I’ve learned many things over the years after collaborating both personally and professionally with hundreds of authors. What we need most is support and a leg up. Whether paying or trading or gifting advice, there are things you should always do when critiquing.
Whether it’s bread or lettuce or lavash, every good sandwich has something on either side or wrapped around it. For a good critique sandwich, that’s pointing out the positive. You can fill it in with whatever else you’ve got around. Maybe it’s plot holes, character issues, or the world doesn’t add up or add much. You can fill the sandwich with tasty advice. If it’s wrapped in a way that’s digestible, the writer will be able to move forward rather than reject your critique.
Here are some steps to giving a good critique…
There should be at least three positive things you can say about any writing. It could be the way a single sentence is phrased, the voice, the title, the imagery, the pacing. Anything that you like or think might resonate with the audience that the writing is intended for will help. And remember, this work might not be intended for you. So read it as if you were the audience. What they would think should come before what you think.
For instance, I can’t stand books about poo or farts, but it’s a whole thing in picture and chapter books. That can’t stop me from seeing the plot, the character arc, and the world they’ve built for the young readers who love this s**t. 😉
Read the Whole Piece
Art should be seen as a whole. Books are no exception. It isn’t until you can understand the entire novel that you what to say. The theme, the character arc, etc.–each piece weaves together to form a united statement that leaves the reader with a resonating feeling, a changed worldview, a question about themselves.
Giving a critique to a specific scene or line editing is fine. But if the scene doesn’t fit into the overall structure of the book, why waste the time with one scene if you’re going to toss it out? In fact, it makes it harder to toss when you’ve worked to polish it.
The publishing industry standard is three general types edits, in this order…
Developmental: the plot, characters, and world in general are working.
Consistency: the chapters and scenes follow one another and work together.
Line: the words and voice and phrasing in each paragraph and sentence and phrase.
If you only ever say things that are positive, you’re not helping the writer improve. It’s rare that a submission to a critique group is so near perfect that there’s nothing you can help them improve on some level. If there aren’t any issues with big stuff, keep going down to the line edits.
Just Do Your Best
Not everyone is at the same level. But we’re all readers. Where are you upset and why? (Maybe you’re supposed to be.) Happy, sad, frustrated. Note why in the sidebar comments. Don’t go overboard, but especially at emotional turning points. Where do you want to skim? Where do you want to put the book down? Is there anything that confuses you? Did you have to reread any sentences?
Even if you can’t say why there’s a problem, that’s okay. Just noting that a problem exists is often enough for the writer to figure out a way to improve it.
A lot of times, even when an editor or agent spots a problem, they don’t know exactly what the problem is, only that it exists. It’s up to the author to know their story well enough that they know what the chapter, scene, and words are supposed to be doing and figure out why they’re not.
Some Things to Look For
If you’re an experienced writer, here’s a list of some basic things to look for in addition to the last section.
- Character depth and arc
- Plot that keeps the page turning but also gives the reader time to recover
- Language and diction
- Style Issues
- World building inconsistencies or improvements
- Plausibility, suspension of disbelief
How are you phrasing the critique? Are you intending to help them or make yourself feel like a better writer?
The focus of a critique should always be to uplift other writers. Make sure your comments are gentle and kind while being informative and truthful.
This is not your work. Do not ever rewrite someone else’s work. You can suggest how to rephrase, give ideas to get them brainstorming, but when you try to supersede their writing with your own, you’re invalidating them as a writer.
Be Positive Again
Always end on a good note. Find one more thing you like about the work. If you’re critiquing a whole book, point out the things that work for you along the way, what made you laugh, lines that resonate.
Often we as writers toss out the good stuff along with the bad because all we’ve heard is the negative, what’s not working, which could be surrounded or embedded in a lot of great writing.
The reason I never wanted to query again was because so much of what I heard felt like I wasn’t good enough.
I. Me. Not my manuscript.
Every rejection basically said, we don’t want this manuscript. What they really meant was, I can’t sell this manuscript. For whatever reason.
A few people, mostly readers, gave me helpful hints.
There were things I needed to fix: the grammar, the punctuation, finding my style, finding the characters’ voices, learning to plot and world build.
There were issues with some of the books I couldn’t fix: this idea isn’t high-concept enough, the market doesn’t want that right now but wait fifteen years and it’ll come back around, that book is too quiet, that just isn’t the right fit for me (or my list).
Notice the word books: I hadn’t stopped writing for myself. At this point, it had been about five or six years since I’d started writing. I’d written about five books and completely rewritten two of them after deleting every single file of the original, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back and look.
And this whole time, I felt like I wasn’t good enough.
Me. Not my manuscript.
It’s easy to get resentful, to say the gatekeepers are to blame, to become dissatisfied or even angry with the publishing industry. I’ve been there more than once, especially after a round of rejections. But I’ve also been on the other side of this business, shuffling through the queries and reading hundreds of manuscripts on behalf of agents and editors.
Agents and editors have to love the book so much that they’re willing to read it about fifteen times and still be excited about it. There are books I’ve written myself that I can’t say that about. So how would I expect an agent to love it that much? I’ve seen so many excellent manuscripts that I wouldn’t want to read again. They were well written, had voice, great worlds, and satisfying endings. Even if I’d read them a second time, there wouldn’t be a third. It’s still a great book, written by a talented author.
So very often, that’s exactly what they mean.
There are a lot of other reasons agents don’t think they’re the right fit for your manuscript.
The form rejection might make it feel otherwise. (Even the ones that feel personal are usually cut and pasted–because agents are already worn so thin on time, they have to.) Sometimes, they don’t know any editors who they could sub it to. Agents try to keep tabs on what editors are looking for. They might already have a client who’s either written or is currently writing a manuscript very close to yours that would be a conflict of interest. They might have a list already full of that age category or genre that they’re trying to sell and have too many submissions already out to editors in that area. That genre or sub-genre might be already saturated in the current market. (Remember, the publishing industry is 18-24 months behind what’s hitting the shelves, so you might not think it’s hit yet.) There are heaps of reasons agents might reject your manuscript.
In fact, I wish everyone would say that their manuscript was rejected, not that they were rejected. Their manuscript wasn’t a right fit, not that they weren’t a right fit.
Believe me, I know how difficult this advice is to take, BUT–It’s not something you should take personally.
And even if it is personal, take a lesson from kindergarten. Not everyone is going to be your best friend. And you shouldn’t expect everyone to. Be honest with yourself–do you love everyone you come in contact with? Do you love every book you read enough to read it over and over and over and then provide support and enthusiasm and crisis intervention to the author for the few years it’ll take to get it published? Is there even a handful of books you could say that about?
Even wildly popular books get terrible reviews. The rejection never ends. Ever. Some people don’t want to read them. Some people just don’t get what all the fuss is about. With so many people on the planet having their own unique experiences, with so many polarized perspectives, there will always be people who don’t like your writing.
You don’t need everyone to love your book. You just need about 0.000002 percent of Earth’s population to like your book. And you can do that.
You can do that.