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When I'm between drafts and revisions for my stories, I like to catch up on critiques for my crit partners. (Guess where I am right now.) So I thought I'd tell you a little about how I do critiques. Keep in mind, this is just how I do critiques. Everyone has to find what works best for them -- and their crit partners—but in the *mumble mumble* years I've been critiquing like this, people tend to say it's useful.
I always begin my critique letters with some kind of praise (usually vague, like "I really enjoyed this" because I'll get into specifics later) and thank the writer for allowing me to read their manuscript. As I'm sure you know, sharing a manuscript with someone -- even a trusted friend -- can be a scary thing. You want them to like it! The same thing goes for your crit partner. They want you to like their manuscript. They're trusting you, not only to keep that manuscript to yourself, but to critique it with respect for the story they want to tell. With long-standing crit partners, I usually write a short reminder like, "All usual disclaimers apply," but what that really means is this: the contents of the critique are my opinion. The writer doesn't have to take my advice. Heck, if it doesn't work for them, they can ditch the whole thing. Both sides need to remember that. Also, since I like to write in-text notes as I read the manuscript, I usually remind my crit partner how to find those. (I use Bean, a small word processor for Mac that has "notes mode," which allows you to type in a different font and color at the insertion point, that way you don't have to click back and forth when you want to add a note. So all my notes show up in [red brackets].)
2. The critique.
As I mentioned, I like to make comments in the text as I read. These are usually specific to the location in the text. Things like, "that's not how gravity works!" or "LOL! This character is hilarious." I love getting reactions to exciting/romantic/scary/whatever emotional points in my stories, so I try to make sure I give my emotional reactions in my critiques to others. It's useful for writers to be able to tell whether they're getting the right kind of reaction out of their readers. If you love or hate a character, that's useful information! If you're laughing and the scene is supposed to be sad . . . that's also useful. I also spend the first couple of chapters doing a thorough line edit, if I think the writer wants it at this stage. I correct grammar, point out redundancies, and generally get really nit-picky about everything. I also try to make sure the writer knows what questions I'm asking and whether I feel grounded in the character and world. But I stop the super nit-pickiness after fifteen or twenty pages. Those kind of comments can be soul-crushing and boring to read (and make) after a while. Besides, I'm not editing the book for my crit partners. If what I've pointed out is actually a problem to them, they'll have learned how to fix it after fifteen to twenty pages. The rest of my in-text comments tend to be things like, "I don't understand why Joe Bob jumped down the well. Can you clarify his motivations?" Or, "I know Joe Bob is supposed to be the love interest but I'm really not feeling it. I think his affinity for beets is why." I also try to make lots of smilies and show them places where I'm enjoying the story, because that is just as important as showing them the weaknesses. What about comments about bigger things, like story arc and character development? Or even issues I just bring up a lot throughout the story? As I'm reading, I make a list of notes to talk about in my crit letter. If I think the writer doesn't know a grammar thing, I'll write a quick paragraph about that. If I have a problem with a character or plotline, I write about my feelings on those. Sometimes I suggest fixes, if I know the author well and know what they're going for, but as I said before, I'm not editing the manuscript for them. I'm not writing their book. At this stage, the story belongs to the writer. My job is only to help them tell the story they want to tell, and tell it to the best of their ability.
3. Their feelings.
While writing out paragraphs of criticism, you may be worried about your crit partner's feelings. After all, this is their baby. They trusted you with it, and you're shredding it. Well, remember, the point of getting a critique is to improve the manuscript. Once they stop hating your guts, hopefully they'll appreciate what you had to say. In the meantime, there are some things you can do to lighten the tone of your critique.
A. Be funny. I mean, be natural about it, but if Joe Bob starts out the book by jumping down the well and later on he leaps off a cliff, then an airplane, then a dragon, you might be thinking there's no way a guy who does taxes for a living would be that cool about jumping off all those things. You can rant about how that's so unbelievable . . . or you can make a joke about Joe Bob having the taxes part down, and now he's looking for death. (Death and taxes. Haha. Get it? Heh.)
B. Whatever you say, don't be hurtful. If you're frustrated with the manuscript, take a break and come back to it when you're feeling better.
C. While you're keeping track of what doesn't work in the manuscript, keep track of what does work. It's just as important for the writer to know what they're doing right, that way they can keep doing it. Besides, a mushy "all this stuff was great!" will make a nice end to your crit letter, especially if you're known for bringing people to tears.
4. The ending.
If you're like me, you've written 1,000+ words of a critique by now, plus whatever line notes you left, and -- like this blog post—it's time to wind down to a graceful ending. Again, thank the writer for allowing you to read their manuscript. Reassure them that you did enjoy it. And if you're willing to discuss your critique or brainstorm with them later, let them know.
5. Last things.
Never, ever corner the writer about whether your critique was useful. If they want to tell you it was useful, they will. Chances are they'll just thank you and move on -- or ask questions if you've invited them -- because they're probably smarting from your comments. Don't worry. This most likely does not affect their love for you. But lots of writers have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to criticism. Let them get it out of their system. Once again, remember that you're helping them tell the story they want to tell—not the story you want them to tell. It's an important distinction. So, that was a long post, but gold star if you made it this far. Questions? Comments? Let's discuss crits!