No More Tears …… by Nicole Kimberling

Nicole Kimberling’s latest blog post advises beta readers how to give constructive criticism to an author.

As everyone knows, Nicole is an author as well as Editor-in-Chief for Blind Eye Books so she knows of what she speaks in this essay. Never having beta read for an author (okay I did it once) 🙂 I didn’t realize how hot things could get between beta readers and their authors. But I’ll let Nicole dish on what not to do.


How to Give Constructive Criticism Without Making An Author Want to Stab You. 🙂

Whether you call it critique, editing or beta reading, chances are if you are in a writing group, or if you just happen to know a writer, you will be called upon to comment on a manuscript of from time to time. (Please note: I am talking about giving criticism on works in progress. The ideas in this column do not and are not meant to apply to reviewers critiquing works after the fact..)

Mostly, if an author is asking for a read on a manuscript, she senses that there is something wrong with it but doesn’t know what. You, as the reader, need to treat this manuscript with all the tenderness you might show an injured hamster. Be very, very gentle. Because the author already feels insecure, or she wouldn’t be having you read her story in the first place, right? And you as the reader want to be able to suggest workable solutions, don’t you? So here are a few tips on how to deliver your thoughts to an author without ending your friendship. This is by no means a complete list of tips, but it should help you get started being a more trusted and valuable member of your writer’s group or critique circle.

Before we begin you may ask what qualifies me to make these recommendations? First, I am the editor of Blind Eye Books, so I do actually edit other writer’s work all the time for a print book company. But more importantly, I have spent at least 10 years honing my editorial skills, which means I’ve spent about 5 years making horribly insensitive comments to writers. If there is a way to offend an author, I’ve done it. Mostly, I’ve made these educational (for me) gaffes while simply trying to get my point across. Behold! My failures of tact can now become the rocket fuel that lifts you to editorial brilliance—or at least keeps authors from cursing your name loud and long into the dark and unforgiving night.

1. Be very specific in everything you say. Never use vague or unclear terms. Rather than writing a note or essay about your general thoughts or feelings on a piece, use the track changes function on MS Word to make your commentary. This allows you to target and identify specific text you are addressing. Do not forget to comment on sections that you like as well. Track changes includes a little smiley just for this purpose. One smiley can be that crucial spoonful of medicine-lubricating sugar that helps an author to hear you.

2. Unless you have been specifically asked to correct grammar, don’t do it. Correcting grammar on an editorial read is a little bit like putting mascara on a person who has just received a debilitating head wound—unhelpful and laughably superficial. If you have been asked to correct grammar only correct grammar. HOWEVER: you should never, never, never, ever correct grammar inside a character’s dialogue. If, as you’re reading through, you find that the character’s grammar makes the meaning of the spoken phrase unclear then make a note of this by highlighting the confusing phrasing and using a “track changes” comment bubble, but do not change or over-write it. Nothing makes an author lunge for the Wustofs quicker than messing with their dialogue.

3. Be wary of using the word, “I” in relation to anything but your own reaction to a piece. Examples of safe ways to use the word “I” include statements like, “I am confused by the unexplained presence of a goat in this scene,” or “I am wondering where Bootsie got that hang-glider.” Above all else avoid using the words, “I would…” or “If it were me, I would…” Clearly the author is not you and will tell you so immediately should you open with that phrase. Use more neutral openers such as, “Would it be possible to…” or “Could the character…”

4. Pick your battle. Remember that it is entirely possible to kill an author via the Death of 1000 Cuts. If three things really bug you about a story, choose one and only comment on that. For example let’s say you’re bothered by the descriptions of the protagonist’s car, by the scenes involving the protagonists’ mother and by the climactic scene where the protagonist fights a grizzly bear. Go ahead and just choose one thing to address.

If you have trouble choosing, try this method. STEP ONE: Ask yourself if you know how to fix each of the problems you have perceived? If you do not know how to correct any perceived error in the manuscript, cross it off the list. It does the author no good to point out a problem unless you can also offer at least one solution.

If you do have suggested solutions for all three problems then go to STEP TWO: Consider which issue most impacts the book. Weigh the relative importance of each issue. Sure, the grizzly fight is probably most important, since it’s the penultimate scene. But if the protagonist spends something like 50% of the pages in the book in scenes with his mother then addressing that issue might be most important. Almost certainly the protagonist’s car is not going to be a deal breaker for anyone so maybe just leave that one alone and focus on stuff that can have more of an impact.

Once you have decided which issue to address go to STEP THREE: where you highlight specific text and make specific suggestions citing your reasoning and explaining your logic as you go. For example you might say, “To me the protagonist’s mother reads as an abrasive, controlling woman, who doesn’t like her son very much, which I don’t think is the result you’re trying for. I think that the reason I feel this way is that the mother does not say or do anything nice and is always trying to make Bootsie do what she says even though he is 32 years old. Would it be possible to show the mother behaving kindly to Bootsie in some way? Maybe she could be criticizing his pants while making him his favorite Mickey Mouse pancake or something like that, which would show that even though Bootsie is now an ex-Marine who works as a stripper to foot the bills for his detective agency, she will always think of herself as his Mommy and always think of him as a little kid in dinosaur pajamas. Or am I really off the mark here?”

5. Never substitute raw emotional reaction for commentary. Restrain yourself from writing stuff like, “Dear God WHY!?!?” Downplay everything—even enthusiasm. Rather than gushily typing, “OMFG I LOVE BOOTSIE SO SO SO MUCH!” write, “I am really enjoying getting right inside Bootsies’s head in this grizzly bear scene.” It explains what the author is doing right while making you sound both smart and rational—two qualities people want from their critiquers.

6. (This one I got directly from Astrid Amara.) Write your comments then wait 24 hours and read them again before sending the manuscript back to the author. In your excitement to help your friend, you may have accidentally written rude or merely incomprehensible comments. The 24 hours later review helps identify and cull your own less well-conceived gems of wisdom. (This same rule can also apply to almost any intra-office email exchange, according to Astrid.)

7. Last, make sure to be humble. If you unintentionally insult or hurt an author, apologize. Don’t offer any excuses. Don’t say, “I’m sorry, but that’s just my opinion of what a good story is.” Just suck it up and say, “I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me,” even if you don’t think you did anything wrong. If you still want to get your critique point across you can say something like, “I apologize for my lack of tact. Once I get my foot out of my mouth, can you please let me try to explain what I was thinking using grown-up words?” Just don’t expect the author to say yes and don’t press it if she says no. Once the trust is broken few writers will allow you to read their stuff again. Fewer still will take seriously your commentary. Writing requires a tremendous amount of positive mental attitude and confidence. As a critic, you want to be a person who enables confidence by offering solutions, not one who drags it down by serving a laundry list of minor complaints.

So at the end of this, you might say to me, “Nikki, if I can only really make one major comment and I must restrain my true feelings, why should I read other writers’ manuscripts at all?” Well, the obvious answer is that if you intend to grow as a writer, you will someday BE the author who needs that critical read. And when that time comes, it will serve you to have paid sensitivity forward. But there is a more direct positive effect to reading and thinking soulfully of other writers’ manuscripts—you can apply the experience to problem-solving your own stories.

Have I left anything out? Yes, lots of stuff. I’d love to have readers’ thoughts on this. Please feel free to post your own thoughts and feeling about critical reads, as a critiquer or writer or even an interested bystander. And do feel free to ask for clarification on any particular point I’ve made.

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

43 comments

  • Can I just add a vote for Bootsie to have his own story (or series of stories)?

    It sounds like it’d be a hoot! *grins*

    As for beta-readers, I’ve rarely used them, but when I do, I appreciate their efforts. I think I’ve been lucky, though. On those rare occasions, they’ve always told me what they liked, as well as asked perninent questions regarding whether I meant to say such-and-such.

    I did read what Kirsten had to say above, and I have to say that I’m not sure she gets that a beta-reader isn’t actually responsible for making a story publication-ready, at least not to the best of MY knowledge.

    The betas I’ve had were meant to make my stories as SUBMISSION-ready as possible. Call it a first-edit or pre-edit, if you must, but… yeah.

    In any case, great post, NK. Thanks for it! 🙂

    ~Tis

    Reply
  • Dev: I’m not sure what you mean by this because, in my experience, I’m having someone read my work as second eyes, to see what I’m not seeing.

    NK: Well, I guess what I was trying to say there was that if we believed our manuscripts were utterly flawless, we wouldn’t bother giving them to anyone for a critical read, at all. Did that make sense?

    Reply
  • I think that a writer’s relationship with their editor comes in many colors and what you’ve written above may be very true for you, but to imply–as you have–that it applies to most (if not all) authors is overstepping. I would personally never need this much hand-holding during an edit and I would NEVER expect my beta to apologize to ME for giving an opinion I /asked/ for.

    Those people whom I’ve done editing for would /want/ me to mention everything that gave me pause. There would be no expectation of “picking my battles”. I think there are as many authors like that as there are as you’ve described.

    Mostly, if an author is asking for a read on a manuscript, she senses that there is something wrong with it but doesn’t know what.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this because, in my experience, I’m having someone read my work as second eyes, to see what I’m not seeing. I don’t necessarily believe there’s something wrong with the work. Hell, I’m usually giving it to them feeling I’m at a good place and it’s time to see if they can poke holes. I want my work to stand up to major deconstruction because, if it does, I’ve done my job and so has my editor. And if it doesn’t, then I’m not done with that work.

    Reply
  • Thank you Nicole! This is great information. I am part of new writer’s group that will be meeting for the first time tomorrow night. We’re a combination of already published with a history of success to just getting out of the gate with submitting manuscripts.

    I am going to take this essay of yours to the group to help start a conversation of how we can benefit one another most w/o wanting to poke one another’s eyes out!

    Cheers! 🙂

    Reply
    • Good luck to you Andy! Actually, there is one thing that I left out that’s the really important if you’re doing an in-person group: never make a joke about any aspect of an author’s manuscript, not matter how good that joke is–the writer’s group is not and appropriate venue for stand-up comedy.

      Reply
  • Great points, Nicole! The one major point I’d add is to be sure both reader and author are clear in advance about what kind of editing is being undertaken. Beta can consist of anything from basic proofreading to substantive, in-depth critique, and the fastest way to screw it all up is for the author to expect one thing and the reader give them another! 🙂

    Reply
    • Hey Shae,

      Yes, you’re right. It didn’t occur to me to include (or even think about) that when I was writing the essay at all, but I can see that it’s completely true.

      Reply
  • Great article, Nicole – but in case any of my betas are reading this, I’d like to say that if there are three major problems with anything I send them, I’d like to know about ALL of them! 😉

    I think the key thing is the relationship between the beta reader and the author. If it’s a new one, caution is advisable – but if you’ve been together a while, chances are you’ll know exactly how they handle things.

    But at the end of the day, if there’s something wrong with my work I’d MUCH rather hear about it in a quiet email from a friend than on a one-star review! 😀

    Reply
    • JL: But at the end of the day, if there’s something wrong with my work I’d MUCH rather hear about it in a quiet email from a friend than on a one-star review!

      NK: True that, JL… True that.

      Reply
  • Thank you for the wonderful post and the very good advice!
    All the points you made apply to non-fiction texts as well. In my experience it helps a lot to be very polite and understated, to not dramatise what I see as a mistake. If you ask the writer for an explanation they might see what’s wrong themselves and you needn’t point it out for them. That worked quite good when a friend asked me to read her exam papers and such.
    I have to say that it is hard for me to keep myself in check and not underline each and every thing I find that could be improved. It’s quite a lesson in self-restraint. 😉

    Reply
    • Hi Calathea,

      Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, I agree restraint is probably the hardest thing but if you don’t then there’s a real danger of shutting the author down completely.

      Reply
  • This is a very interesting and informative article. Thanks for the insight.

    I’ve betaed a LOT and usually have an exchange of emails first where I establish what the author wants from me. I’ve probably made all the mistakes you mention above, and have apologised for them if given the chance.
    I think it’s a huge privilege to be entrusted with someone’s story. It’s just like baby sitting – if you’re allowed to bath the baby you don’t slather it in drain cleaner and shove it in the dishwasher.

    Reply
    • Hi Elin,

      Well, as I hope I made clear, I have, myself made every single mistake mentioned above too–and many more. Editing is its own art form, really. And as with all art, there is a learning curve. 🙂

      Reply

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