Roughly once a month I receive a request from writers wanting me to “look at” their manuscript and give feedback or critique. Also known as a manuscript evaluation or a manuscript feedback report, a manuscript critique is a very general analysis of your manuscript in terms of genre, story, voice and mechanics such as grammar. Less comprehensive than a structural edit, I still don’t recommend you seek manuscript feedback reports or evaluations, even when you have taken the manuscript as far as you think you can on your own. It’s not just risky to your book in its early stages, there’s three things your critique won’t give you, that I’ve learned you need much more instead.
Side note: A manuscript critique costs between $300 and $2000 for a few sample chapters to a draft of up to 80 000 words. Read on for my thoughts on why you should avoid them!
Here’s my problem with critiques:
Writers rarely say “I want you to pick apart what’s wrong with my plot, story or structure” or “I just want you to tell me it’s wonderful and I haven’t wasted a year / ten years of my life” but as a memoir author whose done my fair share of feedback-based courses (ugh), I’ve learned to read between the lines.
I don’t offer manuscript feedback or critiques as I had many not-so-positive experiences that showed me what writers actually need is 3 simple things – none of which includes feedback on the writing itself, particularly just a piece of the story or one chapter.
But first, let me tell you that most writing courses do centre on the feedback model.
I studied Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, which was (and still is) considered one of the best courses you could do if you wanted to become a published writer or author here in Melbourne, but because the course focused on the (very flawed) feedback and critique model, when I graduated after two years of classes and workshops and critiques, I was none-the-wiser as to how to get published. We focused on the craft of writing, and the camaraderie with other writers. All well and good – but I wanted concrete steps to move forward from just chatting about my jottings!
One of my novel submissions was a chapter from my then novel-in-progress. Notes from my teacher included a positive affirmation about how suspenseful that chapter was (great!) – but where did the story need to go next?
How could I turn that (apparently suspenseful – yay) scene or chapter into a complete book?
How do you outline a plot?
What are the fundamentals of story structure?
We spent so much time workshopping and critiquing that we never learnt the basics of plot, story structure and storytelling devices. It was all craft, craft, craft.
In my favourite class (Creative Non-Fiction), I wrote an essay on the death of Princess Diana. My teacher loved it, noting in her effusive compliments, “you should try to get it published!”.
My ego was certainly fluffed up, sure, but how, exactly, should I “try and get it published?”! And where?
Fast forward 21 years and I now have two published books and thousands of published essays and articles, but none of this knowledge came from what I learned getting feedback and critiques. You should also know that neither of my published books had paid critiques before I pitched them to a publisher.
What was far more valuable and worthy of my effort was to speak to people in the industry (published authors, agents and editors who represented nonfiction) who could give me the following…
There are 3 things you NEED to move forward with your memoir instead of a manuscript critique or feedback.
Let’s explore these in more detail…
The problem with writing a book is that any kind of manuscript – particularly in the early stages – is a wild and wieldy beast. The creative brain, particularly when it’s in the birthing stage of a new project, could go in any direction. You need direction whether you’ve got three chapters or three drafts of your memoir.
You need someone to say: This is what you need to do with your manuscript. This is how you outline your story. This is how you go through your first draft (and second draft, and third draft) and decide how to revise, what to cut and keep. This is what makes a memoir, this is how long it needs to be, these are the unique conundrums you’ll inevitably face, and this is how you can address these issues.
You need direction. Not sentence-by-sentence analysis of your words which are still finding their way into form.
The main reason I think so many people ask for critiques and for friends and family (ugh! Don’t do this!) to “take a look” at their manuscript is not because they want a blow-by-blow breakdown of what’s working or not working in the story, I think it’s actually the opposite. There’s a basic human need for connection, camaraderie and encouragement (according to Abraham Maslow, one of our most basic human needs, after food, water and shelter, is belonging). We want to know that we haven’t just wasted months / years of our life on a project and we want to speak with and connect with fellow writers who are working on a similar type of project. We want to know that we aren’t alone, and we want encouragement, inspiration and support!
A critique is not the same. An editor is not your friend, they’re a ruthless manuscript analyst, so don’t go the paid critique option when you REALLY need encouragement in this vulnerable, quite lonely and gruelling endeavour that is writing a memoir manuscript (particularly if you’re exploring trauma or very tough memories).
When I was working on my memoir manuscripts I was lucky enough, having spent years working as a freelance writer, to have a few writer friends who’d ‘graduated’ to author, who I called upon for support and encouragement in the process. Two had written memoirs. It’s important to seek advice only from those who are expert in your genre. There’s an ENORMOUS difference in writing general nonfiction and writing memoir. Memoir requires a different type of grit.
Without those early bolstering conversations, I wouldn’t have felt the inspiration and courage to keep going when things were tricky.
The problem with the workshop model when I was at RMIT was that aside from the assignments which would get a pithy few sentences from our teachers, those writers I was reading my work to were ALL beginners, were ALL unpublished, we were all working on completely different styles of writing and books so you couldn’t trust it and even if someone was encouraging, I would secretly think to myself “but what do they know?”
Getting encouragement, camaraderie and advice from writers who are expert in your chosen genre is key.
The very nature of the creative process is uncertainty. There’s no way around it – you’re creating a world on the page where it was once blank, and this involves a huge number of choices, not just about how much time to spend on your writing but also where to focus the story, when to finish it, how long it needs to be, etc etc etc. I recently hosted a workshop in 90 Day Memoir which was all about navigating the messy middle of our memoirs. I can give you one of the important steps: lessen uncertainty as much as you can.
Having a blueprint or even a guidebook from someone who has walked the path before gives you a map of the terrain so that you at least know where those big swamps are and you can ensure you don’t get snagged there, never to emerge.