How to Give Useful Feedback to a Writer

How to Give Useful Feedback to a Writer

As part of becoming an author, we’re told to seek feedback on our work. Since I didn’t know any writers, I joined the online community Scribophile. For those of you who are not familiar with it, in order to post your work for critique, you have to earn points by critiquing the work of others. This ensures everyone gets critiqued and it’s a great system, but how can you give useful feedback to other writers when you yourself are only getting started?

Just like writing, giving feedback gets easier with practice. And the cool thing is that you learn so much from identifying problems in other works and applying it to your own. And the more you learn, the better you are at identifying problems and offering suggestions.

Being on Scribophile, where people critique per chapter, I have given and received hundreds of critiques. I received a harsh critique once where the person didn’t mention one good thing about the work and was very condescending, and it was hard to sift through the noise and find something useful. I’ve also given harsh critiques, and as hard as I tried to qualify them in a nice way, received defensive responses from the authors and was even hurt in the process on one occasion. It’s very easy for personal feelings to get hurt, so it’s a hard art to master. But I’ve also received many comments where the authors applied my critiques and said I was helpful, so I think I’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes to give useful critiques.

So based on my experience, here are five tips to keep in mind when giving feedback.

Always mention something positive.

This is especially true when you find many mistakes and have to offer a harsh critique. Always start with the positive. No matter how “bad” a piece of writing is, there’s always something positive to say, even if it’s just mentioning good grammar or punctuation.

Be honest but not cruel. Don’t make it a personal attack.

It’s important to be honest–in the end the point of offering feedback is to help the writer improve their work. But this has to be wrapped in kindness and encouragement, so that the author doesn’t feel attacked. Make sure you mention the weaknesses in the writing, and not how the author is “wrong”. It also helps if you can mention how you too have struggled with the same problem.

Sometimes, no matter how well you phrase it,  it can be unavoidable to offend the writer. It depends on how open they are to receiving critical feedback.

Stay objective.

For me this is the most important aspect of useful feedback. We all have our own likes/dislikes and personal biases. I may not like a specific character because he reminds me of a real person who hurt me. But that is not helpful to the author. The important thing is for the author to explain rationality and logic and be clear on who the character is. This type of critique is better served by posing a question such as “wouldn’t he do so and so?” and opposed to “this wouldn’t happen; no one in real life would do that.” As long as it’s true to the character and it fits the story, then there’s no room for personal biases.

Be specific.

This goes hand in hand with staying objective. If you don’t like something in the writing, then point out why it doesn’t work (not why you personally don’t like it) and give suggestions on how to make the work better. That shows the writer that you’re not just giving a personal opinion but actually understand the why’s and how to fix it. This gets easier as you learn more about writing and how to identify the main issues.

Don’t be condescending. Stay humble.

In the end you don’t know everything. Maybe something that doesn’t work for you, works for someone else. Maybe the character you hate is another reader’s favorite. Always qualify the critique as your personal opinion. Mentions of “you’ll learn” or “you’re just starting” seem encouraging but can also be interpreted as “I know more than you”.

Giving feedback gets easier once you develop a good relationship with your critique partner and have open communication with each other. You should also be honest with yourself and accept when you’re not the right person to critique. If you really can’t find anything positive to say and find yourself hating the work, you won’t be able to offer anything useful and will just be wasting everyone’s time.

I hope this has been helpful. Anything else you’d like to add? What have been some of your experiences giving feedback? Check out my other post on how to receive feedback and use it to make your story better.


How to Give Useful Feedback to a Writer
Photo via VisualHunt

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