For those who feel uncomfortable critiquing others’ creative writing, let’s do a crash course in the art of detailed literary analysis and assessment. The information below is meant only as a beginner’s guide and is not the end-all methodology for how to do literary critiques. Take it all with a grain of salt and a smile.
Pay attention to other critiques out there—read through all the comments and learn from them. Critiques are one of the best ways to learn industry terminology because you can see direct application and real world examples. Learning to critique others’ writing will also help you handle critiques of your work. Participation is to your benefit. That said, if you are strapped for time, try to set aside an hour each week or a few hours each month to give feedback to other writers. (I need to do better at this myself.) Build up those relationships. We need each other.
Ask the writer for details up-front if you don’t have enough information to work with. What the story about? What genre is the piece? Who is the target audience? Is this their first draft or their fifth? Are they looking for a critique on artistry, mechanics, or both? Let their answers guide you in your assessment of their work (most writers will provide this information, but some don’t). Ask the author if there are any specific concerns or questions the author wants you to use as a guide in your reading, too, so that the author gets the kind of feedback they need most if they are crunched for time. That said, you should provide whatever feedback they think will best help the author and best serve the story’s ideal readers.
The main purpose of beta readers is to provide feedback to the author about how they received and experienced the story and the writing as a reader. If there are things that would bother a reader, then beta readers should point out those problems. If there are things that a reader would love, beta readers should point those things out as well.
Read through the piece you are critiquing as thoroughly as possible. Try to focus on the storytelling more than anything else right now. Note your immediate impressions and gut reactions to the piece. Explain why you believe you got those impressions or reactions to their work. Consider details like pacing, dialogue, character development, setting and world building, transitions, believability, tone, verb tense, point of view, purple prose, etc. Address any of those things that don’t work well. Give examples and make suggestions on how they can improve those problems.
Do a second read-through of the piece. This time, look at details like grammar, punctuation, style, and so on—the mechanics or rules of writing. If you think something is off, mention it. Cite sources to back up your comments regarding writing mechanics whenever possible (links to things like style guide entries, dictionary entries, articles from a credible publishing or writing resources, etc.). Give recommendations on how they can best resolve those errors.
Where possible, do not focus on things that you know are very personal biases rather than commonly-felt concerns. You want to help the writer by keeping their target audience in mind, and for now, you are not the target audience. You are a liaison between the writer and their potential readership. Your feedback should benefit the broad needs of a large group of people rather than just you.
Do remember that beta readers and critique partners should try to avoid editing the manuscript. That is for editors to do, though you can flag errors to help the author make corrections before the formal editorial process. That might help the author save some money in the long run.
I digress: Use common sense and try to write your critique from a place of respect or at least compassion. Be honest while remaining aware that the writer has voluntarily put themselves in a vulnerable position. Try to lead into your critique with comments on whatever strengths they have as a writer (even if it’s just their courage in putting themselves out there to be critiqued) before moving onward to discuss the problems in the text.
Always direct your critiques at the writing rather than at the writer—talk about the prose being this, the wording being that, the passage lacking those, and so on, instead of you should have done this, etc. Frame your critiques in positive language and always give suggestions on how they can improve the writing rather than just telling the writer how their writing doesn’t work.
Watch your own writing for correct grammar, etc., as much as possible when writing a critique or else you risk losing credibility with the writer you are trying to help (and with anyone else who can view the critique).
Do not fight with writers and other readers over critiques. Calm, rational discussions that include disagreements are fine, but drama is undesirable and unnecessary. It’s acceptable to attempt to diffuse conversations that are spiraling out of control with humor (or the occasional emoji or meme) so long as you remain professional. Do not be crass or insulting. Be willing to agree to disagree. Be willing to admit that you might not be right. Be aware that you do not have body language or vocal inflection available to you to interpret others’ comments—assume the best before presuming the worst about someone’s intentions as much as you can.
The beta reading and manuscript critiquing process varies widely from one person to another because reading is highly subjective. Few people can truly be objective when reading because of how we all internalize what we read to some extent. It takes a lot of mental effort and some emotional willpower to remove our personal preferences from the process if we want to focus on how we believe most other people (the general reading audience) will interpret the writing and the story.
What other things can you think of that are important when providing a critique?