Story-level critiques focus on the big picture – plot, pace, characterization, voice. Line critiques evaluate a book at a micro level, focusing on sentence construction, word choice, and readability. Here’s an overview of what to expect.
Story first ...
Think of your book as a construction project.
First you lay the foundations and build the walls – writing and redrafting to ensure the structure of your storytelling is sound. It’s where you and your editor (if you have one) focus on the big-picture stuff such as:
At this macro stage, you might end up adding, deleting or shifting sections of your prose.
Some authors do their own structural editing because they’re good at it and have studied story craft via writing courses, groups or books. Others seek professional help, either because they’re at an earlier stage of their authorial journey or because they feel they’re too close to the book to see the problems.
One thing’s for sure – there’s no right or wrong way. Every writer has to make their own choices.
If a full, done-for-you developmental (or structural) edit isn’t the path you take, you might still decide to work with a specialist editor who analyses your book and provides a detailed report on its strengths and weaknesses at story level, and offers suggestions about how to improve your writing.
That’s where story-level critiques come into play. You might also hear them called manuscript evaluations and manuscript assessments.
Line level second ...
Once the foundations and walls are in place, it’s plastering time – smoothing at sentence level to ensure that a reader’s journey through the pages is satisfying. In a sense, it’s still structural work but at a micro level. This is where you (and your editor if you have one) focus on nuances such as:
Again, some authors do their own line editing because they’re good at it and have studied line craft via writing courses, groups or books. Others seek help.
If a full, done-for-you line- and copyedit isn’t an option, a line critique could be just the ticket.
A line critique, like its story-level sister, is an assessment or evaluation of your story but at sentence level. Your report will include examples from your novel that show what’s holding you back.
You’ll also be offered suggestions on how you can fix any problems identified. Then you can implement what you learn throughout the rest of your book.
Critiques are about learning, not criticizing
Some authors are nervous about critiques. Pro editors get it – it can be tough to put your book in the hands of another and ask them to tell you what’s working and what’s not, especially when you’ve put in so much hard work.
The thing to remember is that a critique (whether at sentence or story level) is not about criticism. It’s about identifying strengths and weaknesses, and offering solutions so that you can move forward to the next stage of your publishing journey with confidence.
And critiques are a long-term investment. They enable you to improve your self-editing skills. That’ll save you time and money further down the line because anyone else you commission will have less to do.
The line critique: the process and the report
What follows is an overview of the way I handle line critiques. Every editor has their own process, but the basic principles will be similar.
1. The service: Mini line critique
Authors email a Word file comprising, say, 5K words of their novel. It’s in a writer’s best interest to include a section that includes both narrative and dialogue. That way we can assess whether both are working effectively.
Furthermore, if there are multiple viewpoint characters in the novel, and different viewpoint styles and tenses have been used, a sample that represents these choices will enable us to provide a report that evaluates the success of those decisions.
2. First readthrough
The first stage of the process is a complete readthrough of the 5K words. It’s not about micro-level reporting, not yet. Rather, we’re getting a sense of the author’s writing style, the characters’ voices, and the flow of the narrative.
3. Second pass: Identification tagging
We go back to the beginning and start the analytical process, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s line craft.
We work through the sample, tagging sections of the text with Word’s commenting tool. The author won’t see these tags – they’re just a tool that allow us to locate the sections we’ll pull from the text and into the report for demonstration.
The text in the image below has been blurred in order to respect confidentiality, but you can see the tagging process in the margins of just one page of one of my reports.
4. Writing the report
Now that we’ve tagged the sample, we can create a report. My line critiques are usually between 20 and 30 pages long, depending on the length of the text samples I’m pulling in and offering recasts for.
Each report is divided into sections that address the strengths and weaknesses of the following:
DIALOGUE AND THOUGHTS
The tags in the sample allow editors to search for and locate the text we want to use as examples of good practice and to highlight areas with improvement potential.
Here’s an example of one of those sections (I’ve disguised the identifying traits of the original in order to respect the author’s confidentiality):
CLARITY OF NARRATIVE VIEWPOINT
You held narrative viewpoint well and I commend your decision to separate the two viewpoint characters with chapters. This ensured the narrative voices remained distinct.
Using a present-tense second-person POV for your transgressor and a past-tense first-person POV for your protagonist worked extremely well. Have you read Complicity by Iain Banks? He does the same thing! It’s effective because it makes us wonder whether that first-person narrative is reliable, though you don’t give the game away until the denouement, which I loved.
The second-person POV also lent a rather creepy voyeurism to the transgressor chapters, and though these were demanding to read, you did give your readers plenty of breathing space with the contrasting protagonist chapters. Nicely done!
What could be improved
Your protagonist narrative was laboured at times because of the abundance of ‘I’. Overusing this pronoun can lead to an overly told narrative in which the reader is forced to experience everything via the character’s experience of it. This can be distancing. I’m not suggesting you remove every instance of ‘I’ plus the verb – not at all. Instead, consider toning it down and removing some of the filter words so that the reader can experience some of the doing with the character rather than through the character. Here are two examples and suggested fixes:
Notice how I’ve suggested removing ‘I saw’, which feels redundant given that we already know that Marcus is looking up, and only tells us of more seeing being done. Instead, you can focus the reader’s attention on the immediacy of what’s seen once the looking up’s happened: the movement of the shooting star. That allows you to show readers what Marcus sees rather than telling them.
Notice how in the original there’s a lot of telling of what ‘I’ did. I like your use of a strong verb to introduce tension – ‘scuttled’ – but that tension dissipates with the more distant told narrative that follows. There’s telling of sound, smell, and realization. I’ve suggested you tighten up the paragraph by retaining the original anchor in which Marcus hides; perhaps follow that with a shown narrative that, again, allows the reader to experience the sounds and smells at the same time as Marcus rather than through his ears, nose and brain’s doing hearing, smelling and realizing.
Bear in mind that a first-person narrative, by definition, puts the reader in the character’s head. If you keep that in mind, you’ll save yourself a lot of work because you’ll need fewer words on the page.
Have a read through all the protagonist chapters and consider where you can tighten up the prose in order to limit some of the telling of doing being done. You can still anchor the first-person viewpoint with ‘I’ in places, of course, but you might recast some of writing that follows with shown action.
5. Wrapping up and emailing the report
When the report is complete, we save it as a PDF and email it to the author. PDF is the tool of choice for many editors because it can’t be edited. If the client wishes to refer back to it during future writing projects, they can do so safe in the knowledge that nothing’s been accidently removed.
If you want to hone your line craft and polish your book at sentence level, but a full line- and copyedit is beyond your budget, consider a more affordable alternative: the line critique.
Think of a critique as another form of authorial development, of book-craft study. And what you learn from your critique won’t be something you can apply just to the current book. It’s a tool you can use with every story you write thereafter.
And here’s a free booklet that outlines the various levels of editing. Just click on the cover to get your copy (and, no, you don’t have to give me your email address!).
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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