How to give feedback to other writers

Giving feedback to other writers is a useful skill, whether you are a creative writing student, member of an informal writing group or online writing community. Writers are incredibly supportive of each other, but we do want constructive feedback, feedback that makes us think about what we have written.

But there are good and bad ways of giving feedback. Here are some of the things I’ve learned, in +30 years of subbing the copy of other journalists, and 10+ years of attending creative writing classes and critiquing the novels of friends. Feedback should be the start of a discussion, not a unit of time comprised of you talking. giving feedbackgiving feedbackStart with a ‘Feedback Sandwich’. This is a management technique I learned for handling staff appraisals but it works just as well when critiquing a fellow student’s work at a creative writing class. When asked for your comments, it is good to start with a short summary. The emphasis being on short. The sandwich is positive-negative-positive. The aim is to encourage, rather than to pick faults. Say what you liked about the work you read.

Be specific. If there is something in the text which confuses you, point out the particular passage. Don’t generalize. But don’t get repetitive. You only need say it once, then move on.

Don’t get into an argument. Be aware that some students find it incredibly difficult to accept feedback, so be sensitive to emotions. Make your point once only, then accept that it is up to the other student whether to accept your feedback or not. There is no right and wrong, after all, only subjective opinions.

Find a technique that works, and explain why you think it works. If there is a technique or feature you think didn’t work, now is the time to mention it. But remember the aim of feedback is to build the student up so they go away wanting to write and re-write.

Be professional. Don’t get personal. Even if someone has given you what you consider to be bad or ill-tempered feedback, remember that it is most likely feedback badly given rather than attack on your writing. So no revenge, no ‘getting your own back’. All writers have to get used to giving and receiving feedback, we can’t be precious about it. Readers give feedback all the time on published work, on blogs like this, on Goodreads, Amazon etc. So keep it professional.

Useful phrases include:-
I really liked the way you handled…
This sentence/paragraph/chapter really works because…
I wasn’t sure what was happening here, can you explain why…
Who is speaking here?
What is the character thinking/feeling/doing here?
You might think about trying [this] instead…
Where is the story going next?
Where does this passage fit into the overall timeline/storyline?
Why has [the character] reacted like that?
I’m not sure [that] is the right choice of word there, what is your intended meaning?
I don’t like this bit because… [the ‘because’ is essential: because it’s confusing, because the character is acting out of type, because it contradicts something which happened previously etc].

It is always best to comment with open questions, rather than closed, as these allow your fellow student the chance to explain.

When reading someone’s work in preparation for giving feedback, consider the following:-
Identify a strength, and explain what you think is strong about it [with example].
Identify a weakness, and consider how it could be improved. Make one suggestion for improvement.
Is the storyline clear? If it is confusing, make a note of where and why.
Consider the dialogue: is it clear who is speaking at all times, without getting into the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ format? Is the dialogue realistic or stilted. Is any accent/speech pattern convincing or distracting.
Motivation of characters: are the characters clearly defined, are they individuals or cardboard cut-outs? Why? How could they be improved?
Does the author have a clear voice?
Is the point-of-view consistent, if not where is the inconsistency?
Make a note of one thing to praise: perhaps something which made you laugh, which touched you emotionally. Use this in your feedback sandwich.

Finally, feedback is a two-way street. It should be a discussion, not a lecture.

Click here for advice from Dummies on giving feedback, this is intended for use in the general workplace but it is a useful summary of the basics.

giving feedback

 

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Comments

  1. I am terrible at receiving feedback! 😀 I don’t try to get revenge but I tense up like a rock. I have realised that it’s all up to personal opinions, and my opinion is usually what is important to me. I’m trying to work on being cool about it 😉 Great post 😉

    • sandradan1

      I learned the hard way, until the day I realised that I can use/ignore any feedback I want. After that I got less uptight about it, now I nod and write a note so later I can re-read and discard. Sometimes though… sometimes I re-think, ‘hmm maybe they had a point’! SD

  2. You’ve pinpointed so many excellent approaches to giving feedback. This is a guide to giving and getting. For writers, it’s always timely advice. I especially like the sandwich idea. Thanks for the article.