Critical Readers – Tips for Readers

So, a writerly friend has asked you to read their work and you’ve agreed. Congratulations, you’ve completed step #1! Reading to critique, or to help a writer, is different from simply reading for pleasure. Here are some things to keep in mind.

#1 – writers need readers who can help them polish their work before sending it out to the public. No one gets it right the first time and very few writers can get it right on their own without that second (or third or fourth) set of eyes. Open any work of fiction and there will be names in the acknowledgements listed as “first readers” or whatever phrase they choose. So, when a writer asks you to read an unpublished manuscript, please say yes. Obviously if you’re swamped to the point of breaking, for your own sanity say ‘not right now’ but please offer to read another project, or this project at a later stage.

#2 – Be clear on what the writer expects of you. I used to post work on a writing forum, asking for help. I was a lot younger then and I knew my writing needed a lot of work (it still does). What I’d get were comments like “Nice work” or “Not my preferred genre but you write well”. What I wanted were comments like “Good chapter but about halfway through the dialogue falls flat” or “You know the servant’s name changes half way through this section”. What I needed was technical and consistency editing, what I got was general opinions. When you are given a piece ask straight out what the writer is looking for. And go back and read the Tips for Writers article since it details the types/stages of the editorial process. If they need help with technical, give then help with the technical. Of course if they want consistency help and you notice a typo, highlight it for them anyways.

#3 – Be honest about what you can provide. If you’re not very good at technical editing, say so. Offer to help with consistency instead. If it’s a genre you don’t like, say so. Don’t read to give a general opinion because you won’t be able to comment on the quality of the writing if you’re too busy disliking the genre. You can read for technical though since typos are the same in every genre. Be honest about how long you think it will take, how much you have on your plate, etc. I gave a piece to my dad and didn’t realize he wouldn’t have time to read it before the contest deadline. Lack of communication on both our parts and I missed a good contest.

#4 – Be clear and detailed in your notes. How you edit will depend on your personal style/preference, and the physical format of the piece (paper or screen). If working on paper make typo corrections directly on the text (red pen not required). Short comments and notes can be made between the lines or in the margins. Longer notes should be made on the back of the sheet or on a separate paper. Put a number 1 beside what the note reference, circle it, then put a #1 beside the comment (next comment gets a 2, etc) so the writer knows what you’re talking about. If you’re working on the screen you can use the Comment option. Select the word or phrase that needs correcting, hit New Comment, and type in the correction. For a longer passage highlight the first word, or the last period, and write out your note. You can also use the separate sheet of paper (either a notepad in front of you or a new document on the computer) as long as you signify which comment lines up with which part of the story.
Typos don’t require any explanation when you correct them. Things like missed words or changed names require a brief note (hey, you missed a word here, maybe “her”; who’s James? did you mean Jeff?). If you notice something that distracts you, bothers you, is confusing or flat or unbelievable, or generally doesn’t sit well with you for any reason, you need to point out what and why. “This section of dialogue was confusing. I lost track of who was talking.” “Amy starts out okay but by chapter 3 she felt like a cardboard cut out. Her responses are too cliched.” “I couldn’t read chapter 5, it was too graphic for me. I know the murder is a major part of the book but you might lose readers if it’s too gory. Try focusing more on the emotional instead of the physical? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.” Etc, and so on. Writers need that level of detail so they know what you were thinking and what other readers might think. That gives them a direction to take the changes.

#5 – Be polite and respectful. Yes, you are being asked to point out mistakes. That doesn’t give you the right to be cruel, rude, or mean in the process. Saying “your story sucked, I couldn’t read it” tells the writer nothing except that there are a lot of errors, of some sort, and you’re a grump. Saying “I found the story hard to read because of all the typos. Could you do another edit and give it back to me? Or would you like me to do some technical editing for you?” tells the writer why you didn’t like the story at this stage, and what they need to do to fix it, and it’s politely conveyed.
When I do a read through I always include a brief cover letter to the writer. I start and end this note with something positive about their work: a character I loved, a chapter I found delightful or witty or well written, an overall sense of liking the book, or the readability was great – whatever.
So, start with a positive:
“Dear Writer, I finished reading your story. What a great concept for a novel!”
Then a brief overview of each aspect of the book:
“Your writing style is easy to read and the pacing was good. I did make a lot of technical corrections, especially in the earlier chapters. (They can go to the manuscript for details) I did find the relationship between FMC and MMC awkward at times. I left you some notes about that. There were a few other scenes that need some work but overall I think you’re on the right track.”
Then your positive ending:
“Keep up the good work, I can’t wait to see it finished. Signed, the Reader”
That positive beginning and ending may be the only positive words you have to say about the entire work. And even if you give nothing but ‘negative’ feedback, be polite, offer encouragement and suggestions, and remember, you don’t have the right to crush a person’s dreams.
EXCEPTIONS: if you’re reading a really rough draft for your sister or best friend and it sucks and you know that turning to them halfway through the story and saying “Hey, this sucks” with a laugh in your voice isn’t going to hurt their feelings, do it. But be ready to sit down and discuss why it sucks in heavy detail. Writers love detail.

#6 – Be clear about payment. Often we read for friends or family members and we do it for free. Sometimes we are reading in a professional or semi-professional capacity and we’ll be paid per page, per hour, or per project. If you’re doing this as a favour consider asking for payment in the form of a coffee date. You get a free coffee, they get the chance to talk to you about the notes and suggestions you made. This gives the writer a chance to brainstorm with someone who has read the book. If you both write, be each other’s reader. They can also watch your kids or mow your lawn if they really feel they need to pay you. Most writers don’t have A LOT of money to put into their craft – not after you consider postage, buying paper and ink, the initial software cost, keeping their computer in working order, and just basically trying to survive while their writing isn’t actually making them any money. Writers should offer to at least mention you in the acknowledgments, especially if they’re not paying you.

There you have it. Tips for readers. Next we’ll look at applying the edits, then the extras required for publishing, and then a guest blog about rules for writers.

The Critical Readers – Tips for Writers

Trusted readers, alpha readers, beta readers, editors, first readers … call them what you like, they all serve much the same purpose in a writer’s life. They are the buffer between writers and the public, or writers and a publisher/agent. They read it to give various forms and levels of feedback so our pet project is as perfect as possible before we display it to the world. They are hard to find, hard to keep, and sometimes hard to work with but they are crucial to our editing process.

Readers can serve several functions and sometimes you’ll need different readers for different projects, or for different stages of the editorial process. For example I asked my father to edit a near-future piece I wrote because part of the story is revealed through new casts and he watches more national and international news than I do – he’s also an avid science fiction reader. I had the lovely Ashlyn Forge, fellow Nano writer and the author of the Toys and Soldiers series, edit another of my short stories because it dealt with possibly offensive sexual content. I know she could give it an honest read through because her novels contain sexual themes as well. When she told me it was too taboo, even for her, I knew I had to tone the scene in question down a few notches. 

With each of these examples I had already done extensive edits for continuity, fluidity, and the technical aspects. I needed hep with a specific piece of the story and I found readers who had experience in those areas. 

I sent a short story to some friends because I had written some scenes out of order and pieced them together. I needed someone to verify that I had a continuous, chronologically correct, story arc. I asked them because they are honest and extremely avid readers of multiple genres. Again, I had already done the technical edits.

There are four facets of the reading process you can seek help in: technical editing, continuity and consistency, general opinion, and author specific questions.

TECHNICAL: You are the first technical editor, as I discussed in my last blog entry in this series. You won’t catch everything and neither will the spell checker on your computer. Having a fresh set of eyes to catch typos, missed words, and tricky punctuation is important. Find someone with patience and a good working knowledge of the language you write in. My mother was my technical editor for everything from school papers to short stories and novels. Often you will ask someone to perform one of the other types of read-throughs and the manuscript will come back with one or two typos circled. That happens to me every time I send something out to be read.

CONTINUITY and CONSISTENCY: Unlike technical this requires nothing more than sharp eyes and a willingness to read. It will take the reader less time to read your work than it took you to write it. A minor character you encountered every few weeks during the writing process will appear in a span of days for the reader so they’ll notice if you changed the name halfway through. They should also look for timeline errors, especially in a piece that involves extensive travel. Another aspect is character consistency: are their actions consistent with the personality and motives you’ve given them? Are their responses natural? Is their growth and change believable?

GENERAL: This is more like the reviews you read on Amazon before buying a book. Was the story engaging or did the reader lose interest part way through? Were the characters strong and believable or did they feel flat? Did the prose flow well or was it difficult to read? Was it creative and original? Was the ending satisfying and unique? Ask for some details, some “why do you thing that?”, especially if you get a negative response somewhere. This is often the last task, and given after all the edits are believed to be done.

AUTHOR SPECIFIC: If you know you’re having trouble with a scene, detail, theme, idea, or image, ask for help and opinions from people with experience. Being part of a writer’s group is often good for this. You always see posts like this on the NaNoWriMo Facebook page. “Does anyone know ..?” “Can anyone tell me ..?” And they always get a multitude of replies. 

You may have a reader who does all this. You may have one technical editor and one who does the rest. More opinions will give you a better idea of how your book may be received by the general public. 

Now, after all the read throughs and edits are complete give it to anyone who will read it. Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING has god advice for how to tell when to listen and who to listen to. (I’m paraphrasing because my copy is still packed in a box somewhere) If 10 people read your book and give you different opinions on something, keep it or change it, the choice is yours. If 7 or 8 or 9 out of ten love it and a few hate it, keep it. Conversely, if most or all tell you there’s a problem then change it, no matter how much you love it.

Keep in mind, you’ve asked these people to critique you, and that’s just a pretty way of saying “criticize”. Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t like something you wrote. They are offering help, advice, comments, and their time, often for free. On the other hand critiques should be honest but polite and respectful. If someone is rude or cruel, take what you can from it and don’t ask them to read in the future.

My next article will be Tips for Readers, then I’ll look at how to take all these comments and notes and apply them to the manuscript, and finally we’ll look at the final Author reading and the extras needed for sending out the finished manuscript. 

Book Review: Toys and Soldiers

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog series on editing to bring you this review of Toys and Soldiers Book 4: From Johann to Tannenbaum by Ashlyn Forge.

Toys and Soldiers is an interesting series following a multitude of characters as they struggle to survive in an underground world of strange laws, strict customs, and strange elemental beings. Book 4 focuses on Johann, a young man from a wealthy family. He has no self-esteem, no willpower, no education – in short, no future. What he does have is a love affair with an Elemental named Tanner.

This love affair propels him out of his safe but depressing life and into a series of events which take him on a roller coaster ride through love, lust, depression, success, failure, betrayal, and eventually success and love once again. We watch a sniveling, overweight, loser become a self-assured, strong, independent, and emotionally stable young man.

The world Ashlyn Forge creates is rich with unique culture and technology. It is a hard, unforgiving world, but there are hidden joys and pleasures there too. As Johann and his friends struggle to let go of their pasts and embrace their simple futures  Ashlyn takes the reader on a journey through an underground colony with rich tradition and deep secrets, some of which are artfully revealed creating suspense and sudden twists, others are only hinted at.

The relationship between Johann and Tanner is a sensual and sexual one full of hurt and betrayal. It is a male/male relationship, so reader beware. Even though Johann begins the novel as a pathetic character I was drawn to him and remained fully invested in his story, even when he did some nearly unforgivable things.  The cast of background characters are lively and strong, each with a fully developed personality and back story. Their own struggles, though interwoven with Johann’s and secondary to Johann’s within the narrative, have satisfying conclusions.

I was fortunate enough to be a Beta reader for this novel and saw it through several major changes. Ashlyn is a writer dedicated to perfection. I don’t know that this book is “perfect” but I enjoyed every scene and every character from beginning to end. My only concern is that the sexual nature of the book, and the numerous homosexual relationships are likely to be a put-off for some people. I’m not into that lifestyle, and I don’t go out of my way to read sexually explicit works, but the story in “From Johann to Tannenbaum was strong enough to carry me through the sexual scenes.

I look forward to reading the other six books in the series.

You can find Ashlyn Forge at her website:

The Initial Edit

The initial edit is often the most daunting. You’re sitting in front of your computer or notebook, you’ve just poured your heart and soul into a piece of fiction, and now you have to make changes and possible cut things out. *GULP*

It’s not that bad. Trust me. I’ve been there many, many, times.

My initial edit is often done when I type my work because I very often work by hand. I catch typos (are they still typos if you handwrite?), smooth out rough sentences, shuffle the order of paragraphs, and add to descriptions. But I’ve also typed a rough copy and had to do a more traditional initial edit.

Here’s what’s involved in my typical initial edit:

1) Grammar and Spelling: You are responsible for the bulk of this, and this should be one of your first editing tasks. Not only does this make it easier for your later readers/editors, but you can do this without worrying about objectivity.
2) BIG story holes: It will take you less time to read it than it took you to write it so you will catch the big consistency errors, name changes, etc. in the initial read.
3) Sentence structure: You’re looking for anything that doesn’t read right. This could be tenses getting mixed up, word order, etc. If you wince and re-read it, if you can’t figure out what you meant, or if it’s hard to read, change it.
4) Questions for your readers/editors: I often send a story out with one or two questions, such as “Do you think the ending makes sense?” or “did you see the plot twist coming?” etc. This is probably something that you sort of noticed in the initial read through but you won’t yet have the objectivity to deal with it.

The initial edit can take one short session or 4-6 long sessions depending on the length of the piece. I did two short stories and the first third of a novel is less than a week but they were actually on their second major edit (it’s been a while since I’ve had to do an initial edit). It also depends on how tightly you can control your inner editor during the writing process. My editor is persistent so my typos etc. are minimal. For me it’s plot holes, character building, voice consistency, etc. that cause bigger problems, and that means later edits take longer for me.

Once the initial edit is done and corrections are made it’s time to let others see it, or at least let it rest.