The Secret to Writing Great Critiques
Writers tend to focus on getting feedback—wanting to know how others received the work and what to do to make it better. But I’ve learned a lot about writing by critiquing others’ work. It’s made me more cognizant of rhythm and meaning (understanding the logistics of a sentence), and it’s helped me figure out how to step back from my own work to evaluate things like pacing, character development, and description.
The secret to writing great critiques is in having a plan for how to approach critiques. This is the big picture for how I critique manuscripts.
Critiquing someone else’s work can be scary—I don’t want to offend them, but honest feedback is the only way anyone will improve. In-line comments are useful, not only for line edits, but also for identifying exactly where clarification and revision is needed in a manuscript. Here’s how I’m honest but also kind when delivering in-line comments:
- Always highlight the things that are working.
A few hearts around a description or line of dialogue lets the writer know what they’re doing right! Being able to check off strengths isn’t just stroking an author’s ego; it can let them know what elements are most effective and can help them identify areas that don’t have to be revisited in revision. Bonus: It also reminds the author that I, the reviewer, am a supporter of their work.
- Give specific feedback.
If something is confusing or unclear, maybe the word isn’t quite right or the pacing is off, I need to tell the writer why. I once received a note on a manuscript that just said “eh.” I’m still not sure what that meant. But “eh, the dialogue here isn’t quite believable” provides a direction for revision.
- Say it with a question.
Sometimes the best way to phrase feedback is in the form of a question. A question can be less confrontational and can still draw attention to what’s not working. For example, if I need timeline clarity, I ask it in a question, such as “How long is this after the divorce?” If something feels forced, I might ask, “Is there a way to make this more organic?” If more sense details would help flesh out the scene, I ask specific leading questions like, “What does the pie smell like? Is the room warm? Is the blanket soft on her skin?”
- Read it twice.
Preferably, I read the manuscript twice. On my first read, I (1) note moments that are fantastic, (2) identify questions and confusions, and (3) limit corrections to typos or grammatical errors that cause confusion. The first read lets me get a feel for the story without focusing on critique comments. This provides a foundation for the critique since I know where the plot is going and have an idea of the strengths and problem areas.On my second read, I go hog wild with comments. I expand and clarify questions, explain if my confusion persisted or was later clarified, offer suggestions for foreshadowing and improving pacing, and of course, provide additional line edits. When appropriate I note whether a comment is from the 1st read or 2nd read. It can be helpful to know if a reaction is due to not yet knowing how the story ends.
- Embrace the author’s vision.
Sometimes an idea is so good, I wish I’d written it myself. But I didn’t and reviewing someone else’s story isn’t the place to tell the story I would write; I need to help the author tell their story. That means I have to figure out what the author was trying to do if the execution isn’t working, and help direct them in a way that will let their vision shine.
- Leave at least 3 comments per page.
This is by no means a rule, but I find that I typically write better feedback if I try to make at least three comments on every page. It helps the author navigate where things are/aren’t working, and it helps me write a more useful summary letter because I’ve made so many notes throughout the manuscript. (I also try to make at least one positive comment on every page.)
The Summary Letter
The summary letter (also called a critique letter, edit letter, or end note) is a way to summarize my feedback and experience reading the piece, as well as highlight the most important elements from my critique. It can also let me fully articulate something I only touched on with in-line comments, usually issues that affect the whole manuscript, like structure, plot, character arcs, or pacing.
I usually highlight two or three strengths and two or three weaknesses in a summary letter. As previously mentioned, I want the author to know what worked well and the things that need further development. My main method for writing an end note is the “Positivity Sandwich.” Basically, I begin and end with positive feedback, putting all the critique bits in the middle. For example,
- Hi so-and-so,The strongest element in your story is …
Here’s some things that weren’t working as well, why they weren’t working, and a suggestion, if I have one …
It was so cool that … OR Again, I really loved … OR Also, I wanted to mention this awesome thing you did …
It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick (and lots of writers are savvy to it) but it still makes me feel better to send and read feedback that begins and ends with something the reviewer enjoyed about the work. Again, it lets the author know what readers are connecting with or responding to positively.
The Real Critique Secret
The real secret to writing a great critique comes in spending time with the manuscript. There’s no short cut to analysis and no “trick” to being more effective other than giving a manuscript my full focus. The good news is that the more time I spend looking at other people’s text critically, the easier it is for me to disconnect from my own manuscript and see it as a story to be analyzed rather than My Beautiful Creation. That skill alone keeps me eager to critique manuscripts because as much as I’m writing the critique for someone else, I’m writing it for me, too.
Great insight Alli.
Thanks! This is the process that got me through many workshops. It’s a lot of effort, but worth it for both the author and for me!