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The Art of Criticism

How to Critique a Manuscript

Writing is often a solitary pursuit, done in the wee hours of the morning or night, lit only by the screen of your laptop. It’s a labor of love that eventually produces a manuscript and eventually requires fresh eyes to read and review. 

One of the most nerve-wracking parts of being an author is sharing your book for feedback. Ideally, you have a trusted critique partner (CP) who you know will provide you with positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. That partnership means you return the favor and give notes on your CP’s manuscripts too. 

Many of us have experience a tough critique—maybe even a scathing one—and oftentimes they can do more harm than good. Let’s talk about what makes for a helpful manuscript critique, so you can be a good CP in the future (and find the right CP for your work). 

Use Track Changes
It’s elementary, my dear Watson, but it’s worth noting here. Track Changes is one of the simplest and most powerful editing tools for providing a critique, allowing you to make in-line edits and provide notes down to the sentence level. If you aren’t yet familiar with Track Changes, take a quick online tutorial and start practicing before your next critique. 

Write a Letter (or an Email)
I always write an edit letter while I’m working on a manuscript. The document begins with notes as I’m reading the text, and evolves into a full letter by the end of my time with the story. (That way I’m not trying to remember everything I wanted to say when I’m done.) 

Edit letters are incredibly helpful because they give you space to talk about the good, bad, and ugly of the story outside the margins of the manuscript. These letters also allow you to articulate your feedback better than you could do face-to-face. Find a sample here

Use the Sandwich Method
You may have learned the sandwich method in high school English: point out a positive, then a negative, then a positive. We authors can be sensitive creatures, especially when our art is under fire. Studies have shown people need between five and seven positive comments to outweigh a single negative one. Yikes! 

Yes, a critique is generally focused on finding the mistakes and the areas that need help, but your CP needs to know what’s working just as much as they need to know what isn’t working. You don’t need to highlight every great sentence or fantastic scene, but do call out passages that move you, and tell your CP about characters or plot lines you especially liked.
 

Ask for Direction

Sometimes a CP just wants a fresh pair of eyes on their story. Sometimes they have detailed worries, insecurities, or questions about the book. Before diving in, check with your CP to see if they want you to look for something specific, or if they are seeking general feedback. If they do have specific questions, be sure to address those and other elements of the story. 

Constructive Criticism Is Essential
It can be easy to point out the flaws of a manuscript, even if it’s a very good one. But saying, “I don’t like this scene” doesn’t help your fellow writer. Instead, explain why the scene isn’t working—the characters are acting strangely, a plot hole has arisen, etc.—and how they could fix it. 

You don’t have to solve every single issue you find in a manuscript, but part of giving a critique is also providing feedback about how to improve. Most importantly, it is your job to give that feedback in a constructive, positive fashion. That kind of critique may take more time and thought, but it will be invaluable to the writer. 

Remember: You Know the Author
As you work on a critique, remember that you have a personal relationship with your CP. You may be friends, colleagues, book club buddies, or maybe even spouses or family members. Think about your tone and word choice, and tailor your critique to your CP. Give them the encouragement or constructive criticism they need in the way that will best inspire them to keep writing.
 

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Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

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Jillian Bergsma Manning is a contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She loves reading and writing but not arithmetic. Follow her on Twitter at @LillianJaine or on her blog at www.editorsays.com.

 


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