Why a Manuscript Critique Is a Critical Step for Writers

Critique. Does this word make you cringe? Perhaps it sounds too much like another word that has a negative connotation: criticism.

Yet, as authors we understand the need to have another pair of eyes look closely at our manuscript and give us constructive advice and direction so we can make our book the absolute best it can be.

But an unprofessional, misguided, or inconsiderately toned critique can cause great heartache and discouragement, so should we really risk our already fragile writer’s ego and let someone tear our precious work apart? Will a good critique be worth not just the money but the emotional cost?

Some copyeditors claim you should critiques are a waste of time. They say all you need is to get your book edited by a copyeditor and fix all the grammatical mistakes. And it’s true that getting a thorough copyedit is essential.

But few writers think about getting their book critiqued first. However, in my thirty+ years of experience with writing novels,  becoming a multipublished author, and working professionally as a copyeditor and writing coach in the publishing industry, I have come to conclude that most authors—whether a new writer or seasoned published author—need a professional critique and preferably in the early draft of their manuscript.

But Critiques Are Subjective!

Sure, critiques are subjective. But when your novel or nonfiction manuscript lands on a literary agent’s desk, or is placed in an acquisition editor’s hands, it will be read subjectively as well. And then there are all those readers out there who will be subjectively responding to your work.

But here’s the thing authors need to understand: a professional in the publishing industry will temper a subjective read with years of experience; an understanding of current market needs and trends; establish or accepted writing styles, structure, and formatting; and a honed sense for an original and compelling writer’s voice.

There is no such thing as an objective critique, but that should not be an issue. Getting an insider’s take on just how well your book holds up is invaluable and can save you months or even years of submitting a flawed manuscript and getting back dozens of rejections without knowing why—or self-publishing and getting scathing or apathetic reviews—leaving you more discouraged than ever.

When you look for someone to critique your “baby,” I would encourage you to look for someone who is not only interested in helping you make your book shine but wants to help you make it all you envision. A supportive critiquer will encourage you, instruct you, and help you along this rocky road.

A good critique should not come across as a nice pat on the back with a few muttered words like “Good job. Keep it up.” It should thoroughly address all the major elements in your novel or nonfiction manuscript, and preferably using an annotated style (with comments along the margins of each page) rather than just an overall summary at the end of your manuscript or in a separate document.

And a good critiquer will not try to change your writer’s “voice” or writing style but seek to enhance your uniqueness.

We writers grow attached to our words, and an insensitive editor can cause a lot of pain. More than one author friend or client has cried to me in anger, frustration, and a readiness to give it all up after being handed an insensitive critique. Often these critiques are full of negative remarks with little constructive advice, examples of how to reword a sentence better, or explanations as to why a passage does not work well.

It takes courage to hand your project over to someone—this book you’ve spent months or perhaps years writing, sweating over, all the while second-guessing yourself and the merits of your book, only to have someone heartlessly rip it to shreds. For that’s our greatest fear—that despite all our hard efforts, we may have produced something that should go in the round file.

Be Ready to Work

I find the greatest satisfaction in helping my clients with their manuscripts—and I’ve worked on a couple of thousand! I have seen some of the worst manuscripts—poorly constructed, wordy, almost unreadable—turned into beautiful, well-crafted books that their authors are proud of.

I have gone on to see many of my clients get agents, land contracts, and get published because they were willing to work hard to take their rough work and perfect it to the best of their ability. These authors show they are dedicated and willing to learn and listen.

But I wonder how many (or few) of them would have dug in to their necessary revisions had they been treated insensitively by a critique. Of course, there is no guarantee that if you follow all the suggestions in your critique that you will get an agent, land a book contract, or zoom to the top of the best-seller lists.

So many variables affect those outcomes. But applying yourself to make the changes suggested in a good critique will stretch you and teach you how to be a better writer, and as you apply the things you learn, your chances of reaching your dreams will improve immensely.

Do I Really Need One?

Your critique will give you the help you need to get your manuscript or proposal in shape. Your book is competing with hundreds of thousands of others to grab the attention of an agent, publishing house, or reader, so you want to do everything you can to make sure your proposal, query letter, synopsis, book description, and book itself stand out from the rest.

Agents and editors look for a professionally prepared package and will reject submissions that are not outstanding. Many agents and editors I’ve spoken with say when they receive a submission package, they go right to the manuscript sample.

Certainly, the query letter and synopsis must be written well, to the point, and without errors, but your chapters are what those pros are going to focus on, and especially your first few pages. A good critiquer will spend time helping you really nail down those first few pages so that your hook, voice, and opening scene really grab their interest. If they don’t, chances are that agent or editor will read no further, so a critique is the first important step you can take to ensure your nonfiction book or novel will have a chance of being picked up.

So, if you’ve decided maybe you do need to take this first step, do some research and ask possible editors you are considering hiring for testimonials from clients. Start a dialogue with the editor to see how friendly, accommodating, understanding, and compassionate he or she comes across. And take a look at their concrete experience and influence in the publishing industry.

However, don’t expect them to drop everything and answer dozens of emails packed with lengthy questions. Don’t expect them to be available to talk on the phone either. Often clients, in their need to be assured an editor will be right for them, expect the editor to push aside whatever she is doing at any given moment to attend to their needs and questions.

A potential client wants to feel safe and needs to build a measure of trust with the professional she is dealing with, and that’s understandable. But we editors are busy—not just editing but with our personal lives as well.

Most editors I know don’t ever give out their phone number to their clients. I, too, prefer to keep all correspondence in writing so that I can refer back to what’s been discussed regarding a project and what type of editing service or concerns he or she has.

With dozens of clients being attended to—new clients about to start with me or long-time clients coming back with more projects for me to edit—I can’t keep every detail clear in my mind and need to refer back to email correspondence.

Some clients really do have a need to talk on the phone or have Zoom sessions throughout the editing process, and if you’re one who needs that vocal interaction, understand that you are using your editor’s valuable time, so if you are asked to pay for that time, don’t bristle or complain. Your lawyer will charge you (a hefty fee) to talk on the phone per hour, and it’s also common practice for editors to likewise charge clients for phone consultations that exceed more than just a few minutes here and there.

So once you find an editor that seems a good match, send them your manuscript and let them do their job. Answer any questions they may have to better help them understand your objectives in your story. If you can provide them with a synopsis or story summary (for a novel) or a book proposal (nonfiction), that’s a great help. Then, when your critique is done, take all the suggestions to heart and make the changes you feel will best suit your writing style and story.

Not every comment included in your critique will work for you. But you’re the author and it’s your book, so weigh each suggestion and trust your intuition. As long as you keep your mind and heart open to ways to improve, your critique will feel less like criticism and more like a gift.

Learn to Give Constructive Critiques

Often, writers will join critique groups or get a critique partner, and having some great author friends who are good at giving constructive suggestions can be a real blessing. They get familiar with your style and know your voice. And because they know you as well, they can often spot areas in your writing that just don’t sound right, or where you could do better.

But have you thought about your role as a critiquer and what kind of advice you want to give? The adage “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” really applies here. Do you really want someone to read your chapters and just say “good job” without being honest about the problem areas they see?

On the other hand, even though you want them to point out your weaknesses, you certainly don’t want them to be tactless. You would like them first to say something encouraging, point out the good aspects of your writing, then be polite and share kindly what they think might need fixing.

We all have egos, and we can often be very sensitive to criticism, even when it comes from a friend. In fact, even more so when it comes from a friend. However, we need to separate friendship from critique. Don’t kill the messenger if they give you a distasteful message.

And so with these thoughts in mind, be the same kind of critiquer that you want others to be.

The first thing I learned from my editing mentor is this: Always start with praise. Find things to compliment, and be honest about those things—don’t just randomly throw out a few nice words and then dig in with what’s wrong. Seriously look at the commendable aspects of those chapters and say some encouraging things about how well those elements worked.

And then when you get ready to offer helpful suggestions, be sure your tone is uplifting and not harsh. If you are corresponding by email, choose your words carefully. You’re a writer—so think about how you are saying something, and before you send, reread it carefully. It sometimes helps to couch some of the things you say with remarks like, “This may not bother some people, but I have a hard time following dialogue when there are too many speaker tags. Maybe you could take some of these out and see if the conversation moves at a better clip.” Or “This might just be my personal taste here, but I really don’t like the way this character is coming across. She seems a bit too snooty, and I’m not sure that’s what you are going for here, is it?”

You don’t have to soften every suggestion up to the point that you’re sounding apologetic, but if you remember you are giving a subjective opinion here, it will help you word your comments in a kind way and not with a critical tone.

If you want to help critique another’s work and would like a helpful checklist of all the major elements to cover (for fiction), you can copy and paste this list into a document and use it—useful not just for critiquing others’ work but also your own: http://critiquemymanuscript.com/checklist-for-critiquing-a-novel/

Finding a wonderful editor and critiquer to help you along in your writing journey is a real blessing. Maybe it’s time to take the plunge and get the help you truly need.

If you’re ready for some help, hire me! You can book a phone or Zoom consulation HERE, and we can discuss where you’re at in your writing, what you’re struggling with, or anything else you want to discuss. Consider signing up for my coaching package, which will keep you going month after month and making significant progress.

To learn more about my critique services and rates, go to my critique website. You can upload your document and pay right there for your critique. Having a scene or chapter outline critique early in your process will help tremendously. Why wait and put off till a later time? Seize the day and get happy with your writing!

Featured Photo by Nik on Unsplash

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