I have a lot of critique partners (CPs for short). It’s a lot of work to critique someone’s work properly, but you have to put in the time if you want someone else to do the same for you. (And you can learn a hell of a lot from reading other people’s writing.) My CPs are genius savior rock stars who easily number among the most important people in my life. If you plan to write anything (book, blog post, random email), take this advice if you take no other advice: GET A CRITIQUE PARTNER.
This post is about how to critique for someone in the most effective way. There are good ways to critique, and bad. Let’s talk about that.
First off, a proper critique generally doesn’t tell the writer that the manuscript is wonderful, perfect, better than J.K. Rowling, don’t change anything. This is not helpful. Or likely to be true. Almost all manuscripts can be improved. If you suspect that your writer friend wants only that kind of praise, tell her to send it to her mom or the friend who ignores her spinach-teeth.
Consider where in the editing process the manuscript you’re about to critique is. Is this the very first draft? If so, this is not the time to correct commas or make sure her Game of Thrones references are italicized. So much will be changed that there’s no point in worrying about this now.
What to look for in a first draft:
- A riveting beginning: does it start in the right place? Is there somewhere else that might be better? Are you confused by the action or bored by the lack of action? Are you confused by the number of characters introduced?
- Pacing: Does the overall action keep you turning pages? Are there slow or draggy spots? Is there a scene that goes by so fast it makes your head spin? Are there unnecessary scenes that do nothing to move the plot?
- Character: Do you like the main character? Can you root for that person all the way through? Are the secondary characters fully developed? Do you want more? Do their interactions make sense?
- Dialogue: Does it sound natural? Does it either forward the plot OR develop character?
- Structure: Does the timeline work? If there are alternating timelines or POVs, do they work? Do they balance reasonably? Are they distracting? Do the different POVs sound like different people?
- Conflict and Tension: Is there conflict? In every scene as well as overall? Is there anything the author needs to do to up the tension or sustain it?
- World-building: Does the setting make sense? If it is real, is it consistent with accepted reality and knowledge? Is the history accurate? If fantasy, is it consistent with the rules the author has made? Do you feel like you understand the rules the author has made?
- Continuity/Errors: Is the main character using a cell phone in 1992? Is someone playing baseball in December? Do anyone’s eyes change color?
- Consistent grammar problems: Are there examples where the author clearly does not know a particular grammar rule?
- Ending: Is it satisfying? Is there a climax or does the story just sputter to a halt?
If you find fault in any of these areas (and you should—a perfect first draft is rare as a unicorn), you are not doing anyone a favor if you keep silent about these things. BE HONEST.
There are ways to say this that are better than others. First: THE PRAISE SANDWICH. Point out what works. Add comments in line where you laughed or cheered or particularly enjoyed. Is a particular line that struck you as poetic or lyrical? A scene that you loved? Say so. This serves two purposes: first, it will make your friend happy and reassured that she hasn’t written the worst thing ever. Second, it will make it more likely that she’ll keep the good parts when she revises.
When you point out what doesn’t work, suggest alternatives. Don’t say you hated the ending without telling her nicely what about it didn’t work. It’s even better if you suggest a way that might be better. She may not take your suggestion, but you might have helped her come up with yet another way.
What to look for in a later draft:
- All of the above things. It’s still better to point these out before it goes out as a query or to an agent or to an editor, rather than not pointing it out at all. Sometimes well-intentioned revisions in one area can mess in a negative way with another area. She might have fixed the beginning but killed character development.
- Now it’s time to catch the line-edit-y things. Punctuation. Spelling. Typos. Paragraphing. Quote marks. Italicization. Here’s an aside: I don’t see myself as a line editor for my CPs when I read their work. They will correct these things on their own. They all know as much about mechanics as I do or more. If I see things like this, I’ll point it out, but usually by the later draft stage, they’ve fixed most of this.
After you send it back: Write an overall letter to let them know your thoughts. Think Praise Sandwich. Even if you don’t know what it was that bothered you about a particular section or character, say that you were bothered. Offer to bat ideas back and forth. Then be available to do that. Brainstorming with someone who’s read your work is invaluable.
An important thing to remember when you’ve critiqued a manuscript is that you have no right to expect or demand that all your suggestions are taken. In the end, the manuscript belongs to the person who wrote it. You are only volunteering your time to help them.
Bottom line. Critiquing is all about the Golden Rule. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done Unto You. I don’t send off my manuscripts to people to tell me they are wonderful as they are. (I have a mom for that.) I want them to help me make them better. I will never know everything I need to know. I want honesty with a dash of kindness and encouragement.