Friday, September 10, 2010

Apply Triage Techniques to Your Manuscript

Some writers have been destroyed by bad critiques and are so demoralized they never pick up a pen (or keyboard) again. Usually, critiques are offered at writers’ conferences or workshops on the first few chapters or fifty pages of a manuscript.

Critiques should be given in a professional manner. If you receive a critique that you feel contains snarky, rude, or offensive remarks, ask a few trusted friends to read the notes. Your sensitivity to criticism might cause you to read an emotion into the comments that was never meant.

But if your friends also feel the observations were out of line, report the incident to the director of the conference. You need to grow a thick skin in the publishing business, but in the Christian arena, there’s no room for so-called experts who take potshots at other writers.

I’ve critiqued many manuscripts. Some were excellent. Some were good. Some needed a lot of work. Some had so many mistakes that it was difficult to know where to start on my notes.

This past weekend one of my author friends and I had a conversation about the proper way to critique a manuscript. I asked her, “How do you handle a critique on a manuscript that’s bleeding to death?” Her response? “I triage.”

Triage is a practice used by medical professionals or soldiers on the battlefield to determine who will survive and who will not make it. The walking wounded are asked to move to another area so that medics can determine who is incapacitated and cannot move. Some of the wounded are conscious. Some are not. Some are bleeding profusely. Medics stop the bleeding first to determine the extent of the injuries.

In a similar way manuscripts go through a form of triage. We suggest how to stop the bleeding. We look for a few major errors that if treated first can help the manuscript live another day. The author receives a report with suggestions on how to tackle those key areas that need the most attention.

If your piece is one of the walking wounded, it’s easier to spot a problem area and offer suggestions on how you might fix it. The piece has no gaping wounds, but it may have been hit by shrapnel and needs a good self-edit to dig out the parts that don’t belong or to flush out too many adjectives or adverbs, or correct head-hopping syndrome in your POV. Surgery is minor.

Just like a physician or medic, the one who critiques your manuscript has a responsibility to help you, not to harm you. You should be given clear suggestions, and the expert also should tell you what you did right. If your manuscript has legs, that’s a big plus, and the person helping you should encourage you to work hard on the rehab of your manuscript.

Here’s a tip. Reexamine a critique you received in the past. Through the prism of your current experience, decide what comments were valuable and which ones were not. Do a triage of your own. Take the helpful criticism and use it to resuscitate your piece. Then throw the snarky comments in the trash.

Please let me know how today’s blog has helped you. This becomes a two-way conversation when you post a comment. Often I jump back on the blog during the day and will answer your questions or respond to your comments. I have both published and unpublished authors who read The Roving Editor, and we’d love to hear from you so that we can learn from your experience. Let’s talk!


  1. Excellent advice, Barbara. Very good way to put it--stop the bleeding, take care of the problems that are life-threatening to the story, then handle the lesser things. You don't do a face-lift on a patient with a bleeding ulcer.

  2. Great advice. Usually, when I get edits back, I read the comments and let the comments simmer in my head over night before doing anything. Once I do that, I'm able to look at the manuscript through the eyes of the editor and make the changes accordingly. My manuscript always ends up better.

  3. I think handling it this way can make the whole process a little less daunting. Just like Bob's baby steps. Baby steps. Except you're goin' in with a scalpel and the MS might be bleeding to death.

    Still, I like saying baby steps.

    Have a great weekend. Hoping I'll meet you at ACFW.
    ~ Wendy

  4. What an interesting analogy!

    Thanks for permission to throw snarky comments in the trash. (Guess we've all received a few.)

    I weigh the comments of judges and critique partners and even run them by a special writing friend. If I get more than one person who says the same thing, it's usually time to revise. I actually enjoy the editing process because I can see the story improving before my eyes.

    See you at ACFW!

  5. Great post. I'm truly enjoying your sharing and gleaning some great tips.

    I entered a writing contest and two of the three judges gave excellent scores. The third judge had no complaints with my writing/characters/plot, but marked me down because she said all cattle drives went north from Texas to Montanna and to do better research. My novel is set on one of the first cattle drives from Texas to the California gold fields in 1849 and is based on lots of research. Because of this, I didn't final by two points.

    I had to let go and take comfort that my research was correct and everything else about my story was good. :)

    Melissa K Norris

  6. Thanks, Richard. Phew. I hoped I explained triage correctly. If I can pass the "doctor" test, I'm okay. :)

    Great advice, Shelia. Always sleep on a revision letter before tackling any changes. Perspective cometh in the morning.

    Wendy, baby steps do sound nicer than bleeding to death. LOL

    Teri, my mind is a dangerous place. Since I love thrillers and suspense, my brain cells crank out scenarios for Jason Bourne to live through. :) I think rewriting is much more fun than writing.

    Melissa, I think I would have sent a letter back to the contest director that the judge was wrong and then backed it up with research. A cattle drive to California is a unique story and makes perfect sense when combined with the Gold Rush. Did you finish the manuscript? I hope so and wish you all the best in getting it published.

  7. Excellent post Barbara! Thanks so much. :-)

  8. Actually, I probably should have used a different analogy since most of my readers are women. Women tend not to like words like blood, battle, wounds, etc. I'm sure this post appealed more to men.

    One of these days I'll blog about gender and how to write from a male and female perspective. The two sexes are different, although there are some social scientists who would disagree with me. :)

    Next week, watch for my guest bloggers... Abingdon authors who have worked with me and have a unique perspective on the ACFW Conference and writing in general. Prepare to be inspired!

    Have a great weekend, everyone!

  9. Barbara, I am a registered nurse and I liked your bleeding to death metaphor a lot. So don't second guess yourself. You can't please everyone. I prefer more gritty metaphors, and I am a woman.
    About your advice. It helps me a lot. I am a bit sensitive to critiques, but that may be partly due to having critiques done at critique groups. I have stopped doing that. I feel one tends to get too many conflicting critiques. For example, one person likes all your description and another person says there's too much narrative. Etc, etc. Or, because you've all become friends, nobody wants to say, "This manuscript is gasping from mortal wounds." Or, if they do say something like that, you're hurt because you're friends. It's also important not just to point out what's wrong, but to be able to say how to fix it. In other words you don't just say, "Hey, did you know you're bleeding to death?" You apply first aid and stitch the wounds.
    And, I'm looking forward to the gender blog.

  10. I guess I should add that I like baby steps as well. I didn't mean to sound snarky about that (which, on reading my post over, I thought I might... speaking of second guessing oneself) Just wanted to clear that up.

  11. I am so happy to find your blog - found myself in a bookstore today waiting for my daughter and hit the Christian fiction shelves, I kept picking up books and thinking - oh, my this is the kind of thing I'd love to be writing again and book after book they were by Abingdon Press - Thanks for giving me a whole new reading list, new authors to me and for the great blog - I really like the way you see thing. Annie Jones

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  13. What a great way to look at critiquing! Not only does that help me with my own work (and believe me, there's blood on some of my first drafts) it'll help me be a better crit partner and with contest entries. Great post!