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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why You Should Critique Other People's Queries

A Publishing Nerd is Born

I learned to be an editor by accident.

As a 19 year-old college student, I already knew that the world of publishing called to me. So the fact that students at my college wrote and edited an annual edition of The Insider’s Guide to Colleges for St. Martin’s press was a boon to me. I needed that on my resume.

Strangely, proto publishing nerds are not thick on the ground even at Yale. So the fact that I’d turned in five or six three-page college write-ups on time attracted attention. “Hey, you! Quiet girl in the corner—do you want to be an editor?”


I was wise enough to say yes, and my editing career was born. But I came to the task with a certain amount of trepidation. As I eyed that first stack of 800 word articles, I had no idea what it was I brought to the table. After all, the writer of each one had all the information, right? What use would it be to stick my nose in?

But then I began to read them. And before half an hour had passed, I was rearranging sentences and scribbling notes, asking for clarity. At least 50% of an editor’s job was simply to not be the person who wrote the thing. The job was to be unfamiliar enough with the material to know when things weren’t right. To not be blinded by my own intentions.

Fast forward *mumble mumble* years, and I found myself haunting the hallways of the Query Tracker Forum. At first, I critiqued queries on the board because it seemed like the helpful thing to do. Since I received assistance there, it seemed only right to chime in. But the critiquing I did there quickly began to strengthen my own query efforts. Any reader of the query critique threads will recognize familiar mistakes more easily than someone who labors only on her own work.

Whenever you step in, attempting to smooth out someone’s sentence—rescuing that sparkly description from drowning in adverbs, or untangling modifiers—you’re editing for yourself, too. It is the rare query which contains only mistakes I’m past making for myself. There’s always something to learn.

Last year, I heard a New Yorker Out Loud podcast on the subject of Twitter, in which the editors stunned me with their utter lack at horror over the idea of spending an afternoon trying to write the perfect tweet. Really? These masters of the long form would stoop so low? “It’s time in the batting cage,” one of them rationalized. And that’s what query critiquing can do for us all. Genre be damned.

And after you’ve read your 100th would-be query, a second layer of utility begins to form alongside all your new editing skills. By reading those threads, you’re putting yourself in the agent’s chair. Is this the fifth query you’ve seen which begins: “MC wants nothing more from summer vacation than a deep tan and an invitation to the beach jam, but…?”  Note to self! That opener, while perfectly sound, has been around the block a few times. I’d better not employ it myself. You will also start to spot common query ills—the dropping of too many character names, the compression of too much plot, the overly chatty bio ‘graf. Even if you’ve read up from excellent sources on the “Glamour Don’ts” of query writing, witnessing them in real time is starlingly educational.

Lastly, the art of critique is, in and of itself, an essential writerly skill. I have learned to start every critique by saying one positive thing. Even if the query needs buckets of work (and even if you suspect the manuscript does, too) there is always something encouraging to say.

At my children's school, the first grade teacher closes the day with a verse that the children stand at their desks to recite. The last two lines are keepers: "Every kind word makes me stronger. Every kind deed sets me free." What's true on the playground also works in queryland. Good luck out there!

Sarah Pinneo
is a novelist, food writer and book publicity specialist. Her most recent book is Julia’s Child. Follow her on twitter at @SarahPinneo.


Genevieve Graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Genevieve Graham said...

Wonderful article. That's exactly how I feel about editing, though I didn't start doing it professionally until I was in my 40s. Thanks for sharing - I posted it on my fb page as well.

Sarah P said...

Thanks, Genevieve!

Wendy said...

Well said! Sharing a link to your post on the 12x12 picture book writers FB page! Our critique forum is a great asset.

Kerry Ann @Vinobaby's Voice said...

Yes! I learned so much about my own writing when I began to critique others. I find it easier to find the flaws with fresh eyes.

Mart Ramirez said...

Love this! Thank you. And I love how you got offered an editing position!! :-)

JeffO said...

I agree with everything you say here. Though I admit I have a hard time going on when I see another paranormal YA romance.

Sylvia Liu said...

I love this article. Thanks for giving me the insight that critiquing others' writing actually helps improve our own.

P.S. I, too, wrote for the Insider's Guide to Colleges... looks like from the years in your photo, we just missed each other; I graduated in 91). I wonder if that even still exists as a print book!