What I’ve learned about giving feedback

For the past year I have had the pleasure of working with an amazing critique partner. She and I really challenege each other to grow and improve while also providing constant support and encouragement. I am so blessed to have her in my network–and also to call her a friend.

One of the best parts of our relationship is that she is my go-to person for the best feedback, and I am hers. I can always count on her to give detailed, specific feedback that doesn't make me want to bang my head against the wall. While we don’t always agree, we both have the same guiding vision and principles when it comes to improving the narrative.

Here is what I have learned about giving *great* feedback:

  1. Don’t impose your preferences/values on someone else’s story

It’s okay if someone else’s story doesn’t mirror your values or preferences. If you are going to give feedback on someone else’s work it is important to be okay with this.

Rather, it’s important to try and check those preferences at the door and let the other person tell their story the way they want to tell us even if we personally disagree. It’s also important to remember that just because their character might do or say or think something, it is not a reflection of the writer’s own beliefs, attitudes or actions. Not every story is auto-biographical and it’s important to separate the writing from the writer. Now if you are asked for feedback regarding a specific issue, then yes speak your mind. But it’s important to be discerning and to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.

At the end of the day most people aren’t trying to write vile things, or push evil agendas or say awful things. Let their characters be messy. Let them say the wrong thing. Let them make mistakes without trying to police the values, messages or content of the writer’s story. Likewise, we all have our specific tastes. Maybe we hate “enemies to lovers” and we love “paranormal romance.” That’s great, but when you are giving feedback this isn’t your story and you need to check those preferences at the door.

2. Trust the other person

When you give feedback it’s imperative that you bestow a level of trust on the writing. Don’t feel like you must critique everything or search for problems in order to prove you are giving “good feedback.” It’s okay to simply say you liked what they wrote and move on. Get out of the mindset that you must fix their work, or that it is your job to clean up their mess. And just because someone asks for feedback doesn’t amount to an admission of fault. Trust the writer to tell their story without your handholding. Don’t try to micromanage or police their story. And don’t jump down their throat about every little thing, it’s okay to read further to see how things pan out before leaving comments or feedback.

3. Use the language of addition rather than subtraction

This is one of my favorite feedback tips because it gives a concrete route to improvement without making anyone feel bad! It’s a win win!

Here is an example of using the language of addition:

I would love to see more world building in this scene. Help us to navigate through their world by showing us the setting using all the sensory details

As opposed to using the language of subtraction:

You didn’t do enough world building here. I didn’t connect to the setting. Don’t tell us, show us.

See the difference? When we use the language of addition we are asking for more of something and giving specific examples of what we want. In the language of subtraction we are outlining what was missing and what we didn’t like. They both essentially say the same thing, but one is far more supportive and helpful than the other.

4. Use supportive language

Using supportive language amounts to phrasing feedback in such a way where the person receiving the feedback feels supported rather than degraded, insulted or attacked by the person giving feedback. Make sure that you give compliments where applicable and that suggestions are given in such a way where the writer knows that you are cheering for them and their story. Language like, “I didn’t like x” is vastly unhelpful. Instead try, “I loved what you were trying to do here, but unfortunately this didn’t work for me. What if instead your character did x?” You don’t have to love everything they write, far from it, but your comments should show a level of support for the person’s work that makes them feel as though you value their hard work on this project that you want them to succeed. Otherwise, why offer to give or get feedback?

5. Give a compliment sandwich

Compliment sandwhiches are a great way to provide critiques while protecting the writer’s ego (we are all fragile okay?). A compliment sandwich goes something like this:

I loved the part where the characters did x. That was so funny I even LOL’d. However the part in the middle where they did x didn’t work for me. I was having trouble understanding the character motivation. I would love to see more internal narration so that I can better understand why the characters chose to do that. I really enjoyed the part where so and so said x. That was such a great line. Keep going! I’m excited to read more. And please let me know if you have any questions.

6. Be honest about what isn’t working

Okay yes we writers are fragile (our work is like our baby!) but it’s not helpful to only give compliments even if it seems like the “nice” things to do. At the end of the day we ask for feedback because we want to grow and improve our work, and asking for our readers to act like clapping seals isn’t going to help us get where we want to go. Therefore, it’s important to be transparent and honest about what isn’t working. Just be sure to use supportive language when doing so. The true sign of a great editor is being able to hone in on an issue and understand what the root of that issue is and how it might be resolved.

7. Give suggestions, not commandments

Remember, it’s not your book. You are only providing suggestions. You are the coach, not the dictator. Your job isn’t to fix someone’s book, and it’s not your job to tell them what to do and give orders. Your job is to provide suggestions about what might help resolve some issues. Make sure you phrase all feedback as a suggestion and to discuss issues like questions. Instead of saying, “ I didn’t like this, do this instead,” try “what if instead this happened? What do you think?” This kind of phrasing makes it into a team effort where you are working together, but you acknowledge that the writer has the true final say on all edits.

8. Understand their genre

In order to give quality feedback on someone else’s work it’s important that you understand some basic tenants of their genre. You don’t have to be an expert (although that would be ideal), but you should have a basic understand of who the readership might be and what their expectations for this genre are. This is especially important if you are not the target market for this genre.

For example, I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so i don’t have a strong knowledge of what audiences like in this genre. Therefore I am going to give the benefit of the doubt and trust that the writer understands their genre better than I do (because I don’t). However on the other hand, I have a very strong knowledge of romance and I understand what audiences like in this genre, therefore I can provide meaningful suggestions about tropes, characters and style.

9. Leave your personal tastes out

I’m not really into scify elements or paranormal, I also don’t really like slap stick comedy, characters that are “too perfect,” groveling simp love interests or love at first sight. But none of that matters when I am giving feedback, because those are matters of personal taste and are solely subjecgtive. As an editor I should really only be giving feedback on big picture concepts, plot, structure, flow, syntax, dialogue, character development and conflict, not imposing my personal taste on someone else’s story. It’s important to be discerning and draw lines about what you are going to give feedback on, and what you are going to just let go because it is outside the scope of your role.

10. Suggest solutions

It’s not enough to tell someone what you didn’t like or why you didn't like it, truly great editors will suggest possible solutions. The way to become good at this is to try and understand the root of the issue and how that could be resolved–something that can be developed with lots of critical reading. Maybe the scene needs to be recast? Maybe the character’s motivation is lacking? Maybe the conflict doesn’t provide high enough stakes? In order to be a great editor, it’s important to first understand what is not working and why it isn’t working before we make suggestions.

In closing,

Finding a great critique partner is a huge blessing, and certainly not easy to come by. But finding a great critique partner also comes with duties. Someone else is entrusting their work to you, and that’s a huge responsibility, and not something to be take lightly. Be discerning about your comments and do your best to exercise restraint, even when you might be convinced you know better. Always be kind, always show respect for their work, and do your best to support them and encourage them even if their work might not always be your cup of tea.

Happy Editing!

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Heather McBreen

Heather McBreen

Reading is how we explore our world and writing is how we inhabit it. On a journey to becoming a published novelist. Women’s fiction, rom coms, historical fic.