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 So, when a writer asks you to read an unpublished manuscript, please say yes.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.


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