One Dish of Critique—But Hold the Criticism!

Critique. Just the word alone makes authors cringe. Why? Because it reminds us of another word that has a negative connotation: criticism. Yet, as authors we understand the need to have another pair of eyes look closely at our manuscript and give us constructive advice and direction so we can make our book the absolute best it can be.

Some copyeditors claim you should never get a critique because it is entirely subjective. They say all you need is to get your book edited by a copyeditor and fix all the grammatical mistakes. And it’s true that getting a thorough copyedit is essential. However, in my twenty-five years of experience writing novels, becoming a multipublished author, and working professionally as a copyeditor and writing coach in the publishing industry, I have concluded that most authors—new and seasoned alike—need a critique, preferably during the early stages of their manuscript.

What Kind of Critique Do You Want?

When you look for someone to critique your “baby,” look for someone who is to not only interested in helping you make your book shine but who also wants to help you make it all you envision. A supportive critiquer will encourage you, instruct you, and help you along this rocky road. A good critique should not come across as a nice pat on the back with a few muttered words like “Good job. Keep it up.”

However, we as writers grow attached to our words, and an insensitive editor can cause a lot of pain. More than one author friend or client has cried to me in anger, frustration, and a readiness to give it all up after being subjected to an insensitive critique. It takes courage to hand over your project—this book you’ve spent months or perhaps years writing, sweating over, all the while second-guessing yourself and the merits of your book—only to have someone heartlessly rip it to shreds.

The Magic of a Critique

I have seen some of the worst manuscripts—poorly constructed, wordy, almost unreadable—turned into beautiful, well-crafted books of which their authors can be proud. I have gone on to see many of my clients get agents, land contracts, and get published because they were willing to work hard to perfect their rough work to the best of their ability. These authors show they are dedicated and willing to learn and listen. But I wonder how many (or few) of them would have dug into their necessary revisions had they been treated insensitively in a critique. Of course, there is no guarantee that if you follow all the suggestions in your critique you will get an agent or land a book contract. So many variables affect those outcomes. But applying yourself to make the changes suggested in a good critique will stretch you and teach you how to be a better writer. As you apply the things you learn, your chances of reaching your dreams will improve immensely.

A critique will give you the help you need to get your manuscript or proposal in shape. Your book is competing with hundreds of thousands of others to grab the attention of an agent or publishing house, so you want to do everything you can to make sure it stands out from the rest. A critique is the first important step you can take to ensure your novel will have a chance of being picked up.

How to Find a Good Critique

Once you decide maybe you do need to take this first step, do some research and ask possible editors for testimonials from clients. Start a dialogue with the editor to see if he or she comes across as friendly, accommodating, understanding, and compassionate. Take a look at their concrete experience and influence in the publishing industry. Then, when you’ve made your choice and your critique is done, take all the suggestions to heart and make the changes you feel will best suit your writing style and story. Not every comment a critiquer gives you will work for you. You’re the author and it’s your book, so weigh each suggestion and trust your intuition. As long as you keep your mind and heart open to improvement, your critique will feel less like criticism and more like a gift.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever considered hiring a professional editor to critique your manuscript?

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About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C.S. Lakin is an editor, award-winning blogger, and author of twenty novels and the Writer’s Toolbox series of instructional books for novelists. She edits and critiques more than 200 manuscripts a year and teaches workshops and boot camps to help writers craft masterful novels.

Comments

  1. A good critique is absolutely invaluable to a writer. The trick is finding someone you work well with who knows how to exercise some tough love without being too harsh. It’s a fine balance, but once you find a critique partner that you can work well with, it’s absolutely worth it.

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your expertise, Susanne!

  3. I’ve thought about going to a professional for critiquing, but I’m not anywhere ready to publish yet, so I’m only having friends critique at this point.
    Thnx for a great article, C.S. Lakin.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Thanks for having me “here” today. I have many people serve as test readers for me–critiquers of sorts, and I often pick readers who don’t normally read in the genre of the book I wrote. I offer this as a suggestion since sometimes we pick people to read and offer comments who write the kind of books we write. But when I get someone who doesn’t read fantasy reading my book and giving me feedback on what works and what doesn’t, their comments are often the most instuctive because they are approaching the material without much interest in it. If I can hold their interest and my scenes are engaging, then I know I’m succeeding. I always tell my test readers to be as brutal and nitpicky as they can be. If a number of them comment on the same passage, I pay attention! I would rather attack any possible problem areas not, in the editing stage, than later from a review of the published book. You don’t have to get hard and tough to take a critique, but you do have to be willing to say “Ugh, I really did write that poorly, didn’t I?”

  6. I’m curious about something. Most posts are on writing and how to become a better writer and how to increase your chances of getting published, which are excellent. But what about people who want to become professional editors or critique partners? How does one break into that branch of the publication business? What are the steps that are required for such a job?

  7. I’ve lost all my critiquers as they got jobs or moved out of town or got too busy when they broke into the field. I’ve signed a multi-book contract, but I really miss my critique group. For the reasons you cite on your comment, I don’t want to send any more ms to my publisher without the process.

  8. I have one excellent critique partner who isn’t afraid to tell me when something isn’t working for her as well as what is. She is also excellent at spotting what’s missing and offers great suggestions all without being pushy. I feel fortunate to have found her 🙂

  9. My MS is in the hands of one now…someone I know and respect. He has been interested in my progress since the beginning and always has an encouraging word. Im still nervous about what he will say. My big fear is always that he will say I have too far to go to be a good writer. But I know I can trust his opinion and that’s the important part in finding an editor.

  10. Eldra, if you are interested in becoming an editor, there are a lot of resources for you. You can take online editing courses (Editcetera is great, and I’ve taken classes from them), joing online groups like The Christian PEN, which also offers online courses such as how to establish and grow an editing business (I’ve taken those classes too, and they’re very afffordable). I don’t think there is anything out there called a “professional critique partner”–at least not someone who charges to be your partner. You can join organizations like ACFW, which has forums where you can look for and find a criqiue partner based on the genre you write (yep, did that too and got a great partner on my first fantasy book, which is now published).
    Lelia, I hope you will consider hiring me or someone like me to critique your next book. You can learn so much about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, as well as learn some good writing tips that may correct some bad habits, by connecting with a dedicated, experienced writing coach.
    For you others who have found a great person to critique your work, that’s terrific! Consider, too, connecting with other authors who write at about your level who would like to exchange reads and give help. I have one friend who, last year, acted as an accountability partner for me (well, it was reciprocal). We both agreed to write a certain amount each week and send that to the other to critique. I went through most of my tenth novel with her that way, and she did a lot of great editing along the way.

  11. Kristina Amadeus says

    I had a great experience using a Gold Dust mentor – the novelist Kathryn Heyman. Working with her brought to light aspects of my novel which had eluded me until then, and which resulted in a deepening of my material. When I finally have this version completed I will definitely ask for her critique and mentorship again. Kathryn didn’t criticize, she critiqued and pointed towards elements which were dormant and needing development. Her participation was invaluable as she helped me to see what my story was really about.

  12. As always a post where I learn something of the craft and what it means to be a successful writer. Just dropped by to say thanks for having always been my friend, Roland

  13. I know my story needs editing. I might be able to do it if my story is stocked away for a couple years unseen. But realistically, in trying to go professional that not really a good idea and even if I did that, I still would not see it with completely fresh eyes. I have tried to ask my husband, a friend both with fantastic English skills who also read the kind of material I write. Nada no luck. Either my grammar side tracked them too much, or my story was overwhelming in what needed to be done (restructured). Just getting the tip about the restructuring was a huge help all by itself and I am applying that to my book now. I went to friend and husband as I do not have the $2,000.00 most other professionals state as the cost to do a manuscript. Any ideas how I can get some help?

  14. Over the years I’ve tried working with 4 different editors and only 1 didn’t attempt to turn my manuscript into their manuscript with suggestions so off base and against my better judgment. Three of the 4 had superiority complexes and condescending attitudes toward me as an author. The one good editor at a publishing house fought with the editorial committee over the course of 18 months to get me under contract. Sadly, it didn’t work out. So, after those experiences, I don’t want critique or line, I want proofing only.

  15. For my first book I hired a copyeditor from the Society of Proof Readers and Editors, and I am SO glad I did. I valued her professional opinion so much and made the changes she suggested. I would never publish any book without first taking this very important step.

  16. @Nancy: If you can’t afford a professional editor, the best thing you can do is keep studying the craft to learn how best to edit it yourself. I’d also recommend finding a good critique partner (either through a writing group or a writing forum) who can exchange critiques with you.

  17. Joe Bunting gave me a critique. It not only helped me to write better, improved my story dramatically, but gave me the confidence I need to keep going. Joe is great!

  18. I know one editor/critique person who makes changes that sound like I wrote them. How she performs this magic, i cannot say. I’d love to find a local person/group. I use an online group that is good but there’s nothing like personal contact.

  19. Without critique a person is writing only for themselves. Which is fine if that is what the individual wants.

    But critique is essential to gaining perspective and continuity in a story. Often it shows up the flaws and loose ends that proof reading doesn’t. If done correctly, it can develop plotline, and characterisation.

    It doesn’t always have to be a costly exercise. Sometimes just taking a break from work for a week or two will show up lots of holes.

    And it may be easier to get out the red pen yourself than have someone else do it.

  20. Finding the right editor to critique my work has been a challenge. But one I KNOW I need if I want to get published. I had an editor read the first four chapters in my first novel to make sure I’d made the reader care. I hadn’t. The editor worked with me until I “got” it–until I understood what was missing and why. Working with him made all the difference in my success.

    After I completed this first novel for teen girls I asked ten teens I DID NOT know to read it and offer feedback. Here’s what happened: I gained confidence. Most read it in two days saying they couldn’t put it down, but a few were brutal. That’s okay. I needed to hear what they had to say. After all, they were my target market and if I couldn’t engage them then I hadn’t done my job. I listened, took notes and made changes.

    Now that I’ve finished the sequel to the first book I’m ready to do the same again. The thought of getting it published BEFORE an editor reads/critiques it makes me cringe. I don’t want my name on it unless I know it’s been editor approved. Only then will I feel confident!

    I’ll be contacting you soon C.S. Lakin!
    Michelle

  21. Nadia Syeda says

    Here’s my criteria for listening to a critique:
    1) Does this person know a lot about writing?
    2) Does he praise my strengths and gently show me my weaknesses?
    3) Does he understand and respect the spirit of my writing?

    If it’s No to any of the questions, I’ll probably consider ignoring it. I’m not going to listen to someone who’s a fan of modern fiction ask me to put in more saucy scenes in a fantasy novel!

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