Becoming a critique partner will not only let you help out another writer, it’ll help you get better at critiquing your own work. The higher level writing you submit, the higher level of revision you’ll be able to accomplish with their feedback.
Please note, this is all off the top of my head, so there’s a lot more things to look for. But it should give you a general outline of what I’ve found to be the most effective way to critique another’s writing.
Note the good and the…not so good.
Don’t only note what’s not working, but make sure to say what you love, what makes you laugh, anything positive that will be uplifting and also help them keep what they should keep while also discarding or changing what isn’t working.
When I first started editing, I’d get the manuscript back and a lot of the stuff I loved would’ve been taken out. It’s easy as a writer to overreact to an edit you receive and either trash the whole thing or clip entire scenes that didn’t need to go. Reinforcing what’s working will help the writer make better decisions.
Never send pages or chapters.
The first time you read something, it’s a magical opportunity. It’s the only first read you’ll ever get. When you read chapters at a time, you’ll see the book as chapters. At that point, you’ve ruined the freshness of the story, the words, the voice. Then, when you need to read the whole book for pacing, plot holes, tension, world, voice, character arc, you won’t see those things as clearly because you’ve already got the story in your head.
Read the first time as a reader.
When I first get a novel, I put it into a format that’s much like a published novel. Put it on your phone or kindle or laptop at 1.5 spacing with narrower margins and read it all the way through. Make comments on a separate sheet of paper or file, note the page number if needed.
Read it and see where you begin to skim, where you’re feeling a little antsy, bored, etc.
What doesn’t make sense?
Does the plot flow?
Are you feeling positive or negative tension on every page?
Are you connecting with the characters?
Are they sympathetic?
Do the subplots support the main plot, playing off the theme of the novel?
Is there enough conflict?
Do you know the characters’ motivations?
When you put it down, do you want to pick it back up?
There’s a lot more here I could mention, but you probably know enough basics as a reader to get what I’m saying. Does the plot, the subplots (including the romance), the character arcs, the world building work? You’ll never get another first read, so in this first round, you really need to be looking at big picture mechanics of the novel.
Think about the novel for a day or two.
After cleaning up your notes about all the issues you saw, give it some time. Just like we need time to digest edits for our own writing, we need time to think about what we read. Without trying, over the next couple of days, what stands out? What do you remember? Who do you remember and why? Things will come to your mind if you give it some quiet time while doing dishes or folding laundry or going on a bicycle ride–whatever it is you do.
Note the big picture issues.
After a couple days, come back to the notes you’ve written. Add anything that worked and didn’t work for you. Note what you thought back on, what resonated with you.
Do you still remember the end?
Do you remember the characters’ names?
Do you remember the scenes that made you laugh or cry?
Note the things that stuck with you and why.
Give your notes back to the author.
They’re going to need to make fixes–if they choose to. It’s better to make big fixes before a second read, because not only is it a waste of time to do consistency and line edits when whole scenes might be cut, rewritten, or written new, but you’ll never get a second read again either. Distance from the story is key until line edits.
Don’t get offended.
When the author then gives back the edited novel, please don’t get offended if they didn’t take your advice. Trust them to have reasons, then do your best on the next round. If you want the CP to trust you with your own novel, you have to trust them.
If you didn’t suggest major changes on the first round…
Just do the second read right away (without giving it back). The sooner, after those couple days of thinking, the better. Your eyes will be more keen to see the smaller things.
What to look for…
Consistency of world and the rules of the world.
Character consistency in behavior.
Dialogue tags, talking heads, clarity of who’s speaking.
Passive voice, weak words, word echoes, redundancies, etc.
Are they wearing a different color sweater than they were two minutes ago and we haven’t seen them go change?
Are the voices consistent and unique, especially in dialogue? Or do all the characters sound the same?
Is the sentence structure and length varied? Paragraph length? Could it be rearranged for emphasis?
I personally read the novel through making major comments and noting track changes, then read a third time for word choice.
Of course, there are more things I could list here, but just do your best.
Reinforce the positive–again.
Note places where you smiled, laughed, cried, got mad (sometimes that’s what the author wants), connected on a deeper level, anything positive that will be uplifting and also help them keep what they should keep while also discarding or changing what isn’t working.
I hope this helps! Happy critiquing!
First, see the positive. You don’t have to change anything.
Never force edits on yourself.
Wait until you’re ready to face them.
One of the main things that gets me down as a writer is getting back edits and having someone say, “I think this needs to be rewritten.” So much time and effort and tears and emotional highs and lows and all my personal affront for my characters! It feels like it just got flushed.
But it didn’t. Just wait for it. Read it and put it away for a while.
Let yourself grieve.
It’s a strange notion to grieve, but it’s necessary sometimes. Doing a revision is a lot of work! It’s like losing a future we’ve envisioned for ourselves that includes getting an agent and book deal and all that jazz, sooner rather than later or even much later.
We all want edit letters to come back with a note that says, “This is the best book I’ve ever read, and I honestly don’t know how to improve it.” But that’s not reality unless you’ve given it to your mother. It never will be. Nevertheless, we’re trained as authors to hope for the nearly impossible.
Rely on your knowledge of why you’re writing each word.
You should know your character, with all their flaws and motivations and why they are the way they are. Know your theme and how the character, world, plot, and subplots all play to prove or disprove the theme and give you the resonance throughout the book that every reader is looking for. If you know these things, know the voice of your character well, and have a decent grasp of language rules (well enough to know when to break them), you can look at edits with an informed eye. You’ll know whether to keep or throw them out, comment by comment.
It’ll also help you to see whether or not the comment is pointing to something wrong that might not be exactly what the editor is focusing on. For instance, someone says their confused when little Johnny rolls a stone up the mountain when he first gets up in the morning. Maybe what’s really wrong is not Johnny rolling the stone in that scene but the fact that the reader needs more context of the world rules–he’s in a prison camp where they have to do it before they’re fed.
Read everything before changing anything.
Read all edits in the manuscript as a whole. Are there several things that might be all fixed with the addition of one scene or a few sentences spread throughout a key scene?
Take time deciding how to fix the issues. As with everything in writing, thinking things through when we’re less emotional can make all the difference.
Ignore rewritten passages.
I’m not talking about when someone rewrites your sentence in a comment to clarify what they’re saying. I’m talking about when they delete sections of your work and then rewrite them in their own words and narrative voice. If you have a critique partner who tries to rewrite your words, it means that they want to write the novel for themselves, not read and enjoy what you’re offering. You should either have a serious discussion about this or get a new critique partner.
It will be okay!
You just need to wrap your head around what they’re saying. Talk it out with someone you trust whose a writer and understands what you’re going through. Brainstorm ideas that might help you solve whatever problem it is. And BAM! When you hit on a good idea, it’ll excite you! You’ll say, “This is going to be even better than before!”
And it will be. 🙂