How to Critique a Manuscript (and Still Stay Friends)

One of the best resources writers have for improving their craft is each other. By forming writing groups, writers can garner critiques of their manuscripts that they can use to revise their work before submitting it to a publisher. But in a writing group, in order to get critiqued, you must also give critiques, and if you want to remain a member of your writing group, this means learning to give constructive critiques.

Giving critiques is ridiculously intimidating. Writers always seem to say, “Give it to me straight; I can take it!” But give them what straight, and by what standards do they expect to be judged? And how are you supposed to focus on other people’s manuscripts, when you’re mostly worried about whether the other members are going to laugh you out of the group and splash horrifying stories about your manuscript all over the internet, maybe even with pictures, damaging your self-esteem forever and making you afraid to ever show your face or your writing to anyone else ever again?

I can’t help you with that last bit, but I can help give you a few guidelines for giving advice to fellow writers. Follow them, and I guarantee you’ll be on the road to being the most popular critiquer in your writing group in no time!

DON’T

1. Tell them they suck, even if they do. Brutal honesty is destructive, not constructive. Besides, everyone has to start somewhere, and the best teaching method has never been to pound a prospective student into the ground.

2. Blow smoke. Don’t tell someone their cow pie is really lemon meringue—because once they submit it, and everyone says it stinks, they will have no idea why, and worse, they will have no plan for what to do next. As a famous villain once said: “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying.” Giving someone a plan for how to improve their writing transforms failure into progress. Besides, if they’re asking for help, it is polite to assume they actually do want help, and not just to be told how wonderful they are.

3. Force a square peg in a round hole. Editing someone’s fantasy novel as though it were a thriller because you really prefer the thriller genre will only end in tragedy. Trust me.

4. Worry about commas in a first draft. Unless their spelling and grammar is really egregious or leads to misunderstandings about the story itself, the writer will likely be reworking the text enough that bothering with proofreading on first draft is not only unhelpful, but it might actually stop you from catching deeper problems. Instead, focus on character, story, and style.

5. Tell someone to quit. Writing is intensely personal, and only the writer in question can decide if they want to continue writing. If you feel like what they are striving for is not commercially viable, and they have expressed a desire to sell their work, discussing their goals is more appropriate than mangling their manuscript.

DO

1. Identify the writer’s goals. Until you know what the writer wants out of the writing group, you can’t help them. Consider the following questions: What stage is the manuscript in? Is the manuscript an exercise to practice a particular writing technique or is it being written for publication? What level of feedback are they looking for? How long has the writer been writing?

2. Identify the writer’s style. What genre do they write in? How does their manuscript align with their style, and with the established style? What other authors write in that style? What publisher is their work a good fit for? It is only once you know what an author is going for that you can help them achieve it. Otherwise, you could accidentally pull them further away from their goals.

3. Tell them what worked. Authors collect binary answers the way tourists collect kitsch. But “It sucks!” and “It’s awesome!” are both less than helpful. What is helpful is telling them when something they did worked for you, and where else in their manuscript you think they could employ those same successful techniques. Not only does this make them feel good, but it gives them a direction, and it builds upon the tools they already have.

4. Tell them how things made you feel. If something didn’t work for you, instead of simply telling them it is bad, tell them what your reaction was. Did all the description in the fight scene make you feel overwhelmed? That’s useful, because that’s likely not the outcome the writer was going for, and they now know that too much description can overwhelm a reader. Then the writer can tell you what they were going for, and experiment with ways to achieve that.

5. Always leave a way out. Every time you tell someone something negative, you place a barrier in front of them. At the end of a critique, it’s no wonder some writers feel trapped! It is very important both for their development as a writer and for their emotional health to provide them with a direction to go to improve their writing. For instance, do you have any books you can recommend to them? What authors write in a similar style or about similar subject matter? Do you have any writing exercises that you think would really help them?

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