Give It to Me Straight: The Cardinal Rules of Critiquing for Writers
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.
That means, when you see something you don’t like, don’t just tell them “this sucks”—even if it does. Instead, look for a place that same thing is done well elsewhere in the book, and point that out. Then recommend they fashion the thing you didn’t fancy after the thing you did. Another option is to figure out who their writing is most similar to, and recommend they try some of the techniques that author used.
Don’t Blow Smoke
Don’t tell someone their cow pie is really double-fudge—otherwise, they and everyone they serve up steaming slice will be shocked and horrified to discover your sweet betrayal. Instead: be honest. If something doesn’t work for you, point it out—and if something does work for you, point that out too. Obviously, don’t be a jerk about it. But it’s just as jerky to tell a naked emperor he’s wearing clothes as it is to point and laugh.
Saying you love or hate someone’s book can make or break their day—but being specific can make or break their book. So instead of offering (un-) pleasantries, try telling them exactly what worked or didn’t work for you, how it made you feel, why you think it made you feel that way, and some ideas for how they could change it to make you feel differently. Circle words if you can, underlining the exact moment things went astray. That way, even if you misunderstand their aim, the writer can use your feedback to understand where, how, and why their intentions succeeded—or failed to translate onto the page. Either way, your feedback is actionable and valuable in a way vagaries will never be.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
This is no place for commas, young lady! Unless the irregular use of commas has you rolling your eyes in your head, unable to understand a word that’s on the page, check your CMS at the door. Likewise, don’t bother with spelling errors, and grammar goofs, and other cosmetic errors. Chances are, if this is a first draft, all that’s going to be rewritten at some point anyway.
This is the place to think big. Think about the overall plot: are there holes, or any parts that drag, or feel out of place? Think about the characters: do you relate to them, find them compelling, and do they have clear goals and character development? How was the tone, flow, and voice?
Tell Them What You Loved
It’s a proven fact that telling people when they do something you like is the most effective way to get more of what you like--even if it’s not perfect. If you take a shine an otherwise unlikeable character’s sense of humor, point that out! Have them pull that humor to the forefront. Most people spend their whole lives being told what sucks in their writing—and don’t have a clue what worked. Which means they’re just as likely to throw out the good stuff as the bad, unless you let them know what parts are keepers.
Questions to Ask Before Critiquing
1. What genre is your piece?
2. What is your target audience?
3. What stage is your manuscript in?
4. What do you want to get out of this critique?
5. What are your goals for your manuscript?
6. Do you have any special concerns with this manuscript?