Step 1: Is the story good?
A complete manuscript critique will answer the basic question, Is the story good? Are there plot holes? Is the ending satisfying or does it feel rushed or too easy? Is the main character sympathetic and worth spending 300+ pages with? Are the supporting characters individuals in their own right, and do they add to the story or detract from it?
For a complete critique, I read your entire manuscript front to back. For my own notes, I complete a chapter-by-chapter summary and create a character chart detailing all major characters, their physical descriptions and quirks/tics, and their relationship to the main character. I use these notes (which I return to you) in addition to extensive margin notes (using the Track Changes and Comment features in Microsoft Word) to create a ten to fifteen page letter detailing any flaws I perceive in plot, pacing, characterization, scene setting, etc., and suggestions for fixing those flaws.
I have found many writers don’t write drafts with a theme in mind, but when I perceive a theme (or three), I point them out and make suggestions for building on or removing those themes.
It’s not all bad, though. I also point out what you’re already doing well and how to keep building on those skills.
In addition, I include a list of “nitpicks” and a list of resources that you may find helpful based on your particular challenges. Nitpicks include words you may consistently misspell or misuse or overuse, consistent grammatical mistakes, and/or brand name corrections. Resources may include links to Web sites with articles detailing manuscript formatting, dialog punctuation, or how to show emotion through a character’s physical actions.
A Manuscript Critique will likely uncover something that requires a large rewrite. And by “large” I don’t necessarily mean hundreds and hundreds of words. “Large” means something that affects the manuscript as a whole, such as cutting a minor character or changing the setting location from Seattle to Montana, or rewriting the manuscript using a different point of view or verb tense. Do a Manuscript Critique when you aren’t sure your story is good enough, and the feedback you are receiving isn’t helping you pinpoint what needs to be improved.