Working with Young Critters

Vaughn Ohlman  
Working with younger critters can be a challenge, and a wonderful opportunity. But it needs a different touch.

So, a bit of background. I am a bit of an eclectic writer, but the issue here was I was working on two kids’ Christian chapter books. One for a young audience, maybe 8-12 depending but younger kids like the book read to them; the other for a little older audience, maybe 14-16. The first is a historical fiction about four orphans in 1889, and the second is a near-future sci-fi about an autistic kid. Both are pretty overtly Christian but not all ‘get saved by the end of the book’. The books deal with issues like duty, grief, trusting God, and temptations.

Anyway, I wanted some young critters. What price getting forty-year-old women to tell me how they like my story about ten-year-old kids? (Although the older women have written some nice reviews). So my indie publisher hooked me up with some. 

But when I got my first crits back they were mostly of the ‘I liked it’ variety, which I didn’t find particularly helpful. And in my chats with their father, I came to understand that they had more that they thought about the books, but were having a difficult time expressing their thoughts.

So, after a few long chats with them and their father, we started working on ‘crit charts’ for young critters. These charts were specific to my books, and weren’t dealing with things like spelling and run-on commas or anything. I found them really helpful in encouraging my young critters to get out their thoughts on a story level.

The following sheet is the result of a combination of conversations, and a series of back and forth improvements. I hope it is helpful to you in jump starting your conversations with young critters.

Story Level Critiquing


I’m looking for story-level critique. This means that your comments should basically fall into the following categories:

  • Tension
  • Plot
  • Characters  
  • Setting

The worksheet at the bottom of this sheet gives some helpful questions that you can answer as you read each section. It is important to comment for each section. If you wait several sections then there might be a problem in one section that gets fixed in another, so you don’t bother to comment on the problem that you saw in the first section!

Let me explain about the various issues that are important to a story:

  1.  Tension

When you are reading the story there are actually three levels of tension, or problem, or worry, that are going on at the same time.  There is the tension that the characters have. Say Joe wants a new baseball. That is the character tension.

Then there is the tension that the author has. Say that the author is trying to suggest that Joe might steal a baseball.

Then there is the tension that you, the reader, actually have. Suppose you hate baseball, or the author just wrote the story badly, so you end up not caring if Joe gets a baseball. You think Joe is kind of a jerk so you don’t even care if he steals it!

It is important for the author to hear what you understand about all of these. You may not understand, because he wrote badly, that it is a baseball that Joe wants. You might not get it that Joe (or the author) is thinking about stealing. You may be all worried about how Joe is getting along with his friend, and neither Joe nor the author seem worried about that!

So when you ask what the ‘tension’ is, you first ask yourself ‘what does the character want right now?’. He may want a new shirt, a place to stay, food, a new friend… those are tensions. Or put in the negative ‘what is the character afraid of right now?’. He may be afraid of being bullied, of losing friends, of getting lost… those are tensions.

You list all of those. Then you ask, “What does the author want me to care about?” The character might want a new shirt, but you (as a reader) know that he is about to be kidnapped and maybe killed… so the author probably wants you to be worried about that… to care if the character is kidnapped or not. Killed or not. And maybe even if he gets his new shirt, too.

THEN you list what you actually care about. You don’t see why the kid needs a new shirt, he already has enough clothes and the shirt sounds dumb. You don’t like the kid so you don’t care if he gets kidnapped or even killed. But the kidnapper is using a ray gun that sounds kind of cool, so you want to hear about that.

  1.  Plot

When you tell a story it has to move along. If it moves too fast the readers will be upset, cause they wanted to learn more along the way (Lord of the Rings: Hobbit finds an evil ring. Destroys it. The end). If it moves too slowly then they are like, “I don’t care about this story anymore! The author just spent three chapters describing the buttons on this girl’s dress!”

Or it may be that a given section or chapter or whatever don’t really seem to move the story at all. It just seems outside of it.

  1.  Characters

Whenever an author writes, he has the characters in his head. But he needs to know how well they come across in his writing. Are they flat? Boring? Way too wild and unrealistic?

Are they different at all from each other, or does everyone sound the same, have the same emotions, talk the same, etc.?

  1.  Setting

All books take place somewhere. For some books, we really want to know what the place is like. What the characters wear, whether it is raining, etc. Too much and we are bored, too little and… we are bored :)

Story Level Worksheet

  1.  Tension

1: WORRIED ABOUT: What does what you just read make you worried about?

2: NOT WORRIED ABOUT: Do the characters or author want you to be worried about things you aren’t?

3: BETTER: How can the story have more tension?

  1.  Plot

4: SPEED: Did it move along at the right speed? Too fast (you want to know more about what happened)? Too slow?

5: BETTER: How can the plot be better?

  1.  Characters

6: LEARNED: What did you learn about the characters? How did learning that make you feel/think about them?

7: CHANGING?: Did they change a lot? Did they seem different from who they were before?


1) Do the characters present themselves as Christians? Which ones do, and which ones do not?

2) For Christian characters: What struggles are these characters having in their Christian life?

3) For Christian characters: What successes are they having?

4) For Christian characters: Do you disagree with this character as to what they *should be doing?*

9: BETTER: How could the characters be more interesting? 

  1.  Setting

10: LEARNED: What did you learn about the world?

11: DESCRIPTION LEVEL: Was there too much description/explanation or too little?

12: BETTER: How could the setting be more interesting? 


It is in worksheet form, and my critters send me back (by audio, that’s they way they want to work) their responses using the numbers. The quality of critting has improved tremendously. It isn’t perfect yet but, hey, we’re a work in progress!

I would love to know if this was helpful to you, and what experiences you have had with young critters.



Welcome back, @Von12 and thanks for providing such a useful critting guide. I know you say it’s for working with young critters, but I see how it can improve my critting and writing. You must be working with an excellent publisher. It was good of them to help you find critiquers in the age range you needed.


Jan-29 at 23:49


Yeah well, I didn’t want to suggest it for older critters because I was afraid that some of them would be offended. I was afraid that if they were old enough, then they would think that I was trying to lecture them about how they should be critiquing, which I think many of them would find offensive.

Jan-30 at 00:29
Click here to reply
Member submitted content is © individual members.
Other material ©2003-2024