Monday, September 19, 2011

Your Own Manuscript Critic

William G. Tapply wrote an interesting article about acquiring a personal critic to read your work—someone you can trust who is well read--a spouse who may also be a writer, a literate friend who won’t just tell you what you’ve written is great, or someone who can “read your manuscript with fresh eyes and give you straight-forward feedback that will help guide you through the vital process of revision.”

Even well-established novelists such as Stephen King rely on others to look over their work. Fortunately for King, his wife Tabitha is also a writer. He’s been quoted as saying that his wife has always been an extremely sympathetic and supportive first reader . . . but she’s also unflinching when she sees something wrong. “When she does, she lets me know loud and clear.”

Tapply says that sympathy and support as well as unflinching honesty is what you need from a personal critic. He suggests the following guidelines:

~ Don’t expect your critic to be an editor. Simply ask for an impartial read.

~ Have your critic read the manuscript with a pen in hand and write his or her views in the margins. Don’t expect the critic to censor himself, but simply write down whatever comes to mind.

~ The most useful feedback is what doesn’t work for the reader.

~Tell your critic not to worry about hurting your feelings. You want candor, not kindness.

~ You’re not asking for solutions because repairing what’s wrong is your responsibility.

~ However, if your critic has ideas about how you can handle something differently, you should be receptive to suggestions.

~Ask your critic to note her emotional responses to the story, both positive and negative.

~ Ask that notations be made if a passage is boring. All your critic has to write in the margin is “Ho, hum,” or if confused, “Huh?”

~Did your reader skip parts or an entire scene? Have him note it in the margin.

~Did anything in the story contradict itself or seem inconsistent?

~Were any of your characters or events unbelievable?

~ Were there any factual errors?

~ Ask that any words or punctuation marks be circled that don’t quite ring true.

And because criticism is much easier to give than take, ask that your critic write you a letter that points out and explains the most important observations and overall responses to your story. When you receive your marked up manuscript, give yourself at least a week to absorb the comments. Then, if you feel like screaming, hopefully no one will hear you.


  1. I completely agree that you should take time to process a CP's comments. My usual process is to read the comments and think "What!?" Then let the comments absorb until they seem reasonable.

  2. A good way to approach criticism, Kelly. My husband, although not a writer, is a great reader and points out aspects of my writing that bother him. So I'm lucky to have him as a first reader.

  3. I had to learn to process. The first time I had comments on something substantial it was from a writing teacher. I listened to her because she has a writing resume, which in hindsight I should have waited because I did everything told me do thinking she knew best. Not smart since I am now changing everything back. I think there is listening, processing, and then action. A painful lesson, but one I had live through.

  4. Good advice Jean, as usual. second and third opinions from at the draft stages are invaluable.

    And I'm with Brenda on this one - you get the best advice from readers, not 'experts'. I know it's a generalisation but so many 'writing teachers' have static notions of what one 'should' and 'shouldn't' do. Writing's an organic, flexible process and we all produce different dishes from similar ingredients.

  5. Brenda, I've had writing teachers in the past who had never been published. I think we can learn from everyone but we have to run each tidbit of advice through our own filters. :)

  6. Well said, Bill. We have to unlearn a lot of grammar rules when we write fiction, especially dialogue.

  7. Helpful. I'm just getting feedback now from two critics on the novel I'm editing, trying to tie their experiences together.