A good manuscript critique offers an author valuable advice on what is and isn’t coming across in their story. A writer who self-publishes or submits to literary agents without seeking reader response to their manuscript beforehand will undoubtedly overlook details that will be obvious to others. Seeking such criticism doesn’t always need to equate to paying for the services of a professional as one can readily find critique partners online and locally. However, the keen eye of a seasoned editor will undoubtedly be more thorough.
Critiques may indeed be subjective, but not all subjectivity is created equal. My background ensures I can deliver a professional manuscript critique. This post provides a representative sample of my critiquing skills. Feel free to also see a copy edit sample of my work. In addition, I’ve posted on the necessity of critique groups as well as how to give effective draft feedback. I tend to liken a great critique to an amplification of how numerous readers will react to a text, but not necessarily be able to articulate. The more a writer can do to alleviate the questions in a reader’s mind, the more likely the story is to be received well. Granted, writing often relies on withholding detail. All details, whether withheld or on the page, should always work to move the story forward.
My author and blogger friend Jon Jefferson has graciously allowed me to critique his flash fiction story “Seventh Petal.” It originally appeared on his blog and will be part of his upcoming Wonderland Casino collection. At just two pages, the length fits perfectly to allow a complete critique here. A longer manuscript critique would require a longer overview letter from me, but for Jon’s short story I prefaced the file with this email message:
Thanks for letting me provide feedback on “Seventh Petal.” You’ve certainly picked a great setting in which to focus your murder and mayhem casino stories. While I can’t comment on how this story will relate to and shed light on other stories in the collection, this story did raise quite a few questions as a stand alone piece. Right now it reads more like a vignette (brief scene) than it does a fully-developed piece of flash fiction. It could easily be doubled or tripled in length. The scene presented shows the reader the falling action and resolution with a brief reference to the climax. I applaud your experimentation with playing on reader expectations for the typical order of events. Yet overall, so many questions remain unanswered as my comments will show. The most pressing concern is the need to make it more apparent that Anne is all in Beth’s head. It’s an interesting perspective to continue to develop. Aside from describing a murder scene, what overall impression about human beings do you want the reader to walk away with?
Let me know if you have any other questions or concerns.
In many ways, a manuscript critique will play devil’s advocate and ask a ton of questions. The basics of asking who, what, when, where, why, and how should never be undervalued. Even though only two characters speak, confusion arises due to lack of speech tags. Beth also speaks in three consecutive paragraphs, when standard conventions call for starting a new paragraph when a different character speaks.
The hotel room comes across as too general. I posed questions on where additional detail could be included to help better paint the scene for the reader. There’s a big difference between a high roller suite and a seedy motel on the north end of the strip. Other revealing details could be given on types of clothing as well. A murderous lady in a bargain dress will look and act differently than one in designer duds.
The details given are a good start, but I questioned why the aftermath is the most focused on portion of the story. A reader will find it hard to make a connection when no motivation or back story are provided. A murder scene does provide a degree of entertainment, but beyond that, the context of why the murder took place is what will make a lasting impression and linger in a reader’s mind. Otherwise, it’s just another dead body.
Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to decide which advice to heed in making revisions.
What are your thoughts on the critiquing process?
Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use critique sample images in this post.
Article by Jeri Walker-Bickett aka JeriWB
Jeri, you have my vote, but think you already know that.
When working with the Word program, are you able to make comments using the Word feature on someone else’s document? The reason I ask is that I intent to have a few beta readers/critiquers, you being one if it works out well, and I would prefer this method for this part of the process of getting a story ready for publishing.
Glynis, anyone with access to Word can use its comments and track changes feature to comment on and make editing changes to a text. Not everyone is comfortable doing so however. I felt the learning curve was slight when I started using it about two years ago, but then again, I enjoy learning such things (odd perhaps, I know). When I’ve taken on new critique partners, I request that feedback be given using the comments feature or either in a separate document. I had a critique partner early on who inserted comments within the text of the document, but they were hard to pick out from the text of the story, not to mention they increased the word count of the document. I’m willing to be more flexible with beta readers when it comes to how much and what type of feedback they prefer. Your comment reinforced that I need to do a post on how to establish criteria when taking on a new critique partner.
Seeing this gave me a chuckle! It is close to what I saw on every page of my book writing after the editor at the publisher’s reviewed it. At first, I was horrified. But then I realized, “Hey, this is going to make the book even better.” And that is the point after all, subjective or not, to have editing make the writing the best or better. Thanks Jeri.
Patricia, when I get my chapters back from my awesome critique partners I never open them right away. The initial horror of seeing so many comments never really goes away, but as time goes on we learn to take it all in stride so we can make our work the best it can be.
This is very cool Jeri. It give us such a great overview of what a critique could and would look like. For many, I think there is a fear that the critique would point out a writer’s inadequacies. But as Patricia says, it’s really meant to help a writer improve and develop a better story. 🙂
Susan, the sample here is definitely geared toward how detailed I would be when being hired to do a critique. I spent about 45 minutes on the two pages of Jon’s story and writing the overview note. When I work with a critique partner as part of a two-way exchange, I tend to spend about an hour to an hour and a half making comments. As much as I would like to get into nitty gritty details with critique partners, I am upfront with how much feedback I can give in any two-week time period.
This looks so familiar, as I do a lot of editing of other writers’ content — and have had mine edited, too! The Word “track changes” and “add new comment” feature is very useful. However, Word doesn’t add your image, so are you using a special editing program?
Jeannette, I took to Word’s editing features like a duck to water. During my internship last fall, I asked the professor if the fiction workshops he teaches still rely on pen and paper comments, and he said yes. To me, that is so antiquated. I can give much better feedback when I am able to type comments. I’m using Windows 8 and the latest version of Word. Before that, my picture didn’t appear next to my comments. It must be a fairly new feature. I love how it allows for multiple users to weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of a given document.
Jeanette and Jeri: I also use Windows 8 and Word 2013. When Jeri critiqued one of my short stories, I saw her picture, too!
Nice sample, Jeri. This should bring some business your way! (By the way, I have no problem recommending you if you would like to set up a “Testimonials” page on your blog.)
Lorraine, a testimonial page is a great idea, but for now I just have a couple of recommendations listed on my main services page, plus a list on LinkedIn.
Wonderful example of how a critique should read/look/convey! I lucked with a wonderful critique group here in Charleston and some actually employ this technique (though not quite so in-depth)and some use a shorter version of this along with general notes at the end. But in the end, I guess you are right and it is up to the writer to decide which method they can relate to and glean the most info form. But to me, this looks perfect!
Jacquie, this is definitely an example of me in full-on editor mode. I tend to use a curtailed version of commenting in the in-person workshops I’ve participated in. The members of my writer’s group in Charlotte gave excellent feedback during the session, but not too many returned a marked-up file. I like to make electronic comments beforehand since I tend to forget what I want to point out if I don’t write it down beforehand.
I’m both a good and a bad critique partner. I pick up on logic fairly well, and I tend to over-analyze everything, which tends to work well for linear progression and cause and effect. (*cough* computer programmer *cough*) However, I also have a very active imagination, so I don’t need much in the way of description. Where another person needs positioning direction and more detailed setting description, those little things fly right by me (making me ineffective at giving those types of suggestions).
Good article with excellent examples.
Loni, I can see how your computer programming skills would equate to being great for picking apart cause and effect. Over the years, I’ve participated in so many workshops as well as done an editorial internship that I’ve developed a mind frame that goes straight to what most readers will expect in a given story. Not that a writer should always take heed of reader expectations, but by and large, our expectations as readers exist for very basic reasons concerning what does and doesn’t make for an effective story. I love to copy edit most genres, but know I tend to over-think when it comes to critiquing genres like science fiction and fantasy.
Great post Jeri -and your website looks fabulous BTW! It’s really essential for any author to have a critique from either peers or professionals like yourself. Especially if you are going to self publish, then it’s an absolute necessity to have your work edited, even if it’s just copy-editing. No-one can see their own mistakes. Your experience, and attention to detail definitely gives you the edge on many editors out there. Fantastic that you are editing Jon’s work too.
A.K., it’s so true that writers have a heck of a time seeing their own mistakes. I trudge along drafting my first novel because it’s an overwhelming process, yet I can write great short stories with relative ease (mind you, “ease” is very peculiar to each writer’s process). I would flounder without great critique partners. When it comes to the works of others, I really do believe I have that mysterious knack for editorial work that really can’t be taught, though I’ve developed it via my graduate and undergraduate degrees and by seeking out writer’s groups and conferences as time allows. One thing is certain, there is always more to learn.
HI Jeri. I like your new landing page! And, this article is very informative. I have used this kind of Word document before for proposals, not for books because, alas, I am not an author – although I could be with all the stories I could tell about my crazy life – but that’s another topic all together.
It’s very helpful to have someone read my work and propose edits. Constructive criticism is always helpful and welcomed, in my opinion. Good job describing this tool.
Laurie, I’m glad you like my new landing page. I feel so grown-up and professional now 😉 Word’s editorial features are indispensable tools for any writer to use.
Jeri the new landing page is very friendly and the Critique Sample illuminating. I’m not familiar with how previous systems worked but if I had been asked to idealize the output it would have looked very much like this. Thank you for introducing me one of the many aspects of your craft where my base-line ignorance is boundless !
Paul, back when I was taking lots writing workshops for my graduate degree feedback via written comments was still the norm. I write with my left hand would run and hide if anyone had to read my handwritten comments. It was bad enough when students used to ponder over the brief comments I would write in the margins of their essays.
First off, thanks to Jon for letting you critique his story. It’s difficult enough receiving criticism on our works let alone for others to see.
From experience, I have no problem with your critiques. I’m already a fan.
I agree, critiques are essential before publication, and I actually enjoy critiquing. It’s a wonderful way to get to know an author along with their strengths and weaknesses.
Denise, yes Jon is a great sport and brave soul to let me critique his flash fiction in such a public forum. I’m certainly a fan of your critiques too.
From my perspective there is more going on than just the critique. This speaks volumes of the importance of the relationship between the writer and the editor. Without an understanding from both directions there is no common ground for both parties to agree on. Without the relationship between Jeri and I this would never have come to pass.
Jon, that’s so true. So I bet you might get a little fed-up with me from time to time 😉
Oh and on the way comments play out on word: scrivener and google office have similar features. I really like the set up on scrivener. You not only can make notes but also take snapshots before you make changes.
The comments on google office are a bit trickier. Probably another reason why I will never use the google laptop.
Jon, I’ve read about Scrivener’s editing features but I think I’m going to wait to test them out until later on. I’m quite happy with the program’s approach to helping an author build a draft so far.
Jon, I’ve read about Scrivener’s editing features but I think I’m going to wait to test them out until later on. I’m quite happy with the program’s approach to helping an author build a draft so far.
I enjoyed your comments on this process. I was fortunate to experience this program when my book was edited. I actually looked forward to seeing each one arrive because she had a sense of humor and we enjoyed a great back and forth.
Beth, it sounds like you have a great relationship with your editor. As Jon noted earlier, that counts for so much. Sometimes writers can be a bit shy at the start of such an overwhelming process, but as with any situation, both sides gradually grow accustomed to each other’s ways.
Wow I had no idea of the detailed work that goes into critiquing. Not being a writer I thought it interesting to see an overview of what a critique may look like. I am sure it is easier now then it was 30 years ago when everything was done by hand.
Arleen, I can’t even imagine making such detailed comments by hand. Though of course notes could always be typed on a typewriter as well. I even had a typewriter once. I saved my lunch money and bought an electric one when I was in the eighth grade. Two years later, I said hello to my first PC.
So much of this editing stuff was completely foreign to me until I met you/starting reading your blog, Jeri. I read through each of the screen shots then went back and read your notations to each. How cool as I found myself saying, “Hey, she’s right on that…that should be changed”, etc. I know I make a ton of mistakes in my writing and many English structure errors. But, I’m a storyteller of non-fiction and so far it’s worked for my blog. Now if I ever pursue writing a book? We’ll definitely talk, our friend!! Good post! 🙂
Mike, who knows you might decide to compile some of your blog posts into an eBook someday. I’m focusing on fiction a lot right now for my posts, but I do plan to bring in pointers on writing creative nonfiction as well in the months ahead.
Great piece on editing, Jeri. It’s amazing how much is revealed when seen through another pair of eyes.
Do you comment as you read (real time), or read and then go back and comment?
Beth, another set of eyes is sooooo important. I get frustrated at myself at times because I’m queen of my own shitty first drafts, and yet can turn a critical eye to anything but my own work. In general, I read every piece I work on twice. The first time through will be for comments that strike me as not having a gray area for how the author will perceive the advice. On round two, I will make more nit-picky comments. The first read through is also a quicker read than the second one.
It’s nice to read a critique that truly is constructive!
Andrea, thanks for that. A while back I won a 50-page critique from a blogger who was doing an editing internship, but the level of commenting was not very helpful at all. Not every page I critique will always be so heavily covered in comments as shown here, but it will come pretty close. Right now I’m working on gaining a bit more speed in my process, but I’ve learned to accept how time-consuming such work is. I’m well-suited for it.
This is brilliant, Jeri. Really showcases your talents as an editor. You have a handle on everything from the details (is it a Versace dress?) to the big story elements.
Jagoda, being able to touch on all those elements is the secret to a great critique. Even though I’m well-versed in giving feedback, I’m still amazed how much I learn from others.
The first time I went through this process I was stunned by how much work my editor did. I’ve learned more from her and the editing process than I did in school. For proofreading, do you charge by the hour?
T.B., editing is indeed hard work and very time consuming. I charge by the page for proofreading and copy edit, and the initial free sample helps me determine if the level of editing needed is light, medium, or heavy.
Well Done, Jeri.
I just received my manuscript w/ these RED corrections!
My manuscript is letters to my sister, so most of the corrections were purely grammatical.
Seriously, Red Pens scare the sh*t out of me!
It’s like it’s saying “LOSER. Loser. loser.” haaa.
…but now I know it’s only to make me a better writer.
Great job. xx
Kim, your comment made me laugh. All that red ink is truly scary, but as you point out, well worth it. When I graded papers as an English teacher I actually would use purple ink. Research has shown that red does indeed cause stress levels to be higher.
Purple ink! Yesssssssssssssss.
I like your approach on asking questions in the critique. I get the most our of my writers’ group when they pose these kind of questions about my work. I also think a writer can take the same approach when critically reviewing their own work for revision, but it’s not quite the same as having another eye on the work.
Donna, writer’s groups are the best when the members really get into it like that and ask a ton of questions, but in a well-meaning way. I apply all of what I know about editing and critiquing to my own works, but it never compares to getting outsiders to give me input. We’re just too close to our own work. I fix all I can on my own, but often flounder without the input of others.
Great post, Jeri. There’s nothing better than real-life examples to help other readers. Nice job on the critique as well. More of this will not only help other readers but is sure to bring you more clients!
This is really awesome stuff Jeri!
You gave us an amazing insights about what a critique could and would look like and how we can utilize it for creating great content.
And as you said, it is supposed to help the author become better and more impressive rather than making it a point of ego which many authors may feel. That also goes away if the author has a healthy relationship with the critique.
Thank you for sharing this.
Kumar, egos do clash too often in the feedback process. In a way, a good critique will guide the writer in how to deal with what can often be an overwhelming process.
Critique is definitely essential before a book is published. It’s obvious that you do a great job, Jeri.
Catarina, all writers can benefit from feedback, but some don’t realize how important it is in the overall process. It always shows if a self-published book hasn’t had the input from such a process (paid or from exchanging with someone for free). At least in traditional publishing, enough people are involved in the process to help curb major oversights.
Wow. You really put hard work being a critic. I’m just a beginner in writing, I’m not a native English speaker and I can only be part of online community of writers as I don’t know any writer locally. The only reason I strive to write is because I love it. I would be extremely thrilled to have a mentor like you and maybe terrified to be critiqued.
Krisma, that’s great that you write because you love it. In many ways, being a non-native English speaker will help your writing voice stand apart from the crowd in a good way. As long as you keep writing, the more technical aspects will start to take care of themselves.
That was so neat, I learned so much. I had no idea how that would work. You will laugh to know that until now, I thought there were two women in that hotel room.
Debra, I also thought there were two women in the hotel room until Jon pointed it out to me. When I re-read it, I got the drift of where he was trying to go. This just shows why it’s so important for all writers to test their material out on others before publishing it.
What a terrific post, Jeri. Thx for sharing your editing process with us. And thx to Jon for enabling you to do so. You have a tremendously professional approach to the process.
Doreen, I was thrilled Jon was game for letting me post this. For you to say that my approach is tremendously professional helps me feel even better about the direction I am going.
Thanks for sharing insight into your process Jeri. I can’t even begin to explain the benefits I’ve received from my critique group and it’s so interesting to follow along with your process in this post.
Jen, everyone takes a slightly different approach when giving feedback and I learn so much every time I look at how someone else goes about the process of providing feedback.
I think my current posts/stories would collapse under your critique, but it’s always something to strive for :).
Dan, every other time I exchange with my current critique partner, I end up feeling a bit crushed. Even though I know my drafts are far from perfect, a piece of all of us tends to think that. Then we offer our words up to someone else, and they pick them apart. We get antsy. Then we go about the business of making changes. It’s so true that writing is all about revision and refining.
Great information. Lucky me I came across your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
I have bookmarked it for later!
Well it’s good to know StumbleUpon brought you here 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.