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Beyond the Red Pen: Giving Constructive Criticism

May 23, 2024

If anyone has read your work, chances are you’ve received feedback on it, whether you asked for it or not. You probably ignored most of it. Giving good feedback can be a problem in the writing community. It requires understanding and empathy. 

How can you respond to someone else’s writing in a way that helps them improve it for their audience, whether you like it or not?

The answer is found in 4 stages: 

  1. Pre-reading
  2. Reading
  3. Giving a response
  4. Content of the response

Let’s take a look at what each entails.

Stage 1: Pre-reading

Before sitting down to read, it’s important to understand the writer’s intentions and the state their work is in. Start by asking the writer about their goals for the piece. Are they writing a novel for a specific audience? Ask them about the demographics and expectations of that audience. How do they want the audience to feel while reading it? Knowing these details will help you tailor your feedback to their needs. 

Next, ask about the development of the work. Is this a first draft or a fifth? An excerpt or the whole? This tells you how polished the work should be, the level of detail that should be included, and what kind of feedback would be helpful. Unless the writer states that it is a finished piece of work, always treat it as unfinished. While creating your feedback, think about what makes it unfinished and what you would like to see added in order to feel it is complete.

Be sure to also ask the writer what kind of feedback they are looking for. Do they want you to proofread, offer constructive criticism, or give general advice? Clarifying this will make sure that your feedback is aligned with their expectations. 

Stage 2: Reading

Once you have an understanding of the piece and the writer’s expectations, read it through once to get a sense of the story. Enjoy yourself. 

Then, read it again critically. This time take down notes about anything you see. As you do, make a list of questions you have as you read. This shows the author what caught your attention and what may need improved. If necessary, read the work aloud to identify issues with the stoy’s flow, particularly in dialogue.

Stage 3: Giving a response

Stage 4 is the vital stage in the process, as it is where you actually create feedback for the piece you read. But there are still some considerations to keep in mind while you write. 

Focus on the writing

When giving feedback, try to be objective, but recognize that whatever comments and advice you give will ultimately be your personal opinion. The best way to do this is to focus on the writing itself rather than the writer. Doing so opens the writer’s mind to possibilities rather than making them angry and closed off because they feel personally attacked.

Example: Instead of telling someone that they’re bad at writing characters, say something like, “I feel like this character’s action in the second scene goes against what they said and how they acted in the first.” 

Be nice

Throughout the process, remain sensitive and polite. Remember how vulnerable it feels to share your own work and avoid being unnecessarily harsh. Additionally, keep your feedback in line with the writer’s skill level. If they have a low or beginner’s writing level, don’t give them complicated advice. 

Give direction

When you make a claim, be specific. For example, if you say that there is a plot hole in the story, point out exactly where it is and describe how it is a plot hole.

With this, ask yourself if your feedback is actionable. Every criticism you list should give the writer a goal to achieve. Explain what isn’t working, why, and how the writer could do better. By describing where and how the plot falls away in the story, you are giving the writer an opportunity to take action. Their goal is to fill in the gaps and fix the plotline. 

Don’t be a backseat writer

When you start identifying the mistakes in a project, it may be difficult to stop. But you have to. It’s important not to nitpick at tiny details. If you identify multiples of the same mistakes, give general advice about the topic rather than pointing out every individual error. For example, if there are several spelling mistakes across the manuscript, suggest that the writer practice their spelling overall in the next draft. 

At the same time, be sure you aren’t imposing your style through your feedback. Don’t suggest things that change how they write if it’s working. This is their story, not yours. 

Stage 4: Content of the response

Structure your feedback

Start with major concerns like content, order, and quality first. If there are other high-end concerns, address those as well. Only discuss minor issues like word choice and grammar at the end. These things can change at any time, but developmental issues can disable the core of a story. 

Make it conversational

If you are writing a response to send to the writer, engage in a conversational tone. If you have the chance, meet in person and make it a real conversation – a back and forth between you and them. This softens any criticism you may have, makes it more digestible, and allows the writer to feel less on their own in this process. 

When problems do come up in the story, use conversation to prompt the writer to find a solution for themselves. Instead of saying, “I thought this section was boring,” frame it with a question. “This section’s pace slowed down a lot. Is there a way to increase it so that it leads into the next one more fluidly?”

Say what worked

Balance your critique by highlighting what works as much as – if not more than – what doesn’t.  Instead of only pointing out errors, try to point out opportunities. Your job in giving feedback is to make the writing more effective for the future reader. What is missing? What would make it better? Tell the writer of the opportunities that are there that they haven’t tapped into yet, whether that is adding a side villain or adding an emotional journey to the hero’s arc. 

If you are stuck and don’t know what to discuss, here are some topics to look at:

  • Pacing: Did it move fast enough? Too fast? Were there any slow parts? Did it fluctuate appropriately?
  • Dialogue: Did any lines jump out at you? Was it natural or stilted? Do any seem forced or out of place? Are the characters’ voices distinct?
  • Setting: Was it described enough? Too much? Is it a good fit for the plot and the characters?
  • Characters: Do they have arcs? What are your impressions and interpretations of them? Do they act in accordance with their personalities throughout the story? How do they relate to each other?
  • Information: Was it interesting? Understandable? Was anything confusing or inconsistent?
  • Plot: Was it engaging? Is there anything to add that would take it to the next level?
  • Favorites: What was your favorite part of the piece? Least favorite? Describe why.

Giving feedback helps you, too

Learning to give good feedback not only helps others improve their writing but also enhances your own skills. By identifying blind spots in others’ work, you become better at spotting them in oyur own. This practice helps you look at your writing objectively and identify areas that need strengthening. 

Now that you’ve gone through the 4 stages of giving feedback, you can practice it in your own responses to other’s work. Remember that it’s not supposed to be good or bad, but effective for the writer and the work as a whole. Effective feedback is a crucial tool for any writer’s growth, creating a collaborative environment where both the giver and receiver of feedback can thrive.

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