by C. S. Lakin (@LiveWriteThrive)
Although I knew about Susanne Lakin’s excellent blog LiveWriteThrive some time ago, I only met her recently at the Fremont Area Writers Self-Publishing Conference, where we were both presenters. Susanne is an accomplished novelist, editor and writing coach who runs popular writing workshops and generally is a real champion for authors. Today she takes on the valuable—but often feared—manuscript critique.
Critique. Just the word makes authors cringe. Why? Because it reminds us of another word that has a negative connotation: criticism. Yet, authors understand the need to have another pair of eyes look closely at their manuscript and give them constructive advice and direction so they can make their book the absolute best it can be.
But an unprofessional, misguided, or inconsiderately toned critique can cause great heartache and discouragement, so should we authors really risk our already fragile writer’s ego and let someone tear our precious work apart? Will a good critique be worth not just the money but the emotional cost?
But Critiques Are Subjective!
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. But few writers think about getting their book critiqued first.
Sure, critiques are subjective. But when a novel or nonfiction manuscript lands on a literary agent’s desk, or is placed in an acquisition editor’s hands, it will be read subjectively as well. But here’s the thing indie authors need to understand: a professional in the publishing industry will temper a subjective read with years of experience. They understand established or accepted writing styles, structure, and formatting, and they have a honed sense for an original and compelling writer’s voice.
There is no such thing as an objective critique, but that should not be an issue. Getting an insider’s take on just how well your book holds up is invaluable and can save you from getting dozens of bad reviews and floundering in poor sales without knowing why, which can leave you more discouraged than ever.
What to Look For When Hiring a Critiquer
When you look for someone to critique your “baby,” I would encourage you to look for someone who is not only interested in helping you make your book shine but wants to help you make it all you envision. Know this:
- A supportive critiquer will encourage you, instruct you, and help you along this rocky road, without attacking you or heartlessly tearing your work to pieces.
- 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.”
- A good critique should thoroughly address all the major elements in your novel or nonfiction manuscript, and preferably using an annotated style (with comments along the margins of each page) rather than just an overall summary at the end of your manuscript or in a separate document.
Be Ready to Work
I have seen some of the worst manuscripts—poorly constructed, wordy, almost unreadable—turned into beautiful, well-crafted books that their authors are proud of. I have seen many of these authors get agents, land contracts, and get published because they were willing to work hard to take their rough work and perfect it 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 in to 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 that you will top the best-seller lists. So many variables affect that outcome. But applying yourself to make the changes suggested in a good critique will stretch you and teach you how to be a better writer, and as you apply the things you learn, your chances of reaching your dreams will improve immensely.
Be Choosy in Choosing
If you’ve decided maybe you do need to take this first step, here are three suggestions:
- Do some research and ask possible editors you are considering hiring for testimonials from clients.
- Start a dialogue with the editor to see how friendly, responsive, understanding, and compassionate she (or he) comes across.
- And take a look at the editor’s concrete experience and influence in the publishing industry.
However, don’t expect her to drop everything and answer dozens of e-mails packed with lengthy questions. Don’t expect her to be available to talk on the phone either. A potential client wants to feel safe and needs to build a measure of trust with the professional she is dealing with, and that’s understandable. But editors are busy—not just editing but with our personal lives as well, just as are doctors, dentists, and nurses.
Take the Advice to Heart with an Open Mind
So once you find an editor that seems a good match, here’s what you can do to help her do her job well:
- Answer any questions she may have to better help her understand your objectives in your story.
- Provide her with a synopsis or story summary (for a novel) or a book proposal (nonfiction) if you have one; that’s a great help.
- Let her know any specific areas of your manuscript that you have been struggling with or want her to especially focus on.
- When your critique is done, take all the suggestions to heart and make the changes you feel will best suit your writing style and story. Ask questions regarding anything mentioned that you don’t fully understand.
- Don’t take the critique personally. You are not your manuscript, although sometimes it feels that way!
Not every comment included in your critique will work for you. But 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 ways to improve, your critique will feel less like criticism and more like a gift.
C. S. Lakin is the author of twelve novels, including the fantasy series, “The Gates of Heaven,” with the first three books now out in stores and online in multiple formats. She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, with her Zondervan contest winner, Someone to Blame, having been released last October. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach on the craft of writing. Her new websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction (www.CritiqueMyManuscript.com) and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life (www.LiveWriteThrive.com). Come join in by following @livewritethrive on Twitter! You can read more about her at www.cslakin.com.