When I was handed back my chapter with two comments and a large smiley face on it, I realized that giving meaningful feedback on writing is a skill.
It’s fascinating how people naturally gravitate to a certain kind of editing. I am all about characters. The places where the author can naturally expand on their characters’ interior stand out to me like neon signs on a dark street, but plot? Plot is not my wheelhouse. I need plot-minded people to scribble all over my manuscript with comments like “WHERE DID GAVIN GO??” to remind me that I’ve accidentally dropped an entire storyline.
Start with Your Own Strengths
Figure out what your strengths are–are you a plot person? Character? Structure/grammar?
Then ask what the writer wants. You’ll want to know if you should be reading for something specific and what level and amount of critique they are looking for. This is an important step… I may have accidentally made someone (ok, multiple people) cry because I shredded their manuscript when really they just wanted affirmation. So, do your friends a favor and figure out what they actually want out of your critique.
General Rules of Editing
Unless you’ve been given a specific editing task by the writer, read the manuscript through the lens of plot, character, and structure. And as you go along, make sure to take note of your emotional reactions as a reader– the writer will want to know where you started to lose interest, where you connected, what sparked emotion in you, and what your impressions are of events and characters. It will likely surprise them.
I’ve included some guiding points for each category below, but if you feel confident in that already, skip down to the end!
- Reasons for what’s happening
- Jumps in logic
- Events without build-up
- Dropped storylines
- Compelling premise and storyline
- Mix of action and development
- What do you want more of as a reader?
- How do the characters come across?
- Openings to deepen/explore characters’ interiors
- Development or lack thereof
- Flaws, conflict, fear, quirks, favorites
- Large chunks of dialogue or description
- Transitions and passage of time
- Spelling and grammar errors
- Repetition and proximity of words and phrases
“The key to helpful critiques is to balance praise and critique.”
Too much encouragement is sweet but unhelpful. Too much critique is thorough but can cause despair (but seriously, if there’s tons of critique without affirmation, the writer will probably toss out all of your edits which means that you just wasted a lot of time and effort).
I usually start my critiques with a comment at the top that affirms that I think they are a good writer and I am only suggesting things that I have full belief that they can accomplish. I also add the disclaimer that these are my opinions and they may throw out anything they don’t want to use (lessons from causing tears).
I hope this gives you some tools to tackle people’s manuscripts (or your own) in a powerful way. I can’t even express how grateful I am for all of the people who have faithfully read through my story and taken the time to give me constructive feedback.
And I’m always looking for ways to get better at critiquing, so please comment if you have any additions, thoughts, or questions!
Happy editing! Abigail Signing off.
3 thoughts on “How to Critique a Manuscript”
I love this little guide. I feel like recently I’ve been drawn to a lot of posts about how to be a good (or better) beta or editor. Since I love editing but I’m primarily a grammar nazi (I’ll wear that title with pride) I want to improve in all the other areas, but can be harder for me to pin down when I’m reading someone else’s work. These questions are fantastic to keep in mind while I read others’ stories!