How to Give – and Receive – Comments that are Neither too Brutal Nor too Flattering
Before sending their latest masterpiece to an agent or editor, many authors like to share it with a select group of trusted readers that are used to giving feedback for writers. These may be partners, friends or fellow writers. In some cases, writers gather in a writing group or workshop to assess and critique each other’s work.
Whatever kind of forum it takes place in, giving and receiving feedback is a valuable step in the process of writing for publication. The better the quality of the feedback, the more it will benefit both the author and the work. As authors, we’ve given plenty of feedback on each other’s work over the years, and also participated in a number of groups doing the same thing. Along the way, we’ve seen lots of examples of feedback, good and bad. Here are some practical pointers for your next opportunity to give notes to someone else.
Read or listen carefully: Bear in mind that you may be among someone’s first readers, and that it’s a huge step for a writer to give their work its first public airing. So, feel honored to be a member of the chosen audience for this debut, and give the piece your full attention.
Don’t cast judgement: Avoid speaking in definitive or objective terms about the work (“this is bad writing”), but make sure you always frame your comments as opinions. Refer to specific aspects that didn’t work for you and suggest areas that, in your view, the writer could expand on. Or, propose ideas they might try as an alternative to what they have.
Use your antennae: As a writer yourself, you’ll have your sensors attuned to any “bum notes” – clumsy phrasing, awkward constructions, or something more general such as a tendency not to use contractions in dialogue. Make a mental note of these as you listen – they’re tremendously helpful to any writer.
Be clear and concise: When giving feedback, try not to behave like the reviewer of some august literary journal. Avoid excessively scholarly or technical language, or too many references to obscure authors. Ensure your feedback is clear, simple, precise and practical, and try not to go on for too long.
Be honest: The most important gift you can offer an author seeking your feedback is honesty. If you think something’s not working, say so. It’s rare that an entire piece is without merit, so by all means cushion your critique with a hefty dose of praise. The framework of www (what went well) + ebi (even better if) can be useful in this context. An author who is genuinely looking to improve ought to be grateful for your honesty, even as they nurse a bruised ego.
Remember your role: This isn’t the time for an ego trip. Listen to yourself as you give your feedback. Are you offering constructive and practical advice that the writer can actually use, or are you talking in bland, general terms about how you would have written it? Wherever possible, stick to the former.
Watch out for the great actors and voice artists: One writing group I belonged to had among its members an ex-BBC radio announcer, and I could have happily listened to his mellow, honeyed tones for hours. As it happens, he was also a decent writer, but I’m not sure I’d have noticed if he wasn’t. Be aware that some writers are excellent performers, and this can mask imperfections in their style that a drier reading of their work would have exposed.
Judge the work on its own terms: As writers, we all have our own chosen styles and genres, and it may be that you do not share the same tastes as the writer you’re critiquing, whether they involve turning spam emails into poetry, or writing pirate-themed erotica. That you aren’t necessarily the target audience for this sort of work shouldn’t matter when giving feedback. Assess what the writer’s intention was, and if they have succeeded on their own terms.
See the wood for the trees: Authors are often too close to their work – especially if it is only recently completed – to be capable of an objective perspective on it as a whole. Part of your job in giving feedback is to tell them how it’s working in general terms. Are the story and character arcs credible, consistent and satisfying? This is particularly useful with novels and novellas.
Note the group dynamic: In groups and workshops, if you notice a writer attracting a more than average share of criticism from the other members, perhaps don’t pile on with your own, even if you feel the work deserves it. Instead, look for something positive to say as a counterbalance to the general opinion. The same kind of herd instinct can sometimes operate the other way, with everyone falling over themselves to praise someone’s work. In these cases, use your turn to suggest something about it that could be improved – it’s not always easy with great pieces!
Finally, there’s no point in offering excellent feedback if it isn’t received in the same spirit. When confronted by a critique of their work, some writers can become either defensive or overly accepting. Neither of these attitudes is helpful. A writer ought to feel secure enough in their own abilities, or honest enough about their need to improve, to be able to listen to feedback with reasonable detachment. If you struggle with receiving comments, remember it’s not an attack on you or your merits as a writer, but a critique of your work. Those giving feedback are on your side and genuinely want to help. You may not agree with everything they say, and their suggestions may seem impractical or contrary to your intentions with this particular piece – in which case, feel free to ignore them. But now and then, you will hear genuinely new and helpful insight, and possibly even a better alternative to what you’ve written. Keep your mind open so you can make use of these suggestions when they come.