Tag Archives: critiques

Highlights of Highlights!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I have very strong childhood memories of getting the Highlights for Children magazine in the mail. First of all, it was mail – for me! (And my brothers, but mostly for me.)  I’d spot it on the kitchen counter, whisk it off to my bedroom, and immediately turn to the hidden pictures page. Then I’d search and search until I found every last rake, spoon, ice cream cone, and whatever else was listed at the bottom of the page! Today, Highlights publishes entire workbooks of these puzzles. They even have an app.

The first issue of Highlights magazine came out in 1946 and was published by the Pennsylvanian husband-and-wife team – Garry Cleveland Meyers and Caroline Clark. These days, the company’s corporate headquarters is  based in Columbus, Ohio, and includes Zaner-Bloser, Stenhouse Publishers, and Staff Development for Educators. But there’s another arm of the organization you may not know about – The Highlights Foundation. This is a 501 c-3 non-profit, established in 1984, that offers “workshops, retreats, and other support to writers, illustrators, and all creators of kid-friendly content.” (For a quick history of the company, go to: https://www.highlights.com/about-us/history.) The Foundation was established in 1984  in Chautauqua NY, but is now located in an idyllic rural setting in Honesdale, PA. George Brown, a descendant of Garry and Caroline, is its dynamic Executive Director.

During the pandemic, I took two of the Foundation’s classes online: “Filling the Writer’s Toolbox” with Emma Dryden, and “DIY Revision for your Novel or Non-Fiction” with Susan Campbell Bartoletti. But in August, after being prodded by my writing coach and award-winning author Sarah Aronson, and fellow Story Spinner and RMC-SCBWI Regional Advisor, Susan Wroble, I attended my first in-person event. And even though I am not a fan of mosquitos, ticks, humidity, or frizzy hair, this truly was the “highlight” of my summer.

“The Whole Novel Workshop,” was a six-day intensive for writers of MG and YA fiction. It differed from my other two classes in that it required an application. That meant submitting the first fifteen pages of my MG manuscript, a synopsis, and a cover letter. When my acceptance arrived, I literally whooped and hollered to the dog! Only that’s when the real work began. Not only would I be working on my revision during the workshop, I would also be receiving an in-depth critique of my full manuscript (from the brilliant, hilarious, and award-winning author, Crystal Allen) before I even arrived on campus. There were also three Zoom meetings with our  group (twenty participants and ten faculty), two books to read (one YA novel, one on craft), and partial manuscripts, synopses, and cover letters to read from the members of our assigned “Brain Trust” group (7-8 people). We used the Canvas platform to introduce ourselves (and our pets) and to explore writing prompts, articles, and podcasts. Needless to say, “The Whole Novel Workshop” could have been called “The Whole Summer Workshop!”

Finally, on August 21, the big day arrived. I pulled up to my home for the week, “#16,” the Jane Yolen cabin! (OMG – how did they know???) and basked in the beauty of my surroundings. There was a lovely front porch, with windows overlooking a wooded glen, a bookshelf filled with Jane’s books, posters on the wall, and an owl perched on the rafters. (I love OWL MOON!)


That evening, we all gathered for the start of what can only be described as a week of serious work, tremendous growth, and pure joy. There were craft workshops, thought-provoking morning prompts, critiques, time to write (alone or in community), Brain Trust groups (45-minute discussions about your manuscript led by YOU), one-on-one discussions, interviews with your main character (conducted by the dramatic Crystal!), pristine walks, and time to think about and work through your revision ideas. And the food! Ask anyone who has attended a Highlights workshop and they will definitely talk about the food. The chefs and servers prepare gourmet works of art three times a day, with snacks available twenty-four seven!

I could talk about this magical week for hours. (And believe me, I have.) Instead, here’s a  stream-of-consciousness recap:

Know who your audience is and what your character really wants. (So true, Rob.) Emotion drives action. Look for the fractals. (Jennifer) Journal until you’ve figured things out and do the swirlies. (Sarah) Discuss ideas with fellow novelists. (We love talking about these things, right Nora?!) Go for long walks. (Thanks for being our guide, George.) Play with tense and POV and balance dialogue, narrative, and description by using colored pens. (Nancy) Get rid of unnecessary characters. (Find your orderly, get rid of the priest- Crystal) Try new plotting tools. (Can’t wait to use yours, Erin.) Writing prompts open your mind to new possibilities! (Yes, Melissa!) No writing is wasted time. (More Melissa) Don’t be afraid of marketing. (I will be in touch, Mia.) And other assorted other words of wisdom: Pay attention to your secondary characters. It’s all about voice. Play and think in the rock garden. Be open about making changes. Make writer friends and support their work. (Miss you all!)

And of course… Keep going!

Our incredible faculty rocked it EVERY DAY and worked alongside us. (There was an open mike night on our last evening… WOW!) Endless thanks to: Crystal Allen, Sarah Aronson, Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Rob Costello, Erin Dionne, Mia Garcia, Jennifer Jacobsen, Erin Entrada Kelly, Alex Villasante, Nancy Werlin, Melissa Wyatt . Can you believe this line-up? I am still in awe of each and every one of them.

You must go to Highlights. (Even with the mosquitoes, ticks, and frizzy hair.) Put it on your to-do list. Right now. highlightsfoundation.org/upcoming/workshops.

I can’t wait to go back.





Filed under craft advice, critique, Partners in Literacy, Revision process, Rondi Frieder, Susan Wroble

Receiving Feedback

Critiquing is a critical part of the writing process – getting feedback from others gives us guidance and can shed a light on where we might focus in revision. There is so much we can’t see as the writer of our own work and getting other people’s responses to what we’ve written is truly illuminating.


But receiving feedback – literally sitting there while someone tells us what they think about our work –can be hard. Sometimes it can be really hard. It’s great when people say, “I love what you’ve done!” but it can be hard to listen to people say, “Here are the things I think you need to fix.”  It can even be hard when they say, “I love what you’ve done but here are some things to fix.” Someone can love your piece, and it can still need work.

The fact is, even if it it’s combined with positive feedback, receiving critical feedback can be challenging.

Here are a few recommendations for how to handle the moments when your piece is getting critiqued.

  • If your group is reading the piece for the first time while together, allow someone else to read your piece aloud. Hearing where they read smoothly and where they stumble can give great insight as to where you might want to revise at the sentence and word level.
    • No critique partners? Critique partners read everything in advance? Your piece is longer than a picture book or a few pages? Use a Read Aloud function, like you can find in Word – Google docs also seems to have a text to read function
  • Try to take feedback in and listen without getting upset.  It’s very natural to have a knee-jerk reaction to critical feedback. “But that’s not what I meant” or “you’re not understanding” – if they didn’t understand, it might not be on the page the way it is on your head. Try to take in critical feedback without being defensive.
    • If you’re too defensive or upset receiving critical feedback, it may hurt people’s ability to be honest with you in the future.
    • The exception — respond to any kind of clarifying question that will help someone provide feedback from a place of understanding
    • Sometimes one critiquer will say something is missing on the page (a motivation, for example, or an emotion), while another critiquer will have gotten exactly what you were trying to say. In this instance, consider whether what you are trying to get across is obvious enough. It may be. It may not.
  • Relish the positive things people have to say. You need to learn what works in your work. Even if a line is cut or a scene doesn’t make it, if people loved it, find out why so you can replicate.
    • Some people are great at this. For others, it can be really hard to take in the positive. Some people want to skip right over the positive and get to the critical because that’s where the work is, but make notes about what people love, so you can keep those things in your writing, and celebrate those things as the critical feedback comes rolling in.


What other recommendations do you have else for those moments during a critique while people are actively giving you feedback?


**Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


Filed under Coral Jenrette, craft advice, critique, Revision process

Writing with Others (at distance)

At this point, you may already have figured out how to navigate working with your writing and critique partners in this time of distancing. Some of us already critique at a distance, so the change is nothing new. But here are a few things you might consider if you’re not already trying them.

The Move to Video Conferencing

We’re all used to the phone, and many of us have used FaceTime or Skype to talk one-on-one to friends and family. Your whole group can meet using one of this video-conferencing platforms, such as Skype, Google Meets, or Zoom. Many of these platforms are free for users to set up meetings, they may just limit the amount of time you can meet before they kick you off.

The benefit of these formats is that you can see multiple people, and they can sign on from anywhere, as long as they have a Wi-Fi connection or a data plan on their phone. For Zoom, the only person who actually needs to sign up to Zoom is the person setting up the meeting – everyone else just clicks a link.

Video conferencing is the closest many of us can come to see our writing friends and critique partners, so I highly recommend it. Here is a link discussing different options (also where the groovy picture came from).

My group uses Zoom, so I’ll talk about that here, but just know there are plenty of options.


Ways to Use Zoom

One way to use Zoom is to simply move your regular critique time to this format. You can still see other, talk one at a time, and see facial expressions and reactions. Zoom doesn’t allow for side-conversations, unless you pay extra to have break out rooms. You can use the chat function, but honestly it can be distracting. But Zoom can get you 80% * of the way there for your critique group. * Not an official scientific number

Zoom allows you to share your screen, so if you want to reference specific parts of the manuscript, you can show it to everyone if that’s helpful to draw attention to your point. That could be critical for discussing illustrations, layout ideas, etc.

We’ve also started using Zoom as an accountability tool. I belong to a writing group whose purpose is to get together just to write. We do timed writing sprints, and then visit over lunch. With the pandemic, we’d been doing the writing sprints via text. But we discovered that we did a better job at showing up if we were literally showing up. Now we login to Zoom and show our faces as a way to ensure that we’re working away.



Mute – a lot

Our computers and headphones pick up a lot of background noise. The larger your group, the more distracting it can be. It’s better to stay muted until you want to talk. Just be prepared to start talking and have someone remind you, “If you’re talking to us, you’re still muted.”


Gallery View vs Speaker View

On Zoom, you can choose between Speaker View (where Zoom decides who is ‘talking’ and has them in the center of the screen) or Gallery View (where everyone is their own box, very Brady Bunch. I like Gallery View because if you’re eating an apple, or one of your kids shouts something in the background while you aren’t muted, you are taking center stage.


Log back in again

If you’re working from free Zoom, your meeting with three or more people will end after 40 minutes (at the time of this blog post). But never fear! If you just log back in again, you can restart it with the same link. So as long as you don’t mind restarting the meeting, you don’t need to pay for Zoom. Make your meeting as long as it needs to be, and then just click the link again if you get booted off.


Writing buddies and critiquing partners are so critical to us, as writers and just as people. However you do it, and however often you use it, find a way to stay connected. We’ll be back together again soon! Stay safe, everyone.

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Filed under Coral Jenrette, critique, Office organization

CRITIQUING: Just One More Thing…

By Susan Wroble

 The goal: Critique without overwhelming.

The problem? It’s really tricky.

The solution: Just one more thing…

With the talented author Judith Robbins Rose (Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco), I feel very fortunate to lead one of the Connect Groups for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. Our Denver South Connect & Critique follows a model of craft presentation followed by critique break-outs. For some of our members, who are brand new to children’s writing and SCBWI, these critiques are the first time someone else has seen their work. They are being critiqued by whoever ends up in their circle, from other new writers to ones with years of experience.

In sessions like our Connect, as in many critique groups, the critiques come in two forms: written and oral. In an intensive at the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCBWI conference this year, author Laurie Halse Anderson offered her advice on the topic. She recommends restricting written comments in a critique to two types — smiley faces and question marks. I admire the simplicity of this approach, and the gentleness. From what I have seen, however, most of the problems in critiquing come not from the written review, but from the oral comments.

For years, at SCBWI conferences, I attended the “First Pages” sessions. The guest editor or agent would listen, along with the audience, as first pages of manuscripts were drawn from a pile and read aloud.  And then the editor or agent would give their initial impressions. Each year, I was reminded that the job of deciding which works to represent is very different from the job of mentoring and encouraging a writer. Our guest speakers had a tough job, and few did it well. Even though the submissions were anonymous, their analysis could feel devastating.

Likewise, our initial Connects faced a rough start. Now, we review the sandwich method before each critique session. In this method, constructive criticism is tucked between positive starting and ending comments. It’s so easy to visualize that it makes a great first approach. But it didn’t feel complete. It could still be overwhelming. And it didn’t feel that it did the job of helping writers, especially new writers, know where to begin to focus to improve their craft.

Drawing on her years of competing on the university debate team, Judy Rose had an insight regarding her coach’s approach to her entry in after-dinner speaking. “Even though he’d heard my piece dozens of times before, he’d laugh — and sometimes cry — and say “That’s great! It’s fabulous! There’s just one more thing…””

“Just One More Thing.” I love it. It feels like the sandwich method has just found the essential missing ingredient it lacked.


For more ideas about writing and receiving critiques, I found the following post from The Writer’s Loft especially helpful: https://www.thewritersloft.org/critique





Filed under critique, Susan Wroble