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. 🙂
Writing had become an addiction, and rejection made it a downer. If I didn’t write, I was depressed. If I did write and got rejected, I was depressed. There was no winning this thing.
I stopped telling people I wrote books. I moved to another state. (Not because of that, though it didn’t hurt.)
Then in one bold and crazy feat, which nearly gave me a heart attack, I went to a local writing association at my new city.
A key to my progress as a writer started when I began reading for other novelists. They read for me. We chatted and became friends. They’d been through rejection, were going through the frustration of that steep learning curve of newer writers, and they got me. They understood.
Within a couple years, one of us was published with a small press. The excitement of his success fueled the rest of us with renewed hope.
The reading and critiquing had made us all better writers.
While we didn’t last as a group, they will always be my friends.
The one who published left the group to get a masters degree. It’s okay to have a goal, meet it, and then try new things.
One of us got an agent and became a Pitch Wars Mentor, then later self published. Everyone has their own path. Every path is valid.
One of us died suddenly, which made me realize I had to do what I loved and forget the little stuff.
One of us went on to become a NaNoWriMo leader and still writes as a hobby. She never lost the love of writing and didn’t mind not getting published.
All of these people helped me on my journey, and I’ll never forget them for what they taught me. I went on to become other things in the publishing industry. I’ve been a professional editor for a company in the UK and US. I was Managing Director of Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, and #PitMad. I’ve interned for agents, reading and managing the queries. I’ve worked as a reader and editor for small presses.
Every person I’ve met on my writing journey strengthened my foundation and gave me support as I progressed in the art of writing and the business of publishing.
Even the negative things, the people who never said one positive thing about my writing, the people who told me I should quit, the people who said I needed to learn basic writing skills after being a professional editor for years, the people who threw out pages and rewrote them because my writing wasn’t good enough–all of those things helped me learn what kind of critique partner, editor, and writer I want to be.
And not everyone has to love it. If my writing improves one life, it’s all worth it. And that’s already happened by making me happier when I write it.
I’ve never heard of anyone (other than agents) who feels the way I do about a synopsis. I haven’t always felt this way. I used to think they were busywork from agents who wanted to cut down on their number of submissions. (This isn’t the case.) But I love the synopsis. If you don’t have one for your novel, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
A synopsis is an amazing device that can not only help you get an agent but aid in every stage of your book’s life. Before you write it, a synopsis can iron out your plot and ensure your pacing works. During your drafting, it can keep you on track. After the novel is polished, the synopsis shows agents you know the ins and outs of a novel.
What’s the purpose of a synopsis…
A synopsis will show agents and editors that you know how to plot and execute an effective character arc. It can showcase voice, give the clever twists, and guarantee that the agent or editor isn’t wasting their time by reading the full manuscript.
This is scary! I know. Even putting this truth out there is difficult. Putting a book out in the world in any way is difficult. But reality is that a synopsis can actually help you feel more secure about what you’re submitting, because it’s forcing you to analyze and know your plot, characters, and world well enough to prove that it’s working. If it is working, awesome! If it’s not working, it lets you fix it before you burn through your list of agents.
When to write the synopsis…
If you’re a pantster, it’s best to start your synopsis after the first draft. For you, the fun of the writing is in not knowing where things are going to go and letting the characters lead you down the path with them. And that’s fun! I’ve written like this and sometimes still do.
If you’re an outliner, it’s best to nail down your synopsis once you’ve finished the outline. For you, the synopsis is only going to tighten things and make sure your outline is succinct before proceeding. It’ll give you one more assurance you’re on the right path.
How to write the synopsis…
Always use present tense.
Use transitions to smooth over the missing stuff. (After many failed attempts…)
Leave out subplots if you possibly can.
Minimize secondary characters.
Keep it to one page, single spaced, with normal paragraph indents.
Have a header with your last name / TITLE. Add a page number to the header if you can’t manage to get it to one page.
Have Synopsis, TITLE centered at the top, then leave one space, and begin with the paragraphs.
The names of characters are in ALL CAPS the first, and only the first, time we see their name.
The most effective synopsis will showcase the plot, goals and motivations of the characters, include some voice, the theme, and tone, and of course the unique parts of your world.
For Voice, write the synopsis as if you were the main character giving a summary of the ‘high points’ to a friend you meet while waiting for a subway. You have a couple of minutes to rattle off the major events, the surprises, and the wrap up.
The tone will be dictated by the specific words you use to make the narrative feel a certain way.
As the plot and characters unfold, the theme should be self-evident by what the character’s goals and motivations are, the way the conflict and plot push them to change, and by the feeling we’re left with at the end. How has this journey made us question the world around us and/or ourselves?
The character arc should be plain. How did they change throughout the novel? What did they learn, how did their moral premise shift and allow them to overcome the villain at the climax? This will come as tidbits of perspective throughout the synopsis.
The world and it’s uniqueness should be included with minimal telling. Try and show the world as you show the forward movement of the plot. For instance, when ZinZin picks up her wand and blasts a hole right through the toe of the Headmaster’s shoe, but it fizzled before she could steal his nail to make her stew. This tells us character, plot, and world all in one.
Lastly, the plot. I’m going to use a simple five paragraph essay to showcase the easiest way to format a synopsis.
For the plot structure, see the following post:
And how your novel might align a little–or a lot–differently:
Translate the following paragraphs to what happens in your novel. They might not line up perfectly. Writing is all about smudging and manipulating, and that’s fine. Maybe you’ve taken a trope and turned it on its head. Maybe you’ve stretched the key incident out or put it sooner. So long as you have a reason, great. This is a very basic outline.
Paragraph One, The Inciting Incident and Upping of Stakes:
Introduce main character (hero/heroine), their main flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent. The hero as an ordinary person in this world who shows hero potential. The life-changing or inciting incident near the beginning. (by 10%) The lock in, or something terrible that ups the stakes just before Act 2.
Paragraph Two, The Key Incident and Introduction of Ally:
The MC reacts to the life-changing event and seeks out an ally or is brought out by the ally. Ally must be established with a basic modus operandi that will qualify them to be the most well-suited person to help MC out of their predicament. They make a plan, usu the MC’s not so great plan that sounds great but will ultimately fail because they think that they can remain the same and overcome their problem as they are. (We all want to be good enough now—but we aren’t.) The MC struggles to hold onto flaw or not recognize it while still trying to react to the inciting, life-changing event. The MC and ally must have a confrontation.
Paragraph Three, the Midpoint:
Your main character recognizes their main flaw. This is sometimes referred to as the the Moral Premise, where the protagonist stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. In other words, they figure it out and can now work toward a realistic goal.
Paragraph Four, The Climax:
After recovering from the previous debacle, the main character now fully allies with ally and prepares for the final battle/confrontation with opponent/antagonist. Of course, the opponents are rallying as well, so the stakes are increased because there are more bad guys doing more bad stuff. By the end, it appears that failure is inevitable. We must see the resolution of the main flaw and how it allows the hero to confront the antagonist and win. Or lose if this is a cautionary tale.
Paragraph Five, The Wrap Up & New Equilibrium:
This is where we see the transformed hero in contrast to the beginning. They reach a new ‘normal’ where they probably didn’t get everything they wanted, but they have what they need and often something better. And because I’m a hopeless romantic, hopefully they get their HEA as well.
Always tell the ending.
I see a lot of synopses, and a good one can make all the difference in getting a request. I know this isn’t easy. If you need more help, you can always contact me for more synopsis help on my editorial services page.
Best of luck to everyone!