First Readers v. Manuscript Critique


When you finish your draft, do you look for a manuscript critique or a first reader? They are different and serve different purposes.

Manuscript Critique. The reader puts on his/her critical glasses and looks at your manuscript through that lenses. How does this story match up with the ideal novel? Of course, that assumes that you have common concepts about the ideal novel and that your concepts will match up with the editor’s understanding of ideal novels.

For beginning to intermediate writers, or for those particularly difficult stories, a manuscript critique can be helpful. It shows you where the story fails to touch a reader. It points out weaknesses and strengths. For example, you may find out that you failed to write the climax of the story; instead, you skipped over that chapter and wrote the aftermath of the climax. That’s a common problem and a critique can remind you why you need to actually write it.

A disadvantage of the critique is that it is by nature a process of tearing apart your novel and matching up the parts to the ideal novel. It is destructive in many ways. The intent is to help you reconstruct, but it can be devastating. Editors, by and large, are manuscript critiquers and a ten-page revision letter is normal.

First Reader. On the other hand, a first reader has one task: to monitor his/her impressions as s/he reads and report those impressions to you. Some suggest a structured approach and ask readers to write in the margins something like this. B=bored. C=confused. E=emotional.

You can make up some sort of code like that, or you can just let the reader report as they wish.

The advantage of this is that it gives you feedback on what you actually put on the page. I often think that I’ve communicated anger, but the reader is merely confused. Especially after a revision, I need a first reader–and a naive one who hasn’t read the story before–to find out if I inadvertently added or subtracted something in the process of revising.

I am ALWAYS surprised by what a first reader will say. They are confused, bored, angry, or emotional in ways that surprise me–both good and bad. In other words, I need to fine-tune the story to the needs of a reader.

The disadvantage of a first reader is that you don’t always know the structural and technical problems that a manuscript critique might point out. A first reader might report that s/he was bored with the ending and then you’ll have to figure out why. The manuscript critique will tell you that you left out the climax. You get to the same revision, but by different routes.

Which do you prefer? A manuscript critique or a first reader?

  • Leslie Miller
    July 29, 2013

    This is a very timely post for me. I am an editor who does critiques (and struggles to make them as constructive and not destructive as possible, all while still being honest) and a first time novelist about to hire another editor to give me a critique of my second draft. I also have three beta readers lined up, but I must say I am most eager to hear what the critiquing editor will say. I am aware of a problem in the novel, and suspect there might be more I am not aware of, and I want constructive feedback as to how to fix these problems.
    I think both a critique and beta readers are valuable–but for different things.

  • MAuro
    July 29, 2013

    Thanks for your article, it came out at the right moment for me. I am finishing the second draft for my first novel and I think that your BCE notation system could be simple and effective. I will try that road and expect to be surprised (for good or bad).