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The Dangerous Side Effects of a Manuscript Critique

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One of the most unnerving moments in a writer's life follows the hard work of writing the manuscript. You've toiled away, rewritten and revised until you think the story's almost perfect. The plot is there, the characters are strong. It's almost ready for the world, it just needs a polish, a few superficial touches. In fact, the remaining issues are probably grammatical... Then your professional critique arrives. Suddenly you see all the weaknesses you had overlooked or buried 6 feet under. You had assumed they were hidden!

Take solace in the fact that this is a perfectly normal part of the writing process for every author. Getting a critique is never easy.

To help you get the most out of that feedback, we've got a valuable guide from author, former agent, and superstar blogger, Nathan Bransford. It’s an excerpt from his sensible and cheeky book, How to Write a Novel.

Here's Nathan's guide on getting a critique:

Accept Feedback Graciously and With an Open Mind


If you will pardon the metaphor, receiving a manuscript critique is kind of like having a colonoscopy. Even when the prognosis is good, the procedure is invasive and unsettling.

A red nametag with the words Hello I Am A Genius that might be worn by a brilliant expert or very smart person, or someone who is a braggart and blowhard who thinks highly of him or herself
Having your work critiqued is not. fun. at. all. The very thing that you most want to happen (“Oh my God, I love it, don’t change a thing, you are a certifiable genius!!”) is also the least helpful.
The very thing that you most want to happen (“Oh my God, I love it, don’t change a thing, you are a certifiable genius!!”) is also the least helpful.

When you receive a critique, your soul is lying on the table, exposed. And your time. And your dreams. And yet how you respond to the feedback is everything. If you’re good at incorporating suggestions, your manuscript is going to be vastly better. If you’re bad at it, you’ve wasted your critique partner’s time as well as your own.

So how do you go about this painful but vital process? Here’s what to do:

When you get your editorial letter/critique, steel your resolve, read it once, put it away, and don't think about it or act on it for at least a couple of days.

Treat an editorial letter as if it’s a radioactive substance that you need to become gradually acclimated to over the course of several days.

Treat an editorial letter as if it's a radioactive substance.

It needs to be absorbed in small doses, kept at arm’s length, and quarantined when necessary, at least until you are able to overcome the dangerous side effects that can accompany reading an editorial letter: anger, paranoia, excessive pride, delusions of grandeur, and/or homicidal tendencies.

Should you find yourself experiencing any of these side effects, consult your writing support group immediately for an antidote.

NY Book Editors Writing Group

It’s hard to have your work critiqued, and it’s tempting to take it personally. Just know that it’s a normal reaction, and in a couple of days you’ll feel better. Once you’ve calmed down and can consider the changes without your heart racing, you know you’re ready to start working. Try to remember your book is intended for the general reading public and that it’s better to hear flaws now, before your work reaches a wider audience.

Go with your gut.

You don’t have to accept every single suggestion. In fact, you probably shouldn’t accept every single suggestion. One of the most important skills you need as a writer is being good at determining which are the best recommendations. If you don’t agree with a change, big or small, it’s okay to stick to your guns if you feel you are justified in doing so.

Only make sure it’s really your gut talking and not your lazy bone. Or your bull head. Or your stubborn foot (is that a thing?). If you are going to ignore a suggestion, you had better have a very, very good reason for it.

Often when you resist a suggestion, it is because fixing the problem that the person has cited would be very, very hard. This isn’t the right approach. You have to have the wisdom to accept criticism even (or especially) when it means a huge amount of work.

And on that note . . .

Don't simply ignore the suggestions you don't agree with.

Often when someone makes a specific suggestion for a change to a certain scene or plot line, you won’t agree with it, and you’ll throw up your hands and say that there’s no way you’re going to make that change.

But! Even if you don’t agree with the specific remedy suggested by the editor, it’s important to remember that something prompted them to suggest the change. And this something could be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, even if you don’t agree with the exact solution your editor/critique partner proposed.

Even if you don’t agree with a particular suggestion, stop and think about why they suggested making the change. They didn’t just recommend it for their own health. Chances are, you’ll spot something that really is an issue; once you’ve identified the problem, you’ll find your own way of dealing with it.

Be systematic.

Here’s how I go about tackling all the changes proposed in an editorial letter.

green colored highlighter with different hand drawn markings

First, I color code the letter. I mark all the changes I’m definitely going to make in green, all the ones I don’t plan to make in red (I try to make sure there is way more green than red), and mark the suggestions I’m not sure about in yellow (these have a tendency to turn green). Then I have a nice color-coded editorial letter and the beginnings of an action plan.

After this, I engage in the triage process described in Rule #40, starting with the most significant changes and working down from there to the smallest line edits, on the grounds that it’s kind of pointless to work on line edits first if the chapter is going to get deleted or if the small changes are going to be consumed by the bigger changes.

Once all the scenes are roughly in place, I move to the low-hanging fruit and start polishing on a scene- by-scene, and then line-by-line, level.

If you find yourself getting mad, it's probably because your editor/critique partner is right.

Great suggestions are easy to accept. You usually smack your head and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

Bad suggestions are easy to reject. You just think, “Naw, I’m not doing that.”

I’ve found that when the suggestions make you mad, it’s probably because the suggestions are correct. Your brain is just having trouble admitting it, usually because the changes are challenging to make or because you’re overly wedded to that particular stretch of the novel.

If I’m mad, it’s the absolute worst. I have way more work than I thought I had to do. But if I don’t do it, my novel will suffer as a result. It means I have to do it.

So . . . I calm down and get back to work.

Listen, listen, listen, listen, and listen to your editor.

Easy to say. Tough to practice. It's hard to see the criticism, especially when you thought you were so close to finishing. The toughest advice, by far, are structural ones that get you to rethink some fundamental choices in your work. It's so painful to see that authors who get this kind of critique often go silent for a day or two. On the third day, we hear back from them.

They usually admit it wasn't easy, at first, to see the editor's advice. But once they slept on it, it became clear that the change would solve some of the major problems they'd been ignoring. At this point, they're excited. The path is suddenly clear and it feels like the solution was obvious all along.

If you loved Nathan's advice, check out his blog.

As a former agent and author, he knows both sides of the publishing equation very well and explores them with insight and humor on his wildly popular blog.

Do you have any questions or stories to share about manuscript critiques? Let us know in the comments!

You can also check out the full guide How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever which has won plaudits from numerous NY Times Bestsellers for its insightful tips and humor. Covering the whole lifecycle of a novel, from planning to writing to editing to staying sane throughout the process, Nathan delivers the engaging advice that has won him a substantial blog and social media following.

Nathan Bransford is the author of How to Write a Novel, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe and Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. and now works in finance. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter and visit his blog.

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