I’m at the beta read stage for two of my manuscripts, and so far I’ve been getting good feedback from my readers about things that stand out in my stories. At the same time, I’ve been giving critiques to my writer friends, which in turn has helped me assess my manuscripts with a critical eye. The key to giving good comments to writers is to communicate the things that jump out of a page in such a way that’s both constructive and instructive. Here are my tips on giving good critiques for writers:
Be specific. It isn’t enough to just say “I liked this” or “I didn’t like this”–you have to go into detail in pointing out the areas that can stand more improvement. My favorite critique so far comes from a beta reader who told me that the story didn’t pick up until later in the book, citing information that I could incorporate into the earlier chapters to improve the storytelling. This detail gave me a starting point on where and how I can incorporate my edits once I start going over the manuscript again.
Ask questions. Whenever I see something problematic in someone’s manuscript, I write down specific questions for the author to ponder: What is the character’s motivation? What justifies the change in attitude? Why does her character change here from weak to strong? This strategy is especially important whenever I point out problematic behavior, especially with consent issues in romance.
Don’t rewrite the story. This is my weakness as a critique partner, especially whenever I see inconsistencies in the narrative. It’s important to have an opinion on a plot point or a shift in narrative, but you have to frame it in a manner that respects the author’s decision-making process. It’s the difference between saying “You can do this” and “You should do this” that matters.
Give them a choice. In the last manuscript I critiqued, I commented on a sudden shift in POV, which would’ve benefited the story were it not for the fact that it happened so suddenly. This twist would’ve changed the story altogether, which meant that she could choose between rewriting the story or fitting the information from that passage into the current narrative. This gives the author the final say in incorporating the changes that they want to make for the story. Remember, it’s their story, so don’t press too hard.
Don’t forget to be positive. As I mentioned before, you can go into detail about why a certain passage worked for you (e.g. “I love how she takes initiative in this situation”) but sometimes a strategically placed “SQUEE!” or “OMG!” in the margins is enough to make the author smile. Simple positive feedback also indicates areas that are consistent with the author’s intent, as well as areas that they could work on more closely when they go into revisions.
Be professional. Honor deadlines; if you can’t meet them, make sure to tell the author as soon as you can so that they will be prepared. If you feel like you’re not the best reader to look at the story, tell the author gently so that they can look for someone who would be a better match for them. Whatever you do, do not come across as negative or dismissive; they’re the ones who came to you for help, so it’s on you to address the cracks in the relationship once they crop up. Similarly, don’t take it too personally if the author decides not to use your suggestions–it’s best to honor the decisions that they make with their own narrative.
I hope that this gives you a good idea on what to do when you’re trusted to comment on someone’s manuscript! Good luck, and happy reading!