By Amber June Davis
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Skirball Cultural Center on June 2, for my first Peer2Peer Critique Day. I’d been to critique groups and workshops over the years, but none with a professional reputation like SCBWI’s. My hands shook a little. Who would be there? Would they all be vastly more experienced than me? But I knew I was ready to take this step, and had six copies of a picture book manuscript I was proud of tucked under my arm. I pushed through the courtyard door.
I had arrived a few minutes late and checked in apologetically, though no one yelled, reprimanded me, or turned me away like in the scenario I’d played in my mind. I was welcomed warmly, checked in efficiently, given a name tag, and assigned to a group of latecomers who’d just gotten started (hooray, it wasn’t just me!).
The crisp white linens of round tables arranged under white umbrellas and sail shades were already covered with manuscript pages, coffee mugs, and water bottles. Heads bobbed, pens flashed, and low voices confabulated. Clearly, we were here to work. I left my anxiety behind.
One other writer joined the table with me as the last page of the first contributor’s manuscript was read aloud. The small group of four, which the other new arrival and I made six, offered to read the text again. My instinct was to politely refuse — not on my account, don’t let me interrupt, please continue, etc. — but I caught the eager look in the writer’s eyes and realized that more critique group members meant more valuable feedback for her work. That’s why we were there: to give critiques, not just receive. It would have been unfair to ask her to critique our work if we hadn’t done the same for her. Critique is currency and no one wants to work for free. We read through the story again.
While there was time for socializing, I don’t know the publication histories, educations, or backgrounds of the writers at my table. I don’t think it matters. Everyone at my table gave thoughtful, honest, and helpful feedback. Alternative approaches were suggested and politely and professionally received. Everyone participated and received equal time. We recommended books, talked about the upcoming SCBWI Summer Conference and shared resources and opportunities. Some members of the group, myself included, made arrangements for future critique exchanges via email.
My overall Critique Day takeaway? I was struck by the supportive, noncompetitive, collaborative energy that permeated the group and the process. The event was a simple, direct, no time-wasted, no-frills opportunity to work with other creatives. I highly recommend the experience and will attend again.
Do you have tips for handling critiques? Or tricks for getting over event jitters? Share them in the comments below.
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Amber June Davis is a published poet and non-fiction writer who earned her B.A. in English at the University of Montana in Missoula, a place she still considers home. She lives in Burbank, CA now, with her big, noisy, wonderful family, and is transitioning out of the business world to pursue writing and art full-time. She is working on several picture book manuscripts. Find her at amberjunestudios.com, and on Instagram @amberjunedavis.