The hands-down scariest moment of writing is when you first hand the fruits of your labor to a reader. And for good reason! You bared your soul and poured your heart into your manuscript. Lost sleep over it. Cried tears of frustration, sweat, and blood over it. And the moment it leaves your hands—it’s no longer under your control. It’s in the hands of someone who hasn’t the barest inkling of how important it is to you. Someone for whom your manuscript is just a stumbling block on the path to LOLcats, or an actual block to set their computer monitor on. Or worse: something to be read aloud and mocked to all their friends—to everyone on the internet!—using funny voices and puppets, reducing all your hard work to a moment’s conversation fodder and leaving everyone laughing at the paucity of your heart and soul.
No one can imagine the possibilities like a creative writer. But really, the reader isn’t the enemy—and good first readers aren’t either. They are, in fact, your first line of defense against being puppetified. A good reader sees the dream behind your manuscript and helps you achieve it. They point out where things are confusing, and where things could be even better. They see the awesome potential in characters and plots and show it to you so you can take advantage of it. And they also let you know when your darlings are showing, or when you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe.
In short, a good first reader is a Writer’s BFF. But critiques, often the first step before seeing a professional editor, are a two-way street! And if you’re going to find a good WBFF, you need to be a good WBFF. Which means learning how to give an insightful, actionable critique without turning into the unfeeling, puppetifying demon you first imagined your reader to be. Developing solid critiquing skills is a lot of work—but being on both sides of the red pen has real advantages. First of all, learning to critique means you know what to look for in a WBFF. Secondly, developing a relationship with someone you can trust to give you honest feedback sucks the fear out of first reads, and will help your writing improve by leaps and bounds. And, aside from all that, having empathy for the other side of the red pen will help you put what feedback you receive to the best use. There's nothing like practice to hone that skill. That being said, here are five cardinal rules to critiquing to get you started.
Remember all that fear you had about showing someone else your work? You are not alone. So don’t justify that fear! Instead, remember that even if it’s not to your taste, they worked damn hard on it, and it took a great deal of courage and determination for them to show you their manuscript.