Manuscript Critique: Learning From Other’s Impression of Your Draft

Posted on Aug 19, 2021

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Have you written your first, second–maybe nineteenth–draft of your book, and you know the next step is to hire an editor but you’re a little nervous to drop all that money just yet? You might be ready for a manuscript critique!

The manuscript critique usually fits best after the self-edit and before the professional edit.

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What is a Manuscript Critique?

A manuscript critique is either a paid or free service where a person reads over your book and gives their opinion. It might be structured, where you have a list of interview questions or an outline for them to complete after they’ve read it, or it might be casual–like a friend reading over your current draft and giving you a couple thoughts.

The most common manuscript critique form you’ve likely heard of is beta readers. Beta readers are volunteers who read your book and give you feedback. If you’re looking for more in-depth and qualified advice, you might hire a professional manuscript critiquer.

Should I get a Manuscript Critique for My Book?

Every author has a different process for completing a book, but I haven’t met anyone who couldn’t benefit from a manuscript critique. After sitting with our own projects for so long, we tend to become a bit myopic about it, missing the bigger issues and losing track of what’s actually on the page and what’s just in our heads. This is where those crucial readers come in, before you go through the excruciating process of editing a book, and WAY before you publish it.

So should you get a manuscript critique? Probably! But what type of critique, how many rounds, and how you structure it depends on you, your preferences, and your goals with the book.

Manuscript Critique

What’s the difference between a book critique and a book edit?

An editor has a very important job, typically with a very important price tag attached. When you’re paying hundreds to thousands of dollars for a professional edit, you probably expect an extremely thorough job (and you should!).

A manuscript critique is more casual (thus cheaper–or free, like with beta readers). While an editor will go through your manuscript multiple times with a fine-tooth comb for things like grammar issues, historical and technical accuracy, etc., someone critiquing your book will focus on things like overall plot, flow, and character arcs.

Basically: an edit looks with a microscope, a critique looks with a raw human eye.

How do you critique a book?

If you’re interested in a manuscript critique, but you’re not quite sure what it would involve–or if you’re even planning on offering this as a service yourself–let’s talk about what it actually is, step-by-step.

Critiquing can be as subjective as reading, so I’ll tell you how I do book critiques to give you an idea of what that might look like.

1. Taking into account what type of feedback the author wants

When taking on a new client, I ask them what they expect from my feedback, which aspects of their book they think are weak or just aren’t sure of, and sometimes I’ll ask deeper questions after I’ve read the piece to determine their goals and what they want the story to accomplish. That way, I can confirm if those goals have been met or give suggestions for hitting those goals.

While a general critique without knowing the author’s goals is helpful to get that unbiased reader effect, it’s also helpful afterward to see if what you got from your read aligns with what the writer was trying to do.

2. In-line comments

As I’m reading through the manuscript, I’ll make in-line comments on the document. These can be reactions, observations, or predictions. This is also where I mark up awkward wording, grammar issues, and other line edits I notice.

Since this is a critique and not an edit, I only mark grammar mistakes as I see them–I’m not carefully checking for them. But if I notice something as I’m reading, I go ahead and mark that for my clients so they’ll end up with a book that’s cleaner and a little cheaper to edit when they do get to that step in the process.

3. Running list of things

I like to keep a separate document as I read with headings like Plot, Characters, Flow, Prose, and any other categories that feel relevant for that manuscript and writer. This way, I can jot notes as I think of them to prepare for my write-up at the end of the critique. I also keep notes of what the writer asked me to look out for so I can make sure I’m hitting those points. The running list makes it easy to be sure I haven’t forgotten anything, especially for those longer manuscripts that might take me a few weeks to finish.

4. Write-up

The final step is the write-up. This is where I give a thorough rundown of what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t. I try to give a few suggestions for ways authors can tackle certain problems, but I avoid giving direct fixes. If you ever receive a critique from someone who tells you exactly how to “fix” your book, that’s usually them projecting their own style and taste onto your story. While their solutions might be absolutely fine, be sure to follow your gut. It’s your story, and you know what you want it to be better than anyone else could.

5. Q&A

Often, clients will have follow-up questions or things they’ll need clarified. This can be as simple as clarifying what one of my editor shorthand terms means (WC = word choice, for example) or as complicated as breaking down their plot beat-by-beat to find weak spots.

On my website, I suggest that writers take time to sit with my feedback before they reach out with questions for a few reasons. One reason is that our gut reaction to critique is usually to be defensive. If a client is offended by my feedback, they often just need a few days to set aside their initial instinct to fight in order to be receptive to another opinion. Another reason is that it’s much more time effective on both of our ends if they compile all of the questions they have for me to address into one email, instead of having a back-and-forth thread for several days.

What if I get a bad book critique?

Even if you do your due-diligence in researching the critique services, finding reviews, asking around, and doing all you can to make sure you’re hiring a qualified person–sometimes it just goes poorly. So how can we tell if the critique is bad or if we’re just being too sensitive about our work? It can be tough, especially because writing and reading are both incredibly subjective, and because we can get so close to our own writing.

Here are a few things you can keep in mind to help determine that distinction.

1. If you haven’t taken a few days to sit with it, your perception might be the issue

It’s very easy for us to jump on the defense if we get unexpected feedback from a critique. Try to remember that you’re paying this person, and you’ve done what you could to screen and select someone capable–so are you sure the feedback is wrong, or are you just hurt? If it still feels wrong after you’ve set aside your personal feelings and gave it a few days to air out, let’s look at some other ways you can tell if feedback might not be accurate.

2. If they give you exact fixes

An example of a good critique: “Character A and Character B’s dynamic confused me–if they were so close in childhood, neither has had a major character or outlook change, and there was no event to make them enemies, the present feud didn’t track for me. It felt forced, and I was expecting some kind of reveal to explain it, but I never noticed one.”

Example of a bad critique of the same problem: “Character A and Character B’s relationship doesn’t make sense. Write about their moms having an affair that gets revealed and breaks up both of their parents–then they’ll have a reason to hate each other.”

Like I mentioned earlier, if you’re ever getting an exact solution to a problem, take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes I’ll leave a few specific suggestions if an interesting one occurs to me, but it really comes down to the way it’s framed–is it a suggestion, or are they telling you exactly what your story needs?

3. If their feedback is needlessly mean

And of course, sometimes even kindly phrased critiques can have a bite to them, but if your editor or critiquer is just not bothering to phrase things nicely, you might think about hiring someone else in the future.

Example of a kindly phrased critique: “I think we can add some backstory to Character A to add depth and intrigue.”

Example of a needlessly mean one: “Your characters are boring. I wasn’t engaged with a single one of them, and I found myself nodding off.”

Both examples address the same problem, but the first one does it in a way that opens conversation, not scare off and shame the writer. Make sure you and your writing are respected, even when you’re paying for feedback.

4. If they fundamentally misunderstand the story

This one is difficult to spot! I’ve had stories on both ends–as a reader and a writer–where the point just didn’t come across. Communication is a two-way street. Someone has to convey the information, and someone has to receive it. If the message is misconstrued, that could be a problem on either or both sides. So how do you know if the story doesn’t make sense, or if the critiquer just doesn’t get it?

One hint that the critiquer just doesn’t understand, is if they’re outside of your target demographic.

For example, if you’re writing a young adult sci-fi adventure for queer kids and you’ve hired a fifty-year-old, heterosexual reader who specializes in historical fantasy–it’s pretty likely they’re not going to understand what you’re trying to do. Avoid this problem by hiring a reader who enjoys your genre and is ideally close to your target demographic. If they’re not in your target demographic, they should have experience reading and critiquing it.

If your reader is in your target demographic, has experience in the genre, and really has no reason not to misunderstand the book, your next question should be if other readers understood it. If you’ve already done several beta rounds with 30+ readers and the majority of them fully grasped and enjoyed the story, maybe the misunderstanding is on your critiquer’s side.

If you’ve only shown the story to a couple of people and one was your mom who said it was “super neat,” maybe side with the critiquer and give it another look. One way I avoid this problem is by asking beta readers to give a quick summary of the story and themes. That way you know if their feedback is founded, because they have an accurate grasp of the story.

Those are some of the basics of manuscript critiques! What do you think? Are manuscript critiques for you?

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