by Judy Clemens
“Shakespeare’s plays are bad enough,” Tolstoy told Chekhov, “but yours are even worse.”
A voice of constructive criticism from one writer to another? Probably not. Perhaps there really was a rivalry there, and Tolstoy was letting off some steam. But what if… What if Tolstoy really was trying to help? He certainly does seem to be going about it in the wrong way.
As a writer, I have many people approach me, wanting help for the book they’re writing. Sometimes they’re just starting, and want to know how you actually do it. Some are in the middle and need encouragement to get to the end. Some have actually finished a book and want information about the next step. The most frustrating of these folks, of course, are those who say they have this fantastic idea, they’ve been working on it for twenty years, their friends love what they’ve done, and they know it’s going to be the Next Great Thing. What I want to tell them is that if they want it to have any chance of that, they really need to get their butt in a chair and get it done. But of course I don’t. I give them the more PC, and more helpful, speech about how perseverance is what gets the job accomplished.
But what about those people who really are trying, and really want to get better? They deserve the help and encouragement I received when I was in their shoes. After all, a key way to learn is to ask questions of those who know the answers -- or at least can say where to go to find someone else who knows!
I can’t, like any author, read every manuscript of every person who asks me. It would be nice if I could, but then I’d never get my own writing done, and I can’t say my publisher would be very happy about that. (Neither would I!) But every once in a while I have a friend or student who needs another eye, and I’m happy to do the honors, because it really is an honor to have someone entrust their “baby” to you!
So how does one go about critiquing a manuscript in a way that’s helpful? Here are a few suggestions drawn from my experience as a critic and as one being critiqued:
Remember that this manuscript is of huge importance to the writer. She loves it and has invested a lot of time in it. That in itself is a gigantic accomplishment and one to be praised.
Try to find positive things to say about the manuscript as you go along. Continued criticism without a few pats on the back can get depressing, or even maddening.
BUT…don’t be just a cheerleader. It will not help the writer if all you do is say their work is great. They need you to tell them when things don’t work, and are counting on you to do so.
Yes, typos are important. Nobody wants those, and it can kill a manuscript submission. But even more important are issues of character, plot, and theme. Are the characters real and consistent? Does the plot conclude in a satisfactory manner, without loose ends? Is the theme worked through the entire book?
When you’re done critiquing the manuscript, ask the author what she has questions about. Perhaps she’s worried that a certain aspect of the storyline doesn’t make sense, or that one of the characters is too wimpy, ugly, or strong? Make sure you give the author the opportunity to find out the answers to her burning questions.
Try to be timely. You have made the commitment to help the author. Sure, you have your own work, but it’s only respectful to give the author something within a reasonable time frame. After all, we each have our own experience of waiting by the mailbox for months!
Finally, remember that critiquing someone’s manuscript is a privilege, as well as an investment in the industry. Choose your commitments wisely, and honor them. It is through these kinds of interactions that we can all make our business better. And give us all more books to enjoy.
Do you have a critiquing tip to share? Please leave your ideas in the Comments section. The more aspects we think about, the better critics we can all become.
SinC Vice President
Author of the Stella Crown mystery series