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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 DailyWritingTips.com: “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.

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