Throwback: “How to Critique a Manuscript for Dummies”

This is a throwback to a post I did about a year and a half ago! I hope you find it helpful.

First, I’d like to address the difference between a review and a critique. Some people may say there is no difference. Well, there is at least a technical difference: if you are reviewing it that means the work is done and will be published as is (or is already published). If you are critiquing, that means changes will probably be made. The question is, do you handle those differently?

My stance is yes. I think we all recognize that if an author sends you a manuscript for critique, you need to be honest to help them out. But I personally feel that if the work is published and you are simply reviewing it, you should do your best to put the book in its best light, while being honest about shortcomings. I believe in supporting other writers/authors, especially if they are indie writers!

Whether you are a first time beta reader, or an experienced critic, it’s always helpful to have a refresher of the major points you should address.

Note: If I ask you to read my manuscript and give me feedback, I’m asking you for help and not for insults (some people are surprisingly spiteful). If you aren’t a writer, I can imagine how intimidating it might be. Unless you’ve taken creative writing classes or are super in tune with the elements of story-telling you might not know where to begin. And I am grateful that you don’t want to hurt my feelings. But I want my story to be the best it can be. If I have given you my manuscript I am asking for you to help me improve it.

Yes, I want you to be honest, but honest in a constructive way. Some critics seem to think bashing my characters or my plot will make me grow as an author. In truth it makes me defensive (and so I won’t listen), or it makes me want to give up! The good news is there is a middle ground!

Even if this author’s novel is absolutely atrocious, your job isn’t to rewrite it for them, or to turn it into a literary classic.

Recognize that all authors are on a journey. It takes years to get from novice to award winner.

Focus on giving the author accessible steps in the right direction. So whether you are critiquing my manuscript or someone else’s, let me help you out with a few tips.

  1. Whether or not you personally liked the story, you should be able to give some helpful, polite feedback. In fact, if you really didn’t like the story, be extra mindful of how you communicate your thoughts. The author put a lot of work into writing. Trust me, they will pick up on your negative tone.
  2. Feel free to use “I liked” comments (ex: I liked how you used the dramatic setting for the conclusion). But if you use “I didn’t like” (I didn’t like the scene with the storm), make sure to communicate why. I recommend using more objective words to keep emotions out of it: (The scene with the storm was confusing/The scene with the storm seemed to have a much darker tone; was that on purpose?)
  3. Characters are a huge part of any story. Feel free to write your impressions of all the characters (but if there are a lot this might take too much time!). At least pick out two to three main characteristics (mix of protagonists and antagonists). Again, avoid the flat statements like “I didn’t like…” Feel free to state some of the obvious. (“She was brave.”) It’s important for the writer to know how their character is coming across. Questions are also very helpful.
  4. Pick out a favorite scene (or two or three!). Talk about the strengths of the scene. (The dialogue was witty. The action had you jumping out of your seat. The imagery struck you. etc)
  5. Pick out a least favorite scene. Try and think why that scene didn’t work. (Was it confusing? Was it superfluous? Did it change your perspective of a character in a bad way? Was the dialogue dead?)
  6. Plot holes. Plot is a big deal for a marketable novel. And you don’t have to be an expert to recognize plot holes. Just think back to any parts that didn’t make much sense or seem to lead to dead ends. Can’t think of any? Then say that!
  7. Introduction. Did it hook you right away? Was it confusing? Did it take a little long to get rolling?
  8. Conclusion. What impression were you left with at the end? Were there any lingering questions? Was it anti-climatic?

Hopefully that gives you some guidance! Feel free to add in encouragement. Writing is hard! If your friend is brilliant, don’t assume they already know that! Tell them how great their dialogue was, or how thrilling their plot was. Tell them to keep going!

Do you agree or disagree? Any thoughts to add? Sound off in the comments!

P.S. If you are a fellow-writer out there and you would like me to critique your work shoot me an e-mail at ebdawsonwriting@gmail.com.

2 Replies to “Throwback: “How to Critique a Manuscript for Dummies””

  1. Ah yes, critiquing. Sadly I believe I’ve been guilty of being over critical without providing much insight many times, and probably not been of much help . So this post helped me see some of my reviewing mistakes while showing me how I can revise some things. Thumbs up!

    Now to rewrite some of my reviews.

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