We’ve been critiquing each others’ written work for years. In fact, that’s how we met: we were both searching for an online critique group and wound up in the same circle of six children’s writers.
I find it’s easier to critique Linda’s written work because along with criticism, I can offer suggestions and help. I know how to write. I do not know how to draw and paint. I can offer criticism and even some suggestions, but I don’t have confidence in some of those suggestions, and I certainly can’t help draw. Some of my suggestions turn out to be real stinkers.
I make suggestions anyway. Our goals are the same: to make the best possible story, puzzle, illustration, and product. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen in the first draft; we have to re-write, tweak, test, get feedback, and tweak again.
When I was writing my first puzzle book, Clueless in Alaska: Know More!, Linda arranged for a fourth grade class in her area to test and rate the puzzles on difficulty and fun. She compiled responses and passed them on to me. As a result, puzzles were altered, more information was provided where needed, some puzzles were scrapped, and we produced a better book.
Receiving criticism can be hard. Who wants to be told we’ve missed the mark? But it’s essential if the goal is to communicate something not just for ourselves but for others, too. When we disengage emotionally, listen to the criticism, and make some changes, we often feel more proud of the resulting product. We have more confidence in it.
Hardest of all, I think, is deciding what criticism is good and what is bad. As much as we might like to, we probably can’t please everyone. Hey, not everyone likes Harry Potter, right? If advice doesn’t sound good, it might be wise to dismiss it. Consider what the critic was trying to achieve with his or her advice; maybe we can see a better solution once we understand the problem. Sometimes we have to trust our gut. As long as we are genuinely open to criticism, it’s okay to dismiss what feels wrong.As adults creating stories, puzzles, and illustrations for kids, it’s important to not only seek criticism and feedback from other adults and professionals in the field but also from the target audience. Get your materials into the hands of neighborhood kids, a classroom, or club or after-school program. Watch how the kids respond:
- Are they interested and engaged?
- Are they confused?
- Does it take too long or do they immediately ask for more?
- Do they laugh or smile or look bored?
- What do they say about the experience?
Years ago, I read an article about puzzles in a newsletter for children’s writers. One of the editors who was interviewed was a woman I worked with. She talked about the need to test and get feedback, citing two examples of puzzles she’d published that had errors. All the adults had missed the errors: the writer, the editors, the publisher. The readers, however, caught them and wrote letters pointing them out! One error was a quote attributed to the wrong Disney character; the other was confusion with instructions, where “every word that starts with B” was interpreted to mean “every B-word in the English language” rather than the intended “every B-word in the puzzle.” Kids can be very literal.
Both “problem” puzzles the editor cited were mine.
The bright side of this, I decided, was that I was writing and selling a lot of puzzles. And I learned this lesson: Seek criticism. Test. Get feedback from the intended audience.