Getting Your Critique On

I only know one way to critique a manuscript, and that’s with a nervous heart.

Critiquing is a serious, sometimes tricky, business and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If someone trusts you enough to show you their work, consider it a privilege. Give the task the same level of respect you afford your own writing, and embrace the idea that you might be unsure of the feedback you’re giving even as you give it.

The important thing to understand is that what an author really wants is an alternate perspective. They’ve probably spent a long time with this story in their head, and now they need to put it in someone else’s hands for a while. Respect their efforts, and do your best to give them an honest assessment of their work.

At the same, though, you need to remember that no two critiques are the same. Each should be tailored to the author of the work you’re reading, and you’ll have to consider both what the writer wants and what they are able to process.

To a certain extent, the criticism you offer is shaped by the requests of the author, and it’s always a good idea to discuss expectations at the beginning of the critiquing process. Not everyone will be looking for the same thing from feedback.

Some might want your thoughts on their overall plot. Where are the holes? Which characters are acting illogically? At what points do you, the beta reader, find yourself saying, “Now that’s some bullshit right there.” (It’s totally an industry term. Feel free to look it up.)

Still others will want you to be picky and point out repetitive word use, improper grammar, and those passages where they went a little crazy with their commas and the page looks like a Flowers for Algernon remix.

If an author does not come right out and tell you what they want from your critique, don’t be afraid to ask. If they’re still sketchy about their goals, even after these discussions, it’s perfectly okay for you to set the parameters. Just don’t be a jerk about it.

Baseline expectations are the easy aspect of a critiquing partnership, and they should be managed whenever possible. Understanding the skill level of the author is sometimes the trickier part of beta reading.

I have critiqued experienced authors with whom I could have in-depth discussions about character motivation and backstory. There have been others who lacked a basic understanding of scene and sequel, so our conversations were far different.

Regardless of a writer’s skill level, the general rule of thumb for criticism is: Don’t be a dick. (That pretty much works for life too. Feel free to try it out.)

Be honest but remain constructive. Try to point out specific areas in the manuscript that illustrate concerns you have about the story. Whenever appropriate, feel free to offer suggestions and ideas that might enhance the plot, but do not use the margins to rewrite the author’s work. That’s neither your job nor your place, and more likely than not, you’re just rewriting the author so they’ll sound more like you.

If you want a clone, have a kid. (Or don’t. You seem to have control issues. That might not work out so well.)

Last thing: Do not give false hope, but do find at least one positive thing to say. Writing is lonely work that is largely populated by people who seem addicted to insecurity. We already believe we suck, and regardless of how nice you phrase your comments, the “opportunities for growth” you point out in our manuscript will reaffirm to us how hopeless our writing endeavors are.

Critiques are not always about what went wrong, but there is sometimes a tendency to focus on that aspect of a manuscript.

Give your author at least one reason to keep going. Even if most of the manuscript needs a major overhaul, find that one line that really worked. Point it out, tell them “good job,” and then explain why you liked it.

It will make a world of difference.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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