So you’ve completed step one (how to find a critique partner).
You’ve brushed up on step two (critique partner etiquette).
Now it’s time for step three: writing a critique.
Whether you’re in a face-to-face workshop or just exchanging emails, I’ve found that the best critiques always begin with praise. Some people shrug this off, saying crazy things like, “No, I only want to hear the bad stuff,” or, “You must think I have a really fragile ego.” I’ve even had non-author beta readers act surprised when they hear I want to know their favorite parts of my manuscripts as well as their least favorites.
And is it just because I have a “fragile ego?”
No. I’ve gotten enough criticism (and enjoy editing enough) that I have a pretty thick skin.
But I stand by my point: All good critiques include praise.
For example, in the first draft of one of my WIPs, I had a beta reader tell me that the plot didn’t really make sense and one of the main characters lacked motivation, but my prose was both lucid and lyrical. Score! With this advice, I brushed up on my character and plot development skills, but remembered to trust myself when it came to the actual writing part. As I rewrote (and rewrote, and rewrote), it was also important for me to maintain my voice and the writing style I felt proud of.
Besides, no manuscript, no matter how bad you might think it is, is entirely crap. It’s just not possible. A good critique partner knows to soften the blow of criticism with kind (and valuable!) words of praise and encouragement.
Then it’s time for the heart of this whole operation: the critique itself.
Even when you’re laying out constructive criticisms, it’s still important to be polite (and, if you’re not sure how thick the skin of your fellow author is, gentle). Don’t say: “Every time your main character talked, I wanted to throw my laptop at the wall.” Even if that’s the kind of language you might use in an online, anonymous book review (but please don’t be that person, either!), this is not the kind of thing you should say to a fellow author-in-training. Rephrase. Be kind. Try something like, “Supporting Character had so much sass and spunk—I noticed in chapter 4 that she was starting to overshadow Main Character. Would you consider adding something early in the story to make Main Character more sympathetic to the reader? I wanted to empathize more with her struggles!” Not only is this kind of critique a whole lot nicer, but it’s more useful. Give your CP examples. Point them in specific directions. You’re granting them a precious gift—you’ve officially signed on to help make this story better—and you want to treat the manuscript—and its author—with all due respect.
If you’re editing a longer work, this next part is the chunk of the critique that might be devoted to specific edits. Some CPs take notes that jump to their mind as they come to them. (“Chapter 12: Wait, why are the bad guys trying to kill the peace-loving dragons? What is their motivation?”). Personally, I’m a big fan of track changes, which you can use on either Apple Pages or MS Word. That means I’ll edit right on the document and attach the edited version to my email.
Finally, we have the conclusion. Here, I like to wrap up any final thoughts, again with my focus pointed towards the positives. Always remember to thank the author for allowing you to read their manuscript. As with most of my communications (from text to email), I probably will end a critique in a smiley face.