Anna’s Rules for Giving a Professional Manuscript Critique

How to give a professional manuscript critique

Bookmark this page and the next time you need to give a critique, come back for a quick read through before doing your critique.

The writing world is more like a very small community.

Protect your reputation. Always come to the table prepared.

Your critique partners, editors, and publishers will thank you for it. Even better, you will be more likely to work in this industry if you have a reputation for being a professional: easy to work with and able to both give and take feedback.

1. Leave your ego at the door.

You might have seven Hugos, a New York Times Bestseller, and a bazillion Facebook fans, but rubbing that in someone’s face when all they want is a little help on their manuscript is pretty crappy. It’s about them, not you. Do not talk about yourself, your work, your agent, your publications, your editor, or your fans.

2. Leave your red pen at the door too.

You will have the temptation to correct every comma, period, and they’re/their/there. Resist that urge. There’s a huge difference between a copy edit, a line edit, and a content edit. Unless you’ve been asked to copy edit or line edit, don’t sweat the small stuff. When rewriting happens, huge chunks of material are cut and all your effort moving those commas will have been wasted time and effort. And you’ll come across as mean-spirited even if you have the best intentions in the world. Opening a document file and seeing nothing but a flood of corrections is demoralizing. Don’t do it.

3. Think about how you like to be treated.

I’m incredibly sarcastic and relatively thick-skinned. I can take some pretty scathing comments in a critique and not bat an eye. But that doesn’t mean the author I’m critiquing is the same way. We all have sore spots. You might have poured your heart out in a deeply personal passage that I, as the critiquer, know nothing about. If I tear it to shreds in a coldly insensitive way, I’ve not only torn up your story, but I’ve insulted you as well. Try to deliver your feedback in a professional, courteous way that leaves humor, sarcasm, anger, and irritation out of it.

4. Critique the work, not the author.

This is a tricky one. As writers, we tackle controversial topics every day–rape, abuse, child neglect, death, illness, political issues. Sometimes an author chooses to use a character to embody a position we don’t agree with or strongly object to. Sometimes this character will even be the main character. It can be quite difficult to separate your distaste for the topic from the writing style itself, and even from the author himself. There may be manuscripts you have to send back with a polite note saying, “Due to personal issues, I find I can’t be an objective reader for this manuscript, and you might be better served by finding another critiquer.”

5. Be prompt.

If you promise to have the critique back by next week, do your very best to have it done by next week. If life derails you and you can’t make your self-imposed deadline, let the author know. Chances are, they’re chewing their nails waiting to hear how their story is. Don’t keep them in suspense.

6. As you read, ask the important questions.

  • Do I believe this?
  • Do I care?
  • Did I see it coming?
  • What pulls me out of the story?
  • Where did I skim or have the urge to skim?
  • Am I satisfied with the (reaction/ending/character arc)?

7. Summarize your thoughts in a final note.

Try to pull together bigger issues you see.

  • Is there a character arc?
  • Did you believe the arc?
  • Does the arc feel faithful to the character?
  • Did you care about the character?
  • Are there any gaping plot holes?
  • Does the ending resolve the beginning conflict?
  • Is the final change absolute and irreversible?

8. Tell the truth.

If a story is broken, the author needs to know. Don’t laud praises on a story because your friend or your mother or your grandmother’s cousin wrote it. The only way to improve your craft is to see where you need to fix your work.

9. REMEMBER, TELL THE TRUTH IN A KIND AND PROFESSIONAL WAY.

10. Don’t rewrite the manuscript and don’t offer suggestions on how to fix the story.

Only the author can fix her story. It’s incredibly rude and grasping to rephrase, reword, rearrange, or otherwise, tinker with someone else’s prose unless you are specifically asked to do so. As in, “will you please move my words around because I’d like to see how you’d write my story.” which almost never happens.

11. Re-format the manuscript into a file type the author can open.

Don’t send anything back as a .gif or some old file only three people on the planet can open. Don’t ask if you can drive to her home and leave it in the mailbox or meet for coffee or be best friends forever. Just email the document back as a .doc or invite the author to your Google drive.

12. Make notes in the margin.

Most processing software (Word, Pages, Google Docs, etc.) allows the user to “Track Changes” or comment on the document itself. It’s important for the author to know the exact places in the story where you had each response. If you were bored and ready to skim ahead in paragraph three, make a note of it in section three. If there was a section in paragraph four that read like a modern telenovela when the story was supposed to be a 17th century period drama, make a note of it and explain which words or phrases caused that. If a vocabulary choice, name, pop culture reference, or anything else pulls your mind out of the story and sends you running down another thought path, make a note where and when that happens. These are the tiny things an author needs to know.

If you want me to personally critique your manuscript, head on over for availability and rates.

Looking for a critique partner? Head over to the forums and leave a blurb in the Critique Partner Wanted section. There are several. Pick the one that applies to the manuscript you have in mind (ie. Novel, short story, flash, non-fiction).

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