First, let me say that I Google’d “Manuscript critique guidelines” and mostly received a list of links for services that charge for critiques. Don’t do this. It’s much better to find other authors at your writing level who will swap critiques with you – such as those at The Author Collective.
Before you send out your mss for critique, clean it up. Any mss found to have multiple punctuation errors, mismatched tenses or the like on the first page will be returned to the author. Be ruthless in revisions – anything that doesn’t advance the storyline, or reveal something about your characters, cut it. Prepare your mss as if you were submitting to a publisher, then submit it for critique. You may also want to use the guidelines below as you self-edit and revise.
The critiques offered by authors will aim to improve your story, and not be a personal attack. Any author who cannot receive suggestions in a professional manner need not submit to the Author Collective. Set your egos aside; it has nothing to do with you, but how well you conveyed your story. Alternately, when critiquing, give feedback freely and objectively. Give your opinion, but do not attack the writer him/herself.
Make your suggestions and comments specific. Writers need to know what doesn’t work for their story, so point out anything that strikes you as such. No vague “it’s good” or “I liked/didn't like it” comments. State your reasons in as clear and concise a manner as possible.
Likewise, feel free to point out where the author has achieved something special – whether you like the character, think the wording’s exceptional, etc. Add some positive feedback to the critique.
Even if the genre is one you don’t normally read, use the same objectivity you would for any other story. Consider the target readers, and gear your critique toward pleasing them. We are all here to help one another. Critique as you would want to be critiqued.
So below are some things to consider while critiquing (subject to tweaking).
1. Opening. The ever-important hook. Does the story start off with a bang and grab your interest? Does it start at the appropriate place? Some authors begin the story before the action, while others begin too far forward.
2. Setting. Does the author add enough setting detail to the scene? If you’re reading and can’t visualize where the action’s taking place, let the author know.
3. Description. Does it add to the storyline or setting, or is it merely purple prose? Characters should never be obvious by describing themselves (never use the old “seeing him/herself in the mirror” trick).
4. Dialogue. Is it realistic? Do you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on an actual conversation rather than reading a stiff exchange? Does the author portray the entire scene so you don’t feel as if the characters are merely “talking heads”?
5. Show vs. tell. Describe from the protagonist’s POV to keep the reader in the story. Don’t merely tell the reader the hero walked along the street. Let the reader feel the hero’s boot heels hitting the hard pavement, etc. so they can experience the story, not merely read it.
6. Line edits. Punctuation, grammar, spelling errors, typos. Although authors are expected to correct most of these before submitting, we all make mistakes. Please point them out.
7. GMC. The hero and heroine should each have plenty of Goal, Motivation and Conflict. I expect any author at this level to be familiar with these terms.
8. Plot. Does the action make sense? Does the plot have any holes? Places where the storyline seems to bottom out and the thread disappears? Does it make sense? Stories should follow a certain arc, ratcheting up the tension along the way.
9. Pacing and flow. If you find yourself skipping ahead, the pace is too slow. Suggest the author condense some sections/pages.
10. Character. Is the character three-dimensional? Does each character maintain a true voice? If every character sounds the same, readers may become confused. Each should have a unique voice.
11. POV. Do you know whose story the writer is telling? Head hopping/POV shifts can be jarring for readers. Omniscient and other advanced POVs are difficult for writers to do well, and can put off some readers.
12. Trite phrases. Writers should avoid them to begin with, but if one slips ito the story, please point it out and suggest the author reword.
13. Stall phrases. Point out overuse of any of these words: that; just; tried to; started to.
14. Sentence structure. Sentence length should vary throughout to keep the reader’s interest high. Short, punchy sentences help ratchet up the tension.
15. Passive voice. Make the character perform the action, rather than the action merely happening.
16. Use strong verbs. Overuse of “was,” “were,” indicates weak writing. Make the verbs as expressive as possible to indicate the action.
17. Speech tags. If used at all, it’s best to keep them simple: “he said.” If you notice areas where the author can drop them because another action indicates who’s speaking, point it out.
18. Overexplaining. Trust your reader to infer from the action what is taking place without stating the action outright. If overdone, writers may insult readers.
19. The end. Does it satisfy you as a reader? Was it logcal to the storyline? Predictable? Too abrupt?
Many writers use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word to suggest alternate wording, or correct punctuation, grammar, etc.
Likewise, the Comments feature is very helpful – highlight a particular word/sentence/section to make a suggestion or ask a question etc.
Remember critiques are merely suggestions. The writer may not agree with the points, but should take note if more than one critiquer makes the same comment – this signals that readers may be confused also.
But it is up to the authors themselves which suggestions they ultimately take action on. It’s your story, and you want it to be the best it possibly can be. So keep an open mind when reading critiquers’ comments.
Alternate Online Critique Groups
Critique Circle http://www.critiquecircle.com/default.asp