Most artists don’t improve and grow without some external input, largely because it’s difficult to identify weaknesses in your own work. Fiction critique, sometimes called developmental editing, is an examination of a story’s components and how they work together, in order to identify strengths and weaknesses. As an editor, my goal is to help the author tell their story in the best way they can. Offering alternate routes or additional stories as a side note is acceptable; pushing you to tell a different story is not.
Copy editing or proofreading is provided as part of my critique service. For any edit, I will mark up the manuscript as I read, either manually on hard copy or with tracked changes in digital copy. This includes noting minor and major problems, while also highlighting the parts that work particularly well.
In my comments, I focus on the writing, not the writer. We all have bad days where we sound clueless, even when we’re the leading expert on a subject. Critiquing isn’t about toughening up the writer, though there are editors and workshops that play this card. Writing and self confidence use different skills without significant crossover. We grow better when those around us temper their criticism with compassion and a genuine goal to be constructive.
Sometimes I’ll be asked to critique something that ends up not working for me. It may be that I’m not the right audience, or the piece is too rough to provide this level of examination. I’ve learned to identify this point, and will reconnect with the writer to discuss alternatives when forging ahead will result in a critique that is unlikely to be helpful.
Ultimately, critiques are one of the best ways for writers to improve. They provide the response of an audience, showing you what didn’t successfully transfer from your internal context to the rest of the world. It’s essential that you find an editor you are comfortable with, who gives recommendations you can understand and largely agree with. The writer has the final say, and while you need to take feedback seriously, you are free to reject any or all recommendations that don’t fit the story you want to tell.