Critiquing Other People’s Writing: 7 Tips for Making Manuscripts Better

“Just shoot me now.”

A good critique may begin with this response, but soon the scolding red marks reveal overlooked obstacles to your work’s potential.

When you make friends with the red pen pointing out weak story points, redundancy or grammar errors, you give yourself the opportunity to grow as a writer and refine your final product. But is the job of the red pen wielder easier than that of the writer?

Mark Nichol of the Daily Writing Tips blog advises you make clear whether you’ve offered to evaluate a brief sample as a guide to help the person extrapolate what they should look for when they revise their draft. (If you’re asked to critique an entire book in-depth, Nichol says, you should do so only for pay or as part of a bartering arrangement, because you’re being asked to devote dozens of hours of your time.)

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear before we go any further: Critiquing is not the same as editing.  If your critique partner is “editing drastically,” the result is no longer a critique but a rewrite.

According to Nichol, the chief purpose of a fiction critique is to enable the writer to improve a manuscript by getting rid of:

  • unnecessary exposition
  • character inconsistencies
  • pointless dialogue

Thoughtful critiques from other writers can help the writer focus on essentials.

  • What exactly is the writer’s purpose?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • Does each chapter advance the plot?

Here are seven tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:

1. Tolerate the Task
When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)

2. General House-keeping
The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.

  • If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content.
  •  If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.

3. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer
Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help.

4. Start — and Stop — with the Positive
Begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.

5. Craft Your Critiques
Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.

6. Invite Questions
Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.

7. Know Your Limits
It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you intend to offer on the writer’s work.

Check in with the writer. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.

Want to read more? Check out this article  at “Critiquing” is not “Editing”. Mark Nichol is a freelance editor and writer and a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, edits trade and academic books for various publishers and publishes occasional articles about the Golden Age of Hollywood at Yahoo!’s Associated Content.


Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, Freelance Writing

8 responses to “Critiquing Other People’s Writing: 7 Tips for Making Manuscripts Better

  1. Great post and on the dot.

    But I will say that I disagree with “Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style.” to a large extent. In my experience with editing and critiquing, both formally and informally, it’s a slog through the bog to try to be helpful when you’re struggling to engage in the story. Certainly, if the writing itself is bad enough, any feedback will be a great help. But when the writing is solid, the reader is forced to inspect every comment he or she makes against the background of “Is this really a problem, or is this a question of me just not caring for the subject and style?”

    For example, I don’t enjoy certain genres. Let’s pick on Christian fiction as the scapegoat (or we could go with Mysteries). Even the best-selling examples I’ve tried in those genres have plodded for me. I can critique such a text in a helpful manner, sure, but there is no way I can suppress that sense of “I wish I were reading something else.” And that’s not a way I should be spending my free time.

    It opens the door to all sorts of frustrations, on my end and on the author’s end, ranging from lackluster motivation and delays in getting the feedback back to the writer, and making the entire exercise a demotivating experience for the person doing the critique.

    Feedback should not be a tedious chore for the person giving it; it should be a collaboration. The editor, agent, and reviewer should all be, ideally, as excited about the book’s potential as the writer. If that’s missing, then it’s not a good partnership.

    • Thank you so much for this thoughtful response! You make an excellent point and a solid argument. Ironically, this tip happens to be one of my favorites. For quite while, I edited a family of off-roading and car-related magazines (both trade and consumer). I can tell you with every assurance that while I was raised among diehard car buffs, I know nothing of the subject matter. This experience was eye-opening for me; It gave me a clarity, objectiveness and thorough eye I don’t think I personally would have had if I were familiar with the material. I painstakingly checked facts, names for people, tools and parts, and whether theories worked in practice, because it was a new frontier to me. All I’m asking is that you don’t discount that tip.
      Perhaps, in the case of fiction, it may be a different ballgame. I’m not a reader of fantasy and some genres of sci-fi, and so I may be confounded by the “rules” of space and mystical creatures (ie: what is acceptable, what is not). A pro romance reader can do wonders for a burgeoning romantic manuscript. A sci-fi buff can spot a black hole within the vacuum of tightly-wrought chapters. It’s best to find a critique partner familiar with your genre. That being said, if a writer friend asked me to critique her fantasy piece, I’d tell her as much with the caveat that an eye unfamiliar to the terrain sees what the established viewer might overlook.

      • I think your reply makes a key distinction between being unfamiliar with a subject or genre, and being uninterested in it (or, worst case scenario, actively disliking it). I’ve had great experiences going in blind too, and not knowing what to expect as I dove into a manuscript.

        I’m a regular spotter for my friend who is a professional science writer. What do I know about the HLC or the effect of asbestos on the lungs? Absolutely nothing, but I am able to offer strong feedback in terms of her article’s accessibly, cohesion, and structure (not to mention that I learn quite a lot while I’m wikipedia-ing my way through it).

        But if I were asked to give feedback on someone whose writing role-model is Hemmingway, it would have to be a friend or family member for me to consider it. Unfamiliarity can lead to a fantastic learning curve; slogging through active dislike leads to a fantastically disastrous splat. =-)

  2. Excellent point! I completely agree. Thanks for offering your experience. What are you working now? Are you editing or writing?

    • I have just finished editing a Fantasy eBook manuscript for Evelyn Zant (released just this month, actually), so I’m currently at loose ends, puttering around with reviews and catching up on my smaller projects, waiting for something larger to stroll on by.

      What about you?

  3. Sounds like an interesting project you just completed! I can tell by your thorough, thoughtful comments that you must be a talented editor. If I were having my work edited now, I would look for someone who can pinpoint and explain ideas as clearly as you. I trust an interesting, well-paying project will cross your desk soon.

    Currently, I am committed to writing a fiction novel. I’ve realized it is the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken–partly because that is the nature of novel writing, and partly because it requires so much of me personally. I’vw spent many years writing and reading nonfiction, and the emotional experience of placing the images in my mind on the page has been life-altering to say the least. It’s kind of like falling in love, but a whole lot messier. At least with writing I can always go back and take back the things I shouldn’t have said. 🙂

    • You’re very kind, and having read your pitch, certain that you are crafting a strong story. I’ve found in my experience that writers who cross the category divide between nonfiction and fiction carry strong writing skills and a certain acquired resistance to genre cliches. Your comments and thoughtful posts prove how right I am.

      Let me know if you if you’d like me to take a look at your pitch or an excerpt, and I’d be happy to give it a light poke with a fork.

  4. You are too kind! Yes, I would be delighted to have you read. Will be in touch. Best wishes to you.

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