On writing

Tips for critiquing someone else’s unpublished novel

Last week I talked about doing your family and friends a favour by not asking them to read your novel, but as a writer, even an unpublished one, there comes a time when another unpublished writer will ask you to read their novel.

What do you do?

If it’s a novel you think you might like, then by all means say yes. But what if you don’t know that? What if you’re not sure?

I would like to say, “Don’t read it,” but that’s not always possible.

Here are some strategies that might help if you ever find yourself in this situation.


It is generally more beneficial for an author’s writing if you don’t review the manuscript hot off the PC.

The author needs time to distance themselves from the work.

Immediately after they have finished a draft is not the best time to give feedback. They don’t want to know about the flaws then. They simply want you to tell them that the work they have slaved over for the past two years is a masterpiece, perfect in every way. Flaws? They just don’t want to know.

Six months on they’re going to look at that novel in a totally different way.

Even so, I recommend that when you receive a manuscript you read it fairly quickly.

Firstly, it’s polite.

More importantly, the longer you put it off the more the author will hassle you, and the more guilty you will feel.

What type of feedback can you give if the predominant feeling is guilt?

What you need to encourage the author to do is to wait before they give it to, and to re-read it before they do hand it over. That’s no easy feat.

Read the complete novel

When the story is truly bad you may be tempted to read the start and end, and skip most of the middle.


There are two reasons to read the whole book.

Books generally improve. Many novelists don’t get into the swing of writing until well into the book. You may find a gem of a story lurking behind some badly written first chapters.

The other reason not to skip the read is because novelists are obsessive about their story, and expect readers to be the same.

You will be grilled.

Your credibility is at stake.

The author will ask you about people and events in the story. What you thought about particular characters, how you felt the plot flowed, and so on.

It is also difficult to give valuable feedback if you haven’t read the full story.

Authors, particularly beginning authors, do weird things with their characters and plot. It’s far better for you to be able to say, “This was really Zoe’s story, but you didn’t introduce her until half-way through the book,” than, “Zoe. I don’t remember her. I must have been tired when I read that part.”

If you do skip parts, be honest about it.

“I couldn’t read the rape scene, it was just too graphic.” Or, “I skimmed the battles. They were so gory, and there were so many of them.”

Give good feedback

There’s an art to giving feedback on a novel that needs a lot of work. Take the advice of some of the good online critique groups like Critters—check out Critiquing the wild writer: it’s not what you say but how and The Diplomatic Critter, for starters.

Remember, when you are giving feedback:

  • There will always be something positive to say. Anyone who has written a full-length novel will have something good in it. Guaranteed.
  • Say something good about the story first.
    Don’t start with the bad stuff, start with the good. Otherwise you put the author offside, and they become defensive and not prepared to listen.
  • Never attack the author. Don’t say, “You can’t spell.” Say something more like, “There seemed to be some typos (or spelling errors) there. You might want to run it through a spell checker.”
  • Don’t let your personal opinion about the type of story colour your response. “I hated the book. I hate whodunnits, and this was typical of the genre.”
  • Be honest, but do it politely.
  • Above all, give them helpful feedback.

Encourage them to seek opinions outside family and friends

Lastly, if the author is serious about writing, encourage them to join a writing group.

This helps them to be better writers, but also helps them to accept and get value from feedback. It’s a two-way thing. You get a better novel to read, and they get some feedback on how to improve their writing.

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