This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
Everyone Needs A Critique Team

Tayari Jones offers tips for gathering the team of readers that will take your work to the next level.

So you’ve just gotten through with your manuscript.  You know I know  it's not a beautiful work of art yet, but you’ve done all I can do by yourself. It's now time to bring in the first team of readers. Here's how I picked my readers, I call them Team T.

  • Everyone on the team must be someone I trust. By trust, I mean that they all much be someone who I believe wants me to write a better book. No one on the team can be weird or competitive with me. They are all folks who will approach the manuscript with an open heart, with nothing to prove.  This can be a little tricky because there are people that you like just fine, but don’t really trust that want to read the manuscript.  You have to tell them no—even if they will hear on the grapevine that other people are reading the book.  (Although this is not the most mature approach, I keep kicking the request down the road. Eventually the manuscript will be in a position that you can share more widely, so I just keep putting the person off until then.)
  • The team must be diverse. There is no point having a bunch of people just like me vet the manuscript. I need people who bring different strengths to the table. One person should be talented with plot, another should be a language freak. Someone who knows from experience the world I am writing about, and someone else who doesn't. You get the idea.
  • They should be writers. This is really just so that they will have the language to help me improve. Talking about a manuscript in progress with someone who is not a writer can make me feel like a mechanic listening to a customer make weird noises to tell me what is wrong with the car. Also, something like a point of view problem is easily diagnosed by another writer, while someone else will be disconcerted by the chapter and may not be able to say why.
  • If there is any inkling that I may be using the manuscript to win the person's approval, they can't be on the list. This goes back to the idea that it has to be all about the work at this stage. For most people (me included) this takes family off the list. I have always said how much my early work benefited from the fact that no one in my family thought I was really going to be a novelist. If I had looked at my writing as a way to get that parental pat on the head, it would have warped my creative impulse.
  • They must be brilliant. The reasoning is obvious. I have to say that I am so lucky to have so many smart people in my life.

And as a bonus, a little writerly etiquette—

  • Make sure you have done all you can before passing it on. Your readers are to help you do what you couldn't do all by yourself.
  • You should pay for postage, printing, whatever.  For someone to read and critique your manuscript at all is enough of a gift. Don’t eat up your friend’s ink cartridges. 
  • Send a little thank you gift or a card whether your friend liked the book or not.
  • When the book is published, remember those friends in your achnowledgements. (And yes, your book WILL be published.  I have faith in you!)
  • When the times comes, return the favor and give your friend the same time and care she gave you.

And of course, it’s now over to you SheWriters. Do you have a critique team? How did you put the team together?


Related: Ten People Have Given You Ten Different Types of Advice. Now what? Ten Suggestions.

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  • Tina L. Hook

    PS I just read the novel Wench and found you mentioned in the acknowledgments. What a page turner.

  • Tina L. Hook

    Such great advice. I am finding this part to be such a challenge.

  • M. Louisa Locke

    Interesting coincidence, I just put up a little hymn of praise to my critique group of the past twenty years on my author facebook site! 

    The core of this group as been with me through thick and thin, and they will be the first to read my next novel. Their individual input on the manuscript is crucial, but probably more importantly, their collective wisdom and support has been even more invaluable.


    However, since that group is down to 4, a year ago, when it came to do the last rewriting and editing of my historical novel, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, I broadened my team considerably.


    In addition to writers, since I had written an historical novel, I got other historians to read it, to ensure I didn't let any inaccuracies in. I also got non-writers to read it, if they were fans of the sub-genre. My historical is a definite cozy, with a female sleuth, and since most of my writer friends don't write in this genre, it was important to get a fan's perspective, on character development, use of romance and humor, etc. I am a retired professor of women's history, so these readers also tended to be other college professors, who, having spent their careers correcting essays, had no difficulty communicating to me where my writing needed to be improved. I even made sure that one reader was a male, since I wrote part of the novel from the main male protagonist's point of view, and I wanted a male take on that voice. And then there was the neighbor and friend who is just good with detail and caught typo's no one else found.


    As you can see, I completely agree that you need to have a team to help you, but ultimately, it your vo