Aug 24 2011

How to Critique or Beta-Review Works That You Find Awful

Published by at 3:16 am under Manuscript Reviews and Criticism

1. As with any critique, be polite and focus on potential improvements rather than insults.  For example, “I’d like to see deeper characters–it would probably help to flesh out their personalities and let them make unusual decisions compared to other characters in their genre”  is vastly more useful than “Your characters sucked.”  If the author is ever convinced that you’re not trying to help, you have virtually no chance of helping.  And, if you’re not trying to help, don’t waste your time or the author’s.


2. Don’t be dishonest, but do let them know what you liked.   It’d be very, very rare for somebody to write thousands of words without somehow doing something remotely effective.  For example, if an author had major issues with spelling but had really solid punctuation, it might be helpful to say something like “The punctuation was much cleaner than the spelling.”  It’s a bit softer than something like “The spelling needs a lot of work” and helps remind the author that you’re trying to help.  The positive encouragement will help the writer put in the time and work necessary to make any fixes and, let’s face it, if a novel manuscript really is awful it’s going to take hundreds or thousands of hours to rewrite it to a professional standard.


3. Try to appreciate what the author is trying to accomplish.  “I hate this genre, so this is really bad” is a really unhelpful mindset.  If you’re reviewing, say, a romance, I’d recommend focusing on how to help the author make it the best romance it could be.  Since you’re probably not incredibly familiar with the genre/market, there may be some gaps in your ability to help, and that’s okay.  For example, I frequently write things like “I’m not in the target audience for this and I don’t know how your target readers will react, so I’d recommend asking some romance fans whether it’s believable and/or acceptable that the main character is dating one guy while flirting with another.  Personally, I thought that made her hard to like.”  Even though the author probably isn’t aiming at readers like you, that’ll give her some potential questions to ask the readers that are most important to her project.


3.1. If you can’t appreciate what the author is trying to accomplish, please don’t critique the book.  Forcing yourself to read something usually makes for an unpleasant reading experience and an unhelpful review.  Here are some polite and professional ways to say no:

  • “I’m sorry, but I don’t really enjoy that genre.”
  • “I’m sorry, but I don’t know enough about that genre (or subgenre) to help you.”
  • “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time.”
  • “I’m sorry, but I’m really different than your target audience and I don’t think I’d be very helpful.”  (For example, maybe you’re an atheist that’s been asked to critique religious fiction or a conservative that’s been asked to critique a liberal allegory).
  • “I’m sorry, but I don’t review fan-fiction. Could you please send me an original project?”


4. If at any point the story makes you angry and/or disgruntled, just put it down.  If you can come back and finish the job when you have a clearer head, great.  If you can’t, it’d be perfectly fine to give up on the review altogether.  Proceeding with a story you hate is almost always a lose-lose proposition–you won’t like reading it and the review won’t help the author.


5. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt, especially if you don’t know that much about him/her.  Please don’t be that guy that got in a pissing contest with an 8 year old.  (Nice move, champ).  If you’re a writer yourself, always be a good ambassador for your brand by being polite, friendly and professional at all times (especially in a medium where the records are highly visible and hard to get rid of).  As it turns out, there really is bad publicity.

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “How to Critique or Beta-Review Works That You Find Awful”

  1. Adventures in Children's Publishingon 24 Aug 2011 at 5:40 am

    Great post! So rare to see this topic, and it’s an important one. As with many of your posts, this will definitely be going in our Friday round-up as a recommendation. I’m tweeting it too!

    Thanks for all you do for the writing community,


  2. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 24 Aug 2011 at 6:58 am

    Thanks, Martina! Do you have any amusing and/or harrowing stories about critiques gone horribly wrong/right?

  3. Grenacon 24 Aug 2011 at 7:38 am

    I had to do this once and it was quite difficult to find something to praise them for, but not impossible. Improvement from earlier works, potential in the plot, improvement in spelling/grammar, etc.

    Although what I hated wasn’t so much the story, but the attitude of the author towards reviews that weren’t compliments. We had a bad experience with this person.

  4. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 24 Aug 2011 at 8:05 am

    “Although what I hated wasn’t so much the story, but the attitude of the author towards reviews that weren’t compliments.” Agreed! That’s absolutely a deal-breaker for me. Some other things that might convince me to stop reviewing somebody’s work:

    –The author wants more free time from me than I can give him/her. I’ll explain my schedule restrictions 1-2 times, but if the person keeps pushing me after that, I’ll let him/her go. If an author needs more than a few hours weekly from me, I’m charging for it unless I really like the author.

    –The author doesn’t make enough progress on mechanical issues like spelling/grammar/punctuation/capitalization. Even marginal improvement suggests that the author takes his/her writing more seriously.

    –The author gets defensive in response to polite advice.

    –The author does not behave like a professional. There was one author who hired me for freelance work and subsequently asked me for advice on defrauding another freelancer.

  5. Grenacon 24 Aug 2011 at 8:49 am

    Points 2-4 are exactly why it was such a chore to review, but it had to be done. This person claims to want to improve, yet they don’t seem to take any advice seriously, or even apply it. It’s really sad because it’s so exciting to improve one’s writing.

    I asked for some advice in exchange too, but they were conveniently ‘busy’. Wouldn’t mind it if this person wouldn’t keep asking for reviews.

    “asked me for advice on defrauding another freelancer.”

    -That is grounds for an instaban. But seriously, what?

  6. Chihuahua0on 24 Aug 2011 at 2:10 pm

    This is an interesting article, but what about one for a writer about how to deal with a less-than-nice critiques/critiquers and tell a difference from a constructive critique and an outright mean one?

    On the fourm I frequent, there was one person whose only beta reader was making a fuss over a character he didn’t like because of the character’s beliefs (the character was a bit lewd) and wanted the character toned down. Obviously, the reader was thinking that the story was for him only, since he was talking about compromising and everything, so everyone who posted in the thread advised the writer to drop him right away.

  7. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 24 Aug 2011 at 9:02 pm

    “…it was such a chore to review, but it had to be done.” Why did it have to be done? I’d like to raise the possibility that you’re forcing yourself to do something that you don’t actually want to. Really, if you despise the story and the author isn’t serious about getting better, then you’ll probably be happier not reviewing it.

    I’ll think about doing a separate article later, Chihuahua, but here are some preliminary thoughts about dealing with unconstructive critiques.

    –There are some people that would like to help but are not naturally diplomatic or polite. Such reviews might be a bit harder to read (“Your spelling needs work!”) than politer reviews, but they could still be helpful. Personally, I’d give those reviewers latitude on being blunter than I would be because their hearts are in the right place. Also, some editors are pretty blunt and it’s a good plan to learn how to work with different sorts of people.

    –There are some abusive reviewers engaged in some sort of bizarre pissing contest to prove to themselves that they are better than the author. Most of these reviews are completely useless because they don’t bring up constructive suggestions for growth. I would recommend disregarding these reviews as soon as possible because they won’t help you grow as a writer and aren’t intended to.

    –It uses words/phrases like “awful,” “really bad,” “terrible” and “sucks” with reckless abandon. I could (maybe) forgive one use, but anything more than that suggests that the reviewer is not trying to help.

    –The reviewer states everything as facts and orders. However, unless a review just focuses on obvious mechanical errors (like “tehm” –> “them”), almost everything in a review will be opinions. A reviewer that uses personal qualifiers like “I think,” “I feel” and/or “I’d suggest/recommend” probably isn’t trying to get in a pissing contest with you. An author that condescends heavily is probably not trying to help.

    –The reviewer gets too personal and/or reaches negative conclusions about the author based on the quality of the writing. For example, I think it’d be really dubious to imply or state that the author is an idiot because he/she doesn’t understand writing mechanics yet. I’ve heard of a reviewer getting in a pissing contest with an author that turned out to be a grade-schooler. (Nice move, champ). Alternately, perhaps the author has only been learning English for a few years but writes in English because it has a bigger online audience than his/her native language.

    –Quickly cut off contact with a disruptive/abusive reviewer. Calmly and politely send him/her a link or two about how to review diplomatically and wish him/her the best of luck editing other people’s works. I’d recommend limiting this to 3 sentences. No whining.

    –Do not bother arguing the substance of an abusive review. You won’t persuade him/her and you’re wasting those hours of time. As a writer, you’ll never have every reader in your camp and that’s okay! It’s much more productive to get 2+ new readers than to waste your time on one person that has already demonstrated he’s a hard case.

    –Delete abusive reviews, if possible.

  8. Chihuahua0on 24 Aug 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Wow. You typed all of that up today, or did you already have it on file? You should definitely make an article on it in the future.

    “The reviewer gets too personal and/or reaches negative conclusions about the author based on the quality of the writing.” I heard a similar piece of advice for critiquers: “Don’t presume anything about the writer.” since it could range from a kid to a published author. However, I think it’s the writer’s obligation to mention if their English is less than stellar, so these things don’t happen as much. But the rule still applies.

  9. Grenacon 24 Aug 2011 at 11:08 pm

    I’ve heard of a reviewer getting in a pissing contest with an author that turned out to be a grade-schooler. (Nice move, champ). ROFL

    Actually, to be completely honest with you…the reviewing part was most fun. I love reviewing when I know I can actually help with something. It makes me very happy to know that I can contribute more to the writer’s growth than just “this is good”. But after pressing ‘send’ that feeling goes away because the review is done. I don’t know if that made any sense to anyone.

    It was a chore to actually read the story, multiple tries help. That’s the only reason I won’t do it again. At least the author’s attitude can be toned by throwing back their own ‘I want to improve’ statements.

    Ah, I’ll definitely be looking forward to that article. That advice up there is excellent.

    The author I dealt with has dealt with a lot of very harsh reviews that made good points, but were either very rude or blunt.

  10. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 24 Aug 2011 at 11:30 pm

    “You typed all of that up today, or did you already have it on file?” It was just 500 words. The writing took probably an hour, along with light editing and reorganizing.

    “I think it’s the writer’s obligation to mention if their English is less than stellar, so these things don’t happen as much.” I feel that it’s mainly the reviewer’s obligation to figure out what’s going on without explicit guidance from the author.

    ——A young author may not be comfortable saying “Hey, I’m 8” or whatever on the Internet because his/her parents and teachers have pointed out it is not safe to do so. Even if a young author were comfortable sharing his age, a moderator might delete that line. (I would).

    ——Fan-fiction writers usually won’t come out and say “I’m just writing this for fun and not because I want to be a professional writer, so don’t grill me in the reviews.” It’s the reviewer’s job to figure out what sort of review (if any) would be best. For example, is the author trying to get professionally published? If not, grilling him would probably be impolite and a waste of time (unless she specifically asked for tough reviews).

    ——An author may not feel comfortable bashing his own writing ability (“hey, I’m not very good and English isn’t my first language”) because it tends to scare off prospective readers.

    If I’m not sure what the author’s goals are, I might throw in phrases like “If your goal is to get this professionally published, I’d recommend…” because that helps make sure that the author and I are on the same page. If it turns out that we aren’t on the same page, a more flexible review like that will make me sound like less of an asshat.

  11. Brian McKenzie (B. Mac)on 25 Aug 2011 at 12:49 am

    PS: I’ve written up Dealing with Unconstructive Criticism here. There’s not much new content, but the formatting has improved.

  12. Wingson 25 Aug 2011 at 9:55 am

    It’s not so much that I hate the works friends want me to review as I dislike the genres overall, though it doesn’t help that with some people I find the work awful too.

    And sometimes, it’s like all of the above are conspiring to drive me insane.


    WINGS: I think this is weirdly phrased. Could be a grammar error, but I’m not entirely sure.

    AUTHOR: You’re wrong.

    *After consulting with an English teacher*

    WINGS: …See?

    AUTHOR: *Grabs the manuscript and leaves*

    WINGS: It feels as though you’re trying to imitate both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. I know you’re trying to write Christian fantasy, but if it’s too heavy handed you might end up alienating some readers.

    AUTHOR: *huffily* It’s not for a teenage audience, it’s for adults.

    WINGS: …then why are you making me review it?

    WINGS: …Maybe try explaining the plot to me. I can’t really review it if I don’t know what’s going on, right?

    AUTHOR: Sure!

    *After being treated to a mind-numbing, cliche-filled monologue that lasts for an hour and a half*

    WINGS: *Reduced to mumbling “elven vampire-mages” over and over while rocking back and forth*

    And those are just the short incidents. At the very least, she seems to be ignoring me now, so my writing life just got a bit less stressful. It’s nice not to have to read the literary equivalent of a giant hammer with “YOU NEED JESUS” printed on it. I’ve no real problem with Christian fantasy in general, but when it’s just thinly-veiled propaganda I’m turning it down right away.

    – Wings

  13. Tahlia Newlandon 31 Aug 2011 at 7:32 pm

    This is excellent advice. Thank you. I find it really difficult to review books that are just plain bad. I have a review policy that states that if I can’t finish a book, then I won’t review it and as a fellow author, I won’t publish a review that won’t help the author find readers. I do tell the author how I feel though because we all need feedback.

  14. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 8:52 pm

    “I have a review policy that states that if I can’t finish a book, then I won’t review it…” That strikes me as wise. Personally, I feel reasonably comfortable offering someone my suggestions on a partial manuscript because a lot of novel-publishers only read a small portion of the book before deciding whether to ask for the full manuscript. (So I feel that understanding what beta-reviewers think about your first few chapters could be highly useful, even if they haven’t read through the entire book).

  15. Angela Ackermanon 06 Sep 2011 at 10:51 am

    Great advice–this is such a tricky thing, critiquing something that is clearly not ready. I try to always stay objective and helpful, focusing on the writing and never the writer, but if something bothers me so much that it colors the rest of the book and I can’t be objective, I’ll stop critiquing and tell the author that I’m not the right person to review it for them, and explain politely what caused me to feel I shouldn’t critique it.

    Thanks for this! You guys rock!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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