Posted by: Phil Anderson | February 22, 2015

What’s Wrong with my Manuscript?

Last month I joined a critique group to help me with my writing. We submit our work to the group, usually a chapter at a time, and then we read and make comments and suggestions on other people’s submissions. We’re not required to read everything (that would be overwhelming) but we have to do two critiques for every submission. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not as easy at it seems.

There’s a wide variety of work being submitted for criticism, of all styles and genres and for all audiences. I’m still trying to decide if it’s best to read pieces that are similar to what I write, or choose something totally different. My work-in-process is Young Adult Fantasy, but if I read other YA manuscripts I may have a tendency to overlook the common mistakes or patterns or tropes that we all use and that keep us from standing out. On the other hand, do I have the expertise to offer constructive input on a historical romance?

I’ve read a few submissions that are well written, and I come to the end impressed and without any suggestions for improvement. Does it count as a critique if I don’t have anything helpful to say? Or maybe I just didn’t dig deep enough or really analyze the piece as well as I should.

Often I finish reading a chapter and I know that it needs work. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but nothing specific caught my attention as problematic. That’s when I start to think, “If I can’t fix my own manuscript, what business do I have trying to help others?”

After a few frustrating attempts, I decided to take a break from reading submissions and trying to make comments. Instead I began to read critiques that other people have done, to see what problems they highlight and what suggestions they make. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve found:

  • Some people focus on spelling and grammar errors, and passages that are unclear or confusing. This is the type of correction that seems most obvious to me. The error jumps right off the page and is hard to overlook.
  • Many people point out the common use of “passive voice” rather than “active voice.” For instance, “The children were scared by the old man’s frown” should be reworded as “The old man frowned and scared the children.” Both are grammatically correct, but one has the activity and energy of someone doing something while the other is the passive result of something that happened. This doesn’t jump out to me as an error, but it can make a scene feel dull.
  • Another common suggestion is to “show, don’t tell.” Rather than saying, “she was happy when he arrived,” one might suggest, “her eyes lit up and she smiled when he arrived.” Both give the same meaning, but the second adds some description and personality. Again, this is something that doesn’t stand out to me; I have to be watching for it.
  • The most difficult is to look beyond the words on the screen and recognize what is missing. “The scene needs more this,” or “it would help to include more that.” If it’s not already on the page, I don’t generally think about it.

Seeing and trying to understand how other people read and interpret writing has been helpful for me, not just in critiquing other writers’ submissions, but in analyzing and editing my own writing. I think this can apply to a lot more areas than just writing. Are you good at offering constructive criticism? Can you make specific suggestions, or is there just a vague sense that something could be better? Please leave comments below.

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