Editing and Expectations is a blog series about the entire editing process, from figuring out when and how to start working with an editor to getting the most out of your edits - and everything in between. This is the third in the series.
So you’ve gone and found an editor, and now, moment of truth: you’re sending your baby over to them for editing. If you know what editors look for, you can anticipate what kind of criticism might come back to you and address the issues before you send it over.
So I want to walk you through how I do a manuscript critique to hopefully give you a pretty good feel for what I generally look for when I edit.
It’s difficult for me to articulate just how I edit. A lot of what I do feels very instinctual, in that I can make a change without really recognizing in the moment why I’m doing it. It’s not that I don’t have a reason for it – because I can always, after the fact, explain why something isn’t working and why I’ve made a change – but that it’s just something that I do almost automatically. In this way, editing is an art; the technical bits are there and underlie what I do, but it’s how I choose to use them and interpret them. Like writing, editing is very organic and very personal.
To start a manuscript critique, I will usually read through the piece once for context and to understand what I’m working with, how the story unfolds, and just to get an overall impression. I might make changes and correct little things along the way, and I’ll maybe make a few comments on things that strike me, but by and large, this round is more reading than editing.
The second time through is much more careful and deliberate. I’m registering errors, typos, and grammar and style issues and if there’s an error that repeats frequently or a missing word here and there, I’ll note it, but these aren’t my focus in a manuscript critique; that’s for copyediting or line editing later on.
These are the main categories that I consider when critiquing:
For me, character is the most important element of a story. Being able to understand where a character is coming from and how they’re motivated is the way I get drawn into the narrative. So characters need to come through loud and clear. I don’t have to like the character, but I have to be invested in them in some way and care where their arc is taking them.
For main characters:
Establish early on who the character is, where they come from, and where they’re going. After that, consistency is key. Do the actions of the character make sense with what we know of them? Are they acting like a real human person would in the situation they’re in, and in a way that is consistent with the character as they’ve been established? Do they interact with other characters in a dynamic way? I’m also looking for growth in the character over the course of the story – do they change or are they static? Have you thrown enough conflict at them to prompt a character evolution?
For minor/side characters:
Consistency with these characters is just as important as with main characters. These characters run the risk of being neglected or not fully fleshed out – they don’t have to have a huge arc that you’re exploring but they do have to be dimensional and not just flat stock characters or tired tropes (the wet blanket best friend, the evil henchman, etc.)
Plot and Pacing
I’m looking here at how you’ve structured the story and how you’re playing within and outside the lines of the genre. In terms of structure, did you grab me right from the very beginning? Those first few chapters are going to be the thing that keeps not only an agent or a publishing house reading further but also your reader who’s picking it up in a bookstore or downloading a sample on Amazon, so you have to hit on something interesting right off the bat. Nail that first beat, then keep hitting them throughout the story.
The timing of these beats is also crucial. The story should be paced so that it Pacing the story so that it feels neither too fast - like you’re racing to hit a beat with no time in between to breathe - or too slow - where your reader has already forgotten what the first beat was by the time you hit the second. It's a delicate balancing act.
Does the action in the transition time in between beats flow naturally? Is the conflict believable or is it too much of stretch? (If you’re writing a romance, for example, is the thing keeping your lovers apart merely a contrivance to keep them apart or is it a natural consequence of previous actions?) Are you playing within the established bounds of your genre and if so, what are you going to do to differentiate your story from the norm? I'm looking at how you take the tropes and the building blocks of generic conventions and play with them in fresh ways or combinations.
I want to hear what’s unique about your voice, and the voices you give your characters in both the dialogue and in the narration. Whether that’s snappy banter or incisive observation – whatever it is for you – I want to hear why your story is a [Your Name Here] story.
Head hopping is something I’m particularly vigilant about when I edit. I’m fine with multiple perspectives, but I want it to be clearly delineated with a section or chapter break.
When it comes to your characters’ voices, they need to be uniquely you but also distinctly themselves. Each character should have their own manner of speaking that sets them apart. This is especially important if you’re working in first person, where you have one overarching perspective and then need to get out of that mindset for other characters’ dialogue.
I’m also concerned that characters sound appropriate for their circumstances and in their time. So I’d expect a modern twenty-something American to pepper their speech with current slang and speak in contractions, while I’d expect an older, upper-class character in the same book to speak in the complete opposite way. If you’re writing a historical novel, I’m scanning for words that might not have been in use at the time the book was set. For Regencies, for example, I run the manuscript through WriteLikeAusten.com, which highlights the words in the manuscript that were not used by Austen. From there, I’ll look up words that seem like they might be “newer” in an etymological dictionary and see when they first came into use to make sure that the language is authentic to its time.
There are so many other things that I haven’t even begin to touch on: setting, mood, telling too much rather than showing, the rhythm of your words, length, marketability. Every project is different, and there will be things that I latch on to and really run with that in my critique that I haven’t brought up at all here. These things all fall under my overall impressions of the story and here I summarize what’s working, what’s not, and why, and then offer suggestions on how to fix them.
Getting back a thorough critique (mine are usually at least few pages long) and a heavily marked-up manuscript can be really overwhelming, but this leads nicely into next week’s post...
Next week: The editor-author relationship.