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Critiques: covering both ends of the stick (part 2)

So, like I’ve already said, critiquing is a two-edged sword, and if you’re going to critique someone’s story, you want to help them as much as you can, right? Whether you’re a Beta reader or a critique partner, I feel like it’s important to know what exactly an author needs in order to refine their story the best they possibly can. Believe me, an author’s book is their baby, and if you can help them make it the best book baby they can possibly make it, you pretty much have a forever friend.

(If you missed the previous post to this series, check out here how to receive a critique so you can apply a Beta or CP’s help the best you can!)

If you’re at the point of Beta reading or CPing for someone, I’m hoping you’ve already discussed what needs to be done, and you as the reader have already evaluated if the story is even a fit for you. If it’s not, it’s best to let that author know right away! They need someone who can critique their work the best they can, and it’s always great to have open communication (as I’ve mentioned in the first part of this series).

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get started!

Be honest, but also be kind

A writer looking for a Beta reader or CP needs someone who can look at the manuscript with fresher eyes, because they’re too in it to see the story for themselves. So glossing over bits that stand out to spare feelings doesn’t help much (unless it’s not part of that author’s focuses. More on that below). Try to notice yourself as you read. If you’re getting confused, feel like the writing is abrupt, feel yourself scanning more than reading, you need to let the author know. All of these things help!

Now, you might have pause to point out errors if there’s a lot of them, obviously you don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings or discourage them if the changes are a lot. And this is easily remedied by applying a simple formula, pointing out first what you like about it (anything at all, try to find a positive. You may see it as sugar coating, but as long as you’re completely honest with your critique, it’s not. It just helps that writer not feel completely lost in the midst of all the changes), and then telling them the hard truth. And don’t hold back about what you need to say. As long as you’re being honest, and you’ve also helped cushion the blow a bit, you should be fine.

For example:

“There were a lot of grammatical errors and I didn’t really like how Elizabeth slammed the door on her father. I feel like that was a little too exaggerated.”

Compared to,

“I really loved the descriptions in this chapter, and I relate to Elizabeth so much. I really felt her anger when her father yelled at her. But I did notice there were a lot of grammatical errors, which distracted from story. And I felt like Elizabeth slamming the door on her father was a little too exaggerated. Of course, that’s just my opinion.”

It’s not like you’re avoiding the issues, but this helps the author even understand what they need to focus on when they start making changes, so they know even what needs to stay! And backing out with leaving the choice to the author is just an elegant touch.

Focus on what the author needs

It’s always great to have a list of things the author would like you to focus on, and if they haven’t given you one, you might want to suggest they do! That way if the author has certain things they want you to focus on, and other things that don’t matter as much to them, you’re not wasting time on things that aren’t a priority.

So if an author is telling you grammar isn’t a concern for the moment, but they really need help with world building, try not to linger on the ‘there, their, and they’re’ as much and concentrate on the parts describing the countries, cities, and creatures in the story. Or if they’re not concerned with the characters’ development, but they’re on the look out for plot bunnies, it doesn’t mean you can’t say anything about the characters, but make sure your comments are mainly directed towards any inconsistencies, if you can find them.

Believe me, finding errors on the priority list isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually exactly what the author is looking for, so be sure to point these out the most!

Positives are so important!

While you’re on the look out for errors or mistakes, also take the time to note what you like about the story! For writers, it can be hard for us to identify our strengths, sometimes even more than our weaknesses. So if you notice yourself tearing through the pages, laughing with the characters, enjoying a piece of description, pointing these out are just as important as the critiques! It helps the author know what needs to stay in the edits, compared to what needs to go. That way they know what they’re good at, which lemme tell you, is hard for a writer to acknowledge, so they need you do that on their behalf.

Read the story from the author’s perspective, not yours

When you’re reading, while this is hopefully a story you like, there may be some parts that aren’t your personal preference. Maybe you think the main character should be a nicer person, or you think there are things happening in a way you don’t like. And while you should be verbal with the things that stand out to you, if you understand that the author intended to write it that way, you need to leave it alone. Tell them what you think, remember that this is the author’s story. They may want the main character to be mean and petty! And it may not be your personal preference, but telling them they should change that character doesn’t help them much, because that’s not an error, that’s what you want.

Distinguish the line between what you like and what the writer needs. This is why the list of priorities helps a lot, that way you can know what the author is trying to do with the story, and you can help them go in that direction.

So instead of trying to make the character nicer to accommodate what you like, try to look for times they act out of character! Help the author make them meaner! More petty! More irritating! If that’s the direction the author is going in with the story, help them accomplish that goal! They’ll appreciate you forever for seeing their story from their point of view, and it’s the most helpful advice you can give them.

Details, details

When you’re pointing out a problem, it’s great to know that the problem exists, but there’s two things to keep in mind: be clear, and make suggestions.

Now, that isn’t to say you should write the story for them, but just saying, “This sounds wrong” may not help the author as much as saying, “This sentence feels a little strange to me. Maybe reword it to be clearer on what you mean.” Do you see how one just points out a problem, but the other actually helps the author know where to begin in addressing it? And it’s also more specific to what the problem is, not just that the problem exists.

So give as many details in your critiques as possible! Be clear in what you think the problem is, and if you have an idea what could solve it, be sure to be vocal about it! That doesn’t mean you have to solve each and every problem, again, you’re not the writer. But if you have any ideas, believe me, it’s greatly appreciated.

Let the author decide. It’s not your story

At the end of the day, you have to know when to let go. Maybe you think the author is honestly making a mistake, and they’re not accepting the change you’re suggesting. But this isn’t your story. If the author doesn’t want to do anything, you shouldn’t try to force them. And definitely don’t try to argue the point for lines and lines of comments. Your suggestions should be just that; suggestions. And if the author doesn’t decide to apply any of your suggestions at all, that should be their choice.

You may not like that, but you started this trying to help, and arguing with the author over something that should have just been an opinion isn’t helping at all. Just finish the book and give your final thoughts, leave it at that.

Give a summary!

It’s always nice to include ending thoughts when you finish the book. At this point you can include anything that you feel like was repeated through out the story (like saying they need to work on their tenses, in general. Or a certain character didn’t feel as alive to you, etc). Again, this would be an excellent time to point out what you loved, too! No need for this part to be too wordy if you don’t want it to be, a lot of it was probably said within the other chapters, but it can help summarize your thoughts and the author to know what, in general, needs to change.

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Anyway, that’s all I have for you, be nice to each other, and let’s work on being a better community together! I hope you enjoyed this series, and let me know if you’d like me to do more series like this!