Last Friday, I talked about the importance of finding good critics to help evaluate your manuscripts before you publish. This week, I want to discuss the other side of that issue. How can you be a helpful critic for your friends and fellow authors?
Let me confess right away that I am no expert on the subject. The thoughts I share today come solely from many years of trading manuscripts for review with other fiction writers. I should also mention that the following tips apply only to critiques done before publication. I’m not talking about reviews written on Amazon about a published book.
Tip number 1: Be kind. “Your writing sucks” is not a good way to start a critique. One primary goal of a critique, particularly of a work by a new or unpublished author, should be to encourage the person to keep writing. You want to help improve the manuscript, not make the new author walk away and take up a different hobby.
Tip Number 2: Good comments as well as bad. This tip is closely related to the first tip. While your critique can and should point out problems with a manuscript, you should also be quick to point out the things that were done right. Authors can learn just as much about their writing by understanding their strengths as they can from hearing the weaknesses. Does a particular turn of phrase work well in the context? Does a paragraph provide a vivid description or good characterization? Was there a clever plot element or a scene that evoked strong emotions? Make sure to let the author know those things in your critique.
An old friend and fellow author (who shall remain nameless for the moment because I forgot to ask her permission to post her name in this blog) uses a system of “bings” and “bangs” when critiquing fiction. The “bangs” are the negative comments, such as problems with the grammar or writing style in a particular sentence or paragraph. The “bings” are the good things the reviewer found. My friend uses exclamation marks to note the “bings” and often includes a short comment to explain why the bing is there (such as “good characterization” or a similar phrase). When I was just starting out as an author, those exclamation marks on my reviewed manuscripts were more precious than gold to me.
Tip number 3: Be specific: A critique which simply says, “The story is great!” is fine as an Amazon review, but not really helpful for an unpublished manuscript. The author needs to know what works in the story and what does not. A really useful critique addresses the specific good and bad things in the author’s characterization, plot, and sentence/paragraph structure (often by comments in the margins). Even when there are no typos or grammatical mistakes in a manuscript, there are almost certainly places where the text can be tightened or improved.
Tip number 4: Read through the manuscript twice: This is a practice I always try to follow when I have time. During the first review, I enjoy the story as a reader would, without looking for specifics. Of course, I will note any typos or grammatical errors I find along the way, but my purpose is to see how the fiction fits together as a whole.
During the second review, I look at the language in detail and try to catch any typos or other mistakes I missed during the initial read-through. Often I will examine specific parts of the story based on problems I saw. For example, if I found a particular scene confusing or boring during the first reading, I try to analyze what was written to find out why. Is there a confusing sentence or paragraph that could be rephrased? Is there unnecessary language that could be cut?
And, of course, I note the things done well with those wonderful exclamation marks and comments in the margins.
Tip number 5: Be tolerant of the other author’s voice: As you do your review, be aware that there are many different styles of writing, all of which are equally valid. Even when a particular scene or phrase does not work or you, that does not mean it is “wrong” and must be changed. During our Emerald Cove meetings, it is common for one of us to criticize a particular part of a manuscript, only to have others disagree.
One final observation about critiquing another writer’s unpublished manuscript: Often it provides a benefit to you as well. By thinking about and commenting on what another author has done right and wrong, you can apply the things you’ve seen to your own writing.