1. Respect the author and the manuscript. Before delving in, remind yourself that the manuscript you’re looking over isn’t your story and neither is it likely to be written in your voice. While you’ll only ever have your opinion, it helps if you are able to approach the manuscript not as a general reader, but from the writer’s point of view, attempting to see what the writer is trying to express through their work. Rather than offering what you think should be portrayed in the words, try to work out what you think the writer is trying to portray and then, based on that, offer your opinion.
2. Tread lightly. Treading lightly is especially important with relatively new writers or writers who have never experienced a critique before. Be mindful that the writer is a real person with real feelings and their manuscript is often their precious baby they have entrusted into your hands. Your valid opinions will have a greater chance of being heard if they are delivered in a thoughtful manner.
3. Avoid assumptions. If you happen to spot a broken writing rule, don’t assume the writer made a mistake. Perhaps the writer broke the rule on purpose. Ask yourself what the author was trying to convey. Did the author achieve their goal? Don’t make assumptions about the characters either. Perhaps the author has a grand plan in mind which will be revealed later in the text.
4. Offer concise comments. When you make a comment or change the text, make sure you clearly communicate the reason. If it’s about personal taste, then it helps to offer why. This gives the author a chance to see where you are coming from, to get to the heart of the issue. The author knows the manuscript far better than you do, so what you think might be the issue, may only be a pointer to the actual problem.
5. Offer suggestions. If you do see a problem, your job isn’t done once you’ve pointed it out. It’s especially helpful to the writer to hear possible suggestions on how to fix the problem. The writer may not follow those suggestions, but they might inspire a whole new solution. Hearing the suggestions might also give the writer a greater insight into the problem.
6. You are a critique partner, not an editor. You may not have the same vision for the piece as the writer, but that shouldn’t get in the way of your job, which is working within the bounds of the writer’s vision. If you can see a path that’s different, by all means share it, but make sure you justify your reasons for the suggestion otherwise the writer could be left in the dark as to why you feel a change would be appropriate.
7. On Grammar. If you are going to correct the writer’s grammar, please make sure you have checked the rules first. Too often I’ve seen critique partners ‘correct’ already correct grammar. And if you are the writer who has been critiqued, always double check the grammar that’s been corrected. Don’t assume your critique partner is right.
8. Follow instructions. Sometimes a writer is after a specific kind of critique. They might not be after all that little stuff like sentence construction, rule hunting, or even grammar. They might have just finished a messy first draft and needs someone to cast their eye over the bigger devices such as the general plot, the pace, the character arcs. If you then offer observations on the little details, you are wasting both your time and the writer’s.
9. Praising what works is as important as spotting what doesn’t. This is not about stroking the writer’s ego, or softening the blow for a later critique. It’s helpful to know what is working in the manuscript. It can often bring insight into the reader where the writer couldn’t see before.
10. Return the manuscript in a timely manner. The best critique partners are fast workers, but not everyone has the time to churn out a carefully considered collection of comments. This is fine, so it helps if you can agree how long the critique might take. If you are delayed, then let the writer know. If you are a slower critiquer, then it also helps to return portions of the manuscript at a time so the writer isn’t waiting around for the full finished piece. This way the writer can start working on the first part while you continue to critique the next part.
What do you look for in a good critique partner? If you are looking for a partner, then don’t forget the IWSG Critique Circle on Facebook.
Lynda R. Young