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FAQ #1d: Now that I've written my manuscript, should I get a critique?

Formal Critiques

I've found that critiques fall into two general categories: formal and informal. A formal critique is feedback that comes from a professional, such as an editor or agent. Some editors include brief critiques in a rejection letter. This is actually a good thing–much better than a form-letter rejection. A rejection from an editor that includes a personalized critique–even if it's only a few sentences–means that the editor has taken the time to carefully read the manuscript and thinks enough of the author's writing to try to explain why the manuscript was ultimately rejected. Sometimes, the comments in rejection letters conflict, or the rejection has more to do with the current state of the market than with the novel itself. Here are some rejection letter comments I've received from major publishers in the past:

"I really enjoyed this book, and I think I was the most taken by [Ms. McCarthy's] tone and the fluidity of the story. It's a very funny narrative, and Ms. McCarthy has a wonderful sense of timing. Although I think it is an excellent novel, I don't feel that we are the right house for it."

"I am returning [the manuscript] to you even though Nan McCarthy is a good writer. But in this difficult marketplace for fiction I did not see a way to publish [the manuscript] that would call sufficient attention to it to create the sales now needed to acquire a book. This is a terrible admission, but the stakes keep going up. I hope you find another publisher who will do a splendid job with it."

"These characters are pretty wonderful and their relationship is very appealing. I liked all the characters and I cared about what happened to them more than I expected to, but there are some obvious, expected plot developments."

"I'm sorry that despite the polished prose and a fascinating plot, I was disappointed by the characters."

"[McCarthy] has an unusually strong touch with realistic and likeable characters."

These comments are all regarding the same manuscript. As you can see, fiction is very much a matter of taste, and what one editor dislikes another editor may love. Sometimes editors just can't put a finger on why they don't like a manuscript, and will simply say, as one editor did with one of my manuscripts, "I'm sorry to say that I just wasn't sufficiently taken by the novel." Many novels that receive dozens of rejections initially are later published with great success. Again, don't get too discouraged, and don't give up.

One important thing to look out for in rejection letters and formal critiques is a PATTERN. If you find that several editors and/or agents who've rejected your manuscript are all pointing to the same flaws, it's time to take a hard look at your manuscript and think about doing some rewriting. You shouldn't try to change your manuscript according to every rejection and critique you receive, but if you find there's a certain amount of consistency in what people are saying they didn't like about your book, it would behoove you to take note and do something about it.

Another type of formal critique is when a reputable literary agent reads and comments on your manuscript for the purpose of deciding whether or not to offer representation. Like editors, book reviewers, and readers, different agents like different kinds of books. So don't make yourself crazy trying to please everybody. But if you do get a critique from a well-respected literary agent, it would again make sense to consider the critique carefully and remain open to suggestions. Agents are the ones who are out there in the trenches of the publishing world, and they're the ones who know what's selling and what's not. I'm a strong believer in following your heart when it comes to writing fiction, but it doesn't hurt to consider whether or not what you're writing has even the remotest chance of being bought buy a publisher (if in fact, you want to get published), and that's where a critique from an agent can really help you. Of course, agents are human and they make mistakes, but if you're lucky enough to get detailed feedback from a well-respected literary agent, don't gaffe it off.

By the way, you should never PAY anyone to critique your manuscript, especially not a literary agent. Reputable agents make their money from commissions when they sell your work to a publisher, not from charging aspiring writers to read and critique a manuscript (called a "reading fee"). Simply put, reputable agents do not charge reading fees. Never pay a reading fee to a literary agent. If an agent asks you for a reading fee in exchange for looking at your manuscript, don't do it. (You can find out more about finding the right literary agent in FAQ #2c.)

Continuing with formal critiques, once your manuscript is purchased by a publishing house, you'll more than likely receive a formal critique from your editor before the book is published. It's rarely the case that a book will be perfect and ready to go at the time your manuscript is acquired by a publisher. Usually an editor writes a letter to the author outlining suggested changes and improvements to the manuscript. Any major changes to a novel will (or should) have been discussed in general terms at the time a publishing contract was offered. As a writer you'll need to learn to balance learning when to accept criticism from others and when to hold your own for the sake of remaining true to your vision of the manuscript. Don't get your skirts all twisted up over little things, but do speak out if you feel that a particular major change will affect the integrity and effectiveness of your novel.

Once your book is published, you'll receive an entirely new set of critiques from book reviewers. As you learned with agents and editors, what one reviewer hates, another may love. Although I've been blessed with many positive book reviews in my career, I've also been faced with some real boners. I've found that the easiest way to deal with all book reviews is to not take any of them too seriously, even the good ones. The thing that makes my day are letters from real readers–people who buy my books and read them for pleasure. All it takes to start my day off right is one letter from one reader who has something genuine to say about my work!

Informal Critiques

On an entirely different level, you may seek out informal critiques of your manuscript from family members, friends, and fellow writers. Some writers like to share their manuscripts with a variety of people before they're published; other writers are more private about their work-in-progress. It depends on what you hope to accomplish by letting people read and comment on your work. As a writer, you must look deep inside yourself before handing over your manuscript to someone you know on a personal level. To quote Somerset Maugham once again, "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise." If you aren't prepared to hear feedback on your manuscript that is anything less than glowing, it's probably best that you don't share your work with friends, family, and fellow writers. (Much less send it to agents and editors, come to think of it!)

If, on the other hand, you know that you're ready for constructive criticism and there's someone in your life you can trust to provide that criticism in a way that's not harmful or destructive, having your manuscript critiqued by the right person can be immensely helpful. Some writers like to have other writers critique their manuscripts, and many even belong to critique groups in which several writers share and critique each other's work. Other writers, myself included, find that critique groups are not only time-consuming but a negative influence on one's work (too many cooks spoil the broth and all that). It's an extremely personal choice, and most writers simply have to find their own level of comfort through trial and error.

Many writers wouldn't dream of letting a spouse read their work, while others rely heavily on a spouse's feedback. I enjoy having my husband read my work. He doesn't give me lengthy, detailed critiques, but he often provides insightful feedback on specific scenes. I've also received helpful critiques from other members of my family as well as friends and neighbors. The main thing, I think, is to trust your gut when asking someone to read your manuscript. If you have a good relationship with that person, if you know that the person is capable of offering criticism in a healthy manner without a hidden agenda, and you're ready to hear constructive criticism from that particular person, then go for it.

If a friend, family member, or fellow writer asks to see your work-in-progress and you don't wish to share your work with that person, there's nothing wrong with refusing on the grounds that you're not ready or that you try to limit the number of people who see your work before it's published. Likewise, you may be asked by fellow writers to critique their manuscripts. This is not something to be undertaken lightly, and you don't have to say yes to everybody who asks you to look at their work. Keep in mind that many published writers are restricted by their publishers from even looking at another writer's unpublished manuscript for legal reasons.

Guidelines for Giving and receiving Critiques

Once you do agree to critique someone's work or let someone critique your work, there are certain guidelines you should follow that will make the process a lot less painful.

When critiquing someone else's work, you should:

Find out exactly what kind of feedback the writer is asking for. Is there something specific the writer is struggling with that they want you to comment on? What level of detail does the writer expect you to give? Are you only looking for spelling and punctuation errors, or does the writer want you to comment on the overall content, storyline, and structure of the novel? LISTEN to what types of things the writer wants you to comment on, and keep those things in mind while reading the manuscript.

Be specific with your criticisms. Instead of saying "This doesn't work," say "This particular scene was confusing because..." or "This character was unappealing/uninteresting/unlikeable because..."

Offer ways to fix the problem when pointing out flaws. For example, if you believe that the pace lags in certain sections, suggest areas that can be pared down or eliminated to speed up the pace. If a sentence or paragraph seems awkward, suggest a way to make it flow more smoothly.

While it's important to make your comments specific, be careful not to put yourself in the position of rewriting the writer's work for her. This is a fine line to walk, but one that's extremely important. Don't get too enthusiastic about coming up with new scenes or plot lines or characters for another person's novel, and especially don't try to write or rewrite portions of another writer's manuscript for her. It's your job to offer suggestions, the writer's job to implement them (if she so chooses).

Don't expect the writer to agree with all of your comments, and don't be offended if the writer chooses not to implement some or all of your suggestions. Especially in informal critique situations such as in writer's groups and between fellow writers, it's important to remember at all times that it's the writer's manuscript, not yours. State each specific criticism once and only once, and if the writer disagrees with a criticism or even merely disregards it, drop the issue IMMEDIATELY. Unless the writer asks for clarification, don't repeat criticisms after you've already communicated them. If you sense even the smallest amount of resistance, don't try to make the writer see things your way, and absolutely don't be forceful in voicing your point of view. No matter how right you think you are, back off. Let it go. Respect the writer's boundaries.

Accentuate the positive. Always start off by telling the writer what you LIKED about the manuscript. A critique doesn't have to contain only negative comments. Make it a priority to point out to the writer the aspects of the manuscript you found especially strong or appealing. While you 'll want to state each specific criticism only once, it never hurts to repeat the positive comments. End your critique on a positive note as well.

Most important, critique the writing, not the writer. Never, ever insult or humiliate the writer. No matter how well you know the writer, stay away from personal comments in which you psychoanalyze the writer, compare the writer to her characters, criticize the writer's method of working, or otherwise pass judgment on the writer. This does not make for a better manuscript, is extremely harmful to the writer, and will more than likely permanently jeopardize your relationship with the writer.

Likewise, when receiving a critique of your work, you should:

Be specific in saying exactly what kind of feedback you're looking for. If you only want the person to look for typos and not comment on the dialogue, say so. If you want to know what the person thinks of the characters and plot, tell them that's what you're hoping to find out. If you're having trouble with one particular aspect of the novel such as pacing and you want the person to focus on that, say so.

Don't expect the critiquer to get back to you immediately. It takes a lot of time to read and critique a manuscript. Give the critiquer a lot of space. Unless you belong to a writer's group that adheres to a certain timeframe, it may take several weeks or even months for a person's schedule to clear up before they can take a look at your manuscript. Be patient. Especially in the case of informal critiques from family members, friends, and fellow writers, there's always the possibility that the critiquer may just not have the time they thought they had to read or get back to you on the manuscript. Although it may make you crazy, this happens sometimes. If several weeks have passed and you haven't heard from the critiquer, it's okay to gently inquire about the status of the manuscript. But remember that asking someone you know to read your manuscript is a huge favor, and if the person is unable to do the favor for WHATEVER reason, don't get angry or upset. Deal with it and move on.

(NOTE: Formal critiques, for example from an editor who has acquired your manuscript via a publishing contract or from the agent who already represents you, are a different matter entirely. In the realm of the professional relationship between author and editor or author and agent, the author has a right to expect that a critique which has been promised within a certain timeframe will be delivered. Often, the editor is contractually obligated to provide a written critique to an author by a certain date for the sake of adhering to the publication schedule. The author has a right to expect that these timeframes will be adhered to. On the other hand, it's also wise for authors to use the same guidelines above, such as giving their critiquers space, politely inquiring as to the status of the manuscript when necessary, and being patient.)

Ask for and welcome specific feedback. If you don't understand one of your critiquer's comments, ask for clarification and further explanation in a way that is not argumentative and shows you genuinely want to understand what your critiquer is trying to point out.

Don't expect all of the comments to be positive and don't get defensive when you receive negative feedback. If you find that the negative feedback upsets you, take some time away from the situation to settle down and see things clearly. This may take a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or several weeks. Don't feel you have to react to each specific comment right away. You can always just say, "You've given me a lot to think about. I'll get back to you on this." Take your time and get some distance if necessary. You set the pace.

Don't feel as if you have to agree to every comment the critiquer makes. Remember, it's your manuscript, and it's ultimately up to you to decide what works and what doesn't.

Make sure to thank the person who critiques your manuscript for taking the time to read it and comment on it. Even if you don't agree with some or all of the comments contained in the critique, be grateful and gracious to the person who undoubtedly invested a lot of time and effort in helping you improve your work.

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