable of creating.

  1. Developing patience with myself/a growth mindset

In order to not waste as much time being frustrated with myself/my writing abilities, I have developed a pretty patient growth mindset over the years. Yes, I am not A Natural Total Genius/The Best Writer Ever. But writing isn’t just about innate talent—it’s also a craft that can be practiced and improved over time. Like woodworking or playing the violin, or any other skill that we view as a learned craft instead of a purely intuitive art. Genius though I am not, I have been able to slowly improve my writing, step by step, year by year, and I plan on continuing to do that for the rest of my life.

  1. Committing to show up and do the work

If someone has a nine to five job, they have to show up at work and do the work. Writing is my job, so I have to show up and do the work. (And even before I was published, I tried to think of it as A Job, even though I couldn’t put in full-time hours on it.) As stated before, I am (tragically, I know) not a Natural Genius, and can’t just write in pleasant, joyful fits of inspiration. By hook or by crook, I just have to get it done.

This quote by Ira Glass really helped me keep trying, and keep revising, in my pre-published days:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”