Welcome to Part Three of the Feedback series! Today it’s time to talk about how to give good feedback! Be sure to check out Part One: Finding the Right Early Readers for Your Writing and Part Two: What You Should Ask for Writing Feedback in Stages. Part Four: How to Evaluate Feedback will be headed your way next week!
Giving feedback is an important skill for a writer to have. If you’re going to ask other writers for feedback on your story, it’s nice to be able to reciprocate. Giving feedback is a delicate balancing act. A good critique is honest, critical, and helpful, but also encouraging. This post will cover what I believe to be the best and most helpful way to give writing feedback.
Start by praising the writer for what they’re doing well! It’s important for the writer to know that you did like some aspect of their story, whether it be a character, a plotline, a chapter, or a scene. This may seem like you’re playing to the writer’s ego (and sure, to some extent you are) but this also plays two key roles in the critiquing process.
First, it’s important for the writer to feel like you are on their side. If you start with a heavy critique, it’s easy for the writer to get defensive and resistant. If you’re going to take the time to offer feedback on someone else’s work, it’s nice if they’re receptive to the thoughts you have. By starting your feedback with praise, it helps the writer let their guard down and see that any future critiques are coming from a desire to help make their project the best it can be.
Second, as I’ve said in Part One, it’s important for the writer to know what they’re doing well. This gives them areas within their own work to look to for inspiration. This is as true when you’re the one giving feedback as it is when you’re the one receiving feedback.
Now that you’ve got things started on the right note, it’s time to really dig in. This is going to be the meat of your feedback. When critiquing, kindness is key. It’s okay if you don’t like a major aspect of a book or story, but there’s no reason to lay into to writer. It’s likely they worked as hard on their book as you did on yours. It is possible to point out problems without making them feel like they’re terrible writers.
One of my favorite methods for a kind critique is to avoid making judgments or statements and instead ask as many questions as possible. So, rather than saying, “I hate this character’s name. It reminds me of death. You should change it.” Instead say something like, “Was this character’s name supposed to make me think of death? If not, you might want to think about changing it.” As you can see, questioning a decision doesn’t come on quite as strong as making a judgment. It’s also a good way of pointing out a problem without making a major decision for the writer.
If you are going to make a statement/judgment (and sometimes it’s unavoidable) it’s important to be specific and say why you think what you do. Simply saying, “this whole sense is terrible” is super unhelpful. You need to say why it’s terrible. Is it the story? A specific plotline? Are the characters acting in a way that feels out of character? This kind of feedback tells the writer specifically what they need to fix and gives them a deeper understanding of their book’s issues.
Something else to consider: I would argue that unless you are an editor or agent, it’s not your job to judge another writer’s work or decide if it’s “good enough.” As a fellow writer/critique partner, it’s your job to help and support. By all means, point out any and all areas you believe can be improved, but there’s no reason to ever say something like, “I just can’s see an agent or editor ever accepting this” is unnecessary. Just because you wouldn’t accept it if you were an agent or editor doesn’t mean someone else won’t. A successful critique should inspire the writer to get back to work and make some exciting changes in revision, not discourage the writer from continuing.
Lastly, offer a few suggestions to the problems you pointed out in the critique. This can help the writer generate some new ideas and solutions, and give them a starting point for revision. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this is not your book, and therefore I would strongly advise against telling another writer what they “need” to do. It’s their book. They don’t need to do anything they don’t want to. Make suggestions and give them some ideas to consider, but respect the fact that they get to make the final decision.
Final note: Don’t lie
As much as being kind and encouraging is important, don’t lie. An honest assessment is essential to feedback. If you read a book and you can’t find any strengths or come up with any suggestions for improvement other than “rewrite it”, then it’s possible that you are not the right reader for the project. I think in that situation your best bet would be to give the book back to the writer without a critique. Tell the writer that it’s not your kind of book, and you don’t think you can give them helpful feedback. The writer may be disappointed and hurt that you didn’t like it enough to critique, but that’s better than them being so devastated by any feedback you would give that they might give up altogether.
As always, I hope this helps! I’ll be back next week with Part Four of my feedback series! Next up: How to Evaluate Feedback! Be sure to check out Part One: Find the Right Early Readers for Your Writing and Part Two: What You Should Ask for Writing Feedback in Stages!
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Now it’s your turn: How do you give feedback? What elements of the story do you consider? Tell me about it in the comments!