1. Find out what kind of reader is needed. If you’ve volunteered, or been enlisted, to read a manuscript, ask: Is your partner looking for a cheerleader? Is she looking for a copy editor? Does she want the truth about whether this book will ever sell? Does she only want to know places where the dialogue is awkward? Find out up front, before you read, what you’re reading for. This is also the time to ask whether your partner has any specific questions she wants you to think about as you read.
2. Make sure a reader is needed. Sometimes writers think they want a critique when they really don’t. If someone asks you to do “one last read before I send this baby out,” or “a quick sanity check,” they aren’t going to be receptive to real criticism—and your read will be a waste of your time, not to mention a wasted opportunity for both of you, because you only get one chance to read something completely fresh, for the first time.
3. Be loving, gentle, and relentlessly honest about the work’s flaws. It is possible to be all these things simultaneously.
4. Be as concrete as possible about the work’s issues and fixes. If you start getting annoyed with the heroine on page thirty, it’s better to say so than to say, “Sometimes I found the heroine annoying.” The flip side is that you should admit when you don’t know why you’re having a particular reaction or how to fix it. It’s okay to say, “When I finished the book, I had this vague sense of not being totally satisfied with the ending,” if that’s all you know.
5. Read as a reader, think as a writer. Just as you need a different brain for writing a first draft and revising toward perfection, you need a different brain for reading a manuscript and formulating your response to its author. When you read, read with an open mind, uncritically, expecting to love what you’re reading. Save the thinkyness for afterwards, when you’re reflecting back on what you’ve just experienced.
6. Be slow and meditative about coming to conclusions. I learned this from Ruthie Knox, who is an amazing critique partner. It takes a while after you read a book in reader mode to understand why you reacted to it the way you did. Sometimes it takes a while for you to finish having the reactions you’re having. There’s usually no rush. Sit on your reactions for a couple of days, then formulate your response to your partner, and you’ll find that you have better ideas about what exactly has gone wrong, and how exactly to fix it, than you did a couple of days ago.
7. Be honest about your own issues and blind spots. Unless you’re dead, you are still learning as a writer, and whatever you are trying to master will dominate your critical landscape. That means that if you’re learning to show not tell, you will be extra aggravated by all instances of telling. If you are learning to set up better conflict, you will be hyper attuned to flabby motivation. Know what you’re trying to conquer, and when you present suggestions that line up with your own current challenges, tell your partner. “I may just be obsessed with this because I’m trying to excise all adverbs from my own writing,” is a perfectly legitimate observation.
8. Respect your partner’s voice. Kristan Higgins recently delivered a great session about voice to the New England chapter of RWA. She defined voice as “the personality of your writing.” Your writing voice, she said, is, “you, only better.” When you are critiquing someone else’s writing, your job is to help her make it “her, only better.” If you don’t respect what your partner is trying to do, you are probably not the right critique partner. If you do respect it, you will know when your partner slips out of “who she is” and call her on it.
9. Don’t answer big questions you are not asked. If your partner doesn’t ask you, “Can I sell this?” or “What’s the prognosis for my writing career?” don’t tell her.
10. Learn. Critiquing a 90,000-word manuscript is a lot of work. You could do it out of the goodness of your heart, or because you expect to have it done for you in return, but the very best reason for critiquing someone else’s manuscript is because it’s a completely awesome way to learn how to write better. You learn both from your partner’s mistakes and from her strengths. By the time you’re done reading, you will be a better writer, and by the time you’re done musing and sending her your comments, so will she.