Providing Useful Critique

22 Sep

by Vahini Naidoo


I’m going to be totally honest – when I first started critiquing other people’s work, I was bad at it. In fact, that’s an understatement. I was awful. I’d write stuff like, “This is good. Yeah…I feel pretty unhelpful”.

So, in order to spare anyone else the pain of knowing that they’re not critiquing well, and to spare any writers from critiques like my initial ones, I bring you a sort-of idiot’s guide to critiquing a manuscript.

Anyway, my biggest problem was that I’d regularly stop and ask myself this question: What right do I have to be critiquing so-and-so’s work?

The answer to this question is every right, so long as you’re a reader. Thinking that you don’t have the authority to critique is really counter-productive to providing helpful feedback, because you lose the confidence to truly make not of the mistakes you catch. When a scene is confusing, you assume that it’s your fault, not the writer’s and so on. In other words, you won’t be totally honest with the author because you’re limiting yourself.

And the first step towards critiquing a manuscript is a willingness and ability to be straight-up with the writer about what you think. Even if you don’t feel particularly qualified – and you are! – you have to deliver your critique with clarity and honesty .

My other problem? I never really tried to accommodate the writer’s needs.

My awesome fellow contributor, Kat, wrote a post on Monday about critique partner relationships. She mentioned that all of them are different.

My mistake was not recognising this, and just diving straight into reading a manuscript. Instead, I should have been asking the author what they were specifically looking to fix with this revision, or whether there was anything that they were worried about, or felt wasn’t quite working.

Often, people are quite specific. They’ll tell you that an agent told them that their prose isn’t quite shining, even though their premise is great – and that means you focus on the nitty gritty little stuff. Or they’ll tell you that they’re worried that their character arc isn’t coming full circle, or something, and you’ll know to focus on that.

It can be really helpful to dive into critiquing a manuscript and have some clear direction. So, if you can get that out of the author, that would be step number two.

But what if the author says something like, “Just looking for general stuff” or “Not really sure” or, worse still, “Everything”? Then what, huh?

You stare at your computer screen and burst into tears, obviously. Just kidding 🙂

If the writer doesn’t give you direction you have to follow through with the third step in any case. That is, you have to read the manuscript – I know, I know, I’m a genius.

It’s important to know, at this stage, to know what kind of critique you like to give. Do you like line by lines? Or do you like to make more general comments? I’ve found that if I try to give detailed line comments on more than a chapter, I often find myself unable to get through the manuscript. This is because I’m incredibly nitpicky, and detail-oriented and will often write 6000 words worth of comments on 3000 words.

I’m pretty sure that this kind of over-critiquing is not helpful to either the author, or the never-ending piles of homework lying in wait for me.

So that’s me, I don’t give line by line critiques, although you might. I focus on the macro stuff, and I tend to think that even if you do focus on the micro and give a line crit, you need to give the writer a sense of how the manuscript stacks up overall for the critique to be truly useful. After all, someone can have seriously awesome prose and be completely unable to plot.

One of the mistakes I often made when giving this overall critique to a writer, was not being thorough enough – I’d just forget to talk about entire aspects of a manuscript. For instance I’d say something about the characterisation, but the plot would totally slip my mind.

 In order to be more thorough, you should probably carefully think through the big elements of a novel. That is, character, plot, setting, and depending on the manuscript, theme. Thinking through those elements, and really asking yourself whether there was anywhere it could have been improved allows you to spot more potential areas for improvement.

Final tip? Sometimes you need to think about things for a while. I finished a mind blowing manuscript two weeks ago, and initially I couldn’t think of anything to say. The author was firing on all cylinders – she had characterisation, a great plot, a wonderful voice and prose that was both beautiful and evocative.

But I gave it a week, and reconsidered the manuscript. Then I sat down and wrote her a two page critique – the manuscript is still mind blowing, and is probably already publishable, but there were areas there that could be improved upon. I just needed time to see them.

Lastly, so that you can all SEE for yourselves that different readers work in different ways, and also get some shining examples of how to give good critiques, check out THE BETA PROJECT. It’s a blogosphere experiment where six blogging writers critique one brave author’s first page, and post it so that everyone can get a handle on different critiquing styles. Check out the critiques from  Cory , Kate, Meredith, Sarah, Windy and Raven.


Vahini Naidoo is a high schooler who eats instant noodles like she’s already in college. She writes contemporary YA novels and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can find her over at her blog.


16 Responses to “Providing Useful Critique”

  1. Lydia Sharp September 22, 2010 at 7:44 AM #

    As the moderator of two online critique forums for Writer’s Digest and a frequenter of the SYW forum on Absolute Write and a believer in building solid critique partnerships through email (if not in person), I want to say THANK YOU for this post. You nailed it.

    • svonnah September 22, 2010 at 4:35 PM #

      I agree. Great job, Vee! Glad to have you with us!

      • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:46 AM #

        Thanks Sav! 🙂

    • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:46 AM #

      Thanks Lydia! I’m glad you liked the post — and I’ve seen your critiques on AW, you definitely know how to give ’em 😀

  2. Rowenna September 22, 2010 at 8:29 AM #

    Great points–especially that the only qualification for a beta reader is to be a reader! It can be intimidating, but a writer doesn’t ask for critique unless he or she wants to know 🙂

    With a reader this time, I tried including quick questions in-text at the end of chapters–I haven’t heard back from her yet, but I wanted to see how certain things worked–but didn’t want her to necessarily read with a mind for those things. Will see how that worked out for both of us 🙂

    • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:48 AM #

      Some of my BEST and most critical readers are not writers, so I definitely think just being a reader is enough.

      Asking questions chapter-by-chapter seems like a really thoughtful move on your part! Will probably help guide your beta’s feedback in the right direction 🙂

  3. Kat Zhang September 22, 2010 at 11:23 AM #

    Wonderful post, Vee!! I’m still learning how to be the best CP I can be. I get the best notes back sometimes, and it really inspires me to produce ones just as great for others 😀 This will help!

    • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:49 AM #

      Yeah, I’m definitely still learning, too!

      But you write GREAT notes, Kat *looks at Kat’s notes on TGIW* *feels bad about own notes*

  4. Samantha Walker September 22, 2010 at 1:25 PM #

    I like to critique line-by-line. Of course, this usually happens one chapter at a time. I like to read through the chapter once to get a general feel for the writing itself, adding general comments at the end (ie. Needs more description, such and such is confusing, etc.). Then I do a second read through where I make notes on technical errors, and thoughts on improvement.

    I’ve never critiqued and entire manuscript at once, probably because I would get sucked into it, and forget to eat, sleep, go to work (you know, stuff that isn’t really important, lol).

    • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:51 AM #

      Oh, god. When I have a really great manuscript it’s so hard for me to stop betaing and you know, sleep and stuff, haha. So I know what you mean.

      It’s great that you do line-by-lines! I have a beta who crits chapter-by-chapter and then does an overall at the end as well, and she is so helpful.

      I just can’t do line crits because I’m neurotic, haha 🙂

  5. September 22, 2010 at 10:26 PM #

    The different RWA chapters host multiple contests every month, and on their websites you can download the scoresheet the judges use to “grade” and critique submissions. That’s one place to start that has structure.

    • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:52 AM #

      Cool, thanks for the info 🙂

  6. Julie Eshbaugh September 22, 2010 at 11:40 PM #

    Great post Vee! I loved how you admitted you could write 6000 words about 3000! (I definitely could do that, too!) But your advice to aim for an overall critique, while still being thorough, is some of the best advice I’ve ever received on giving useful criticism. It sounds simple, but it can be so difficult to pull off. Thanks for the post!

    • Vee September 23, 2010 at 6:54 AM #

      Yeah, nitpicky readers of the world unite! 😀

      I feel like I always forget some really crucial element and then have to email back a few days later being like “Theme! I forgot about theme! Sorry…”


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