Feedback is crucial on a writer’s journey. It is the means we need to become better at our craft and to grow as storytellers. Both giving and receiving feedback is a vital part of learning how to write. However, both of these aspects are something people commonly struggle with. For this post, we will be focusing on giving feedback. How do you give it in a useful, helpful way?
While giving feedback can be immensely useful and help a writer grow, it can also tear them down and make them want to quit altogether. As someone giving feedback, it’s your responsibility to word your tips and advice in a helpful, constructive manner. While you do not have to ‘sugarcoat’ things and hide the story’s flaws, there is no need to be ‘brutal’ and to destroy a writer’s work. Find the middle ground that allows you to say what you have to say in terms of advice while encouraging the writer at the same time.
One of the most important things is to never tell a writer that their writing is terrible, that they should stop writing altogether, or make them feel that way. This behavior is not helpful and borderline attacking another writer. The only way to improve your writing is to keep writing, and to tell someone to stop writing is one of the most counterproductive things you could possibly do. It’s like cutting a fledgling bird’s wings off before they have barely flapped them. Instead, show them how to fly, and they will soar.
One method for giving feedback is commonly called the ‘positivity hamburger’ or ‘positive sandwich’. As the name suggests, this is when negative feedback is ‘sandwiched’ between two pieces of positive feedback. As humans, we are more affected by negative feedback than we are by positive feedback. The positivity sandwich can help the writer feel encouraged by what you enjoyed about the work, accept your constructive feedback without feeling attacked, and feel motivated to start improving on your suggestions after reading the positive note at the end.
As mentioned above, you don’t need to lie or tell them everything is perfect. But it’s important to always mention at least one good thing, even if it’s as vague as “your premise is really interesting”. Everyone knows the sting of a particularly harsh critique, especially if it’s on a work you love and are proud of. Encourage them to continue, to grow. Helping a writer on their journey is what really matters.
While it’s completely normal to have some form of personal bias in your feedback, it’s important to ensure your feedback is mostly based on facts and true writing ‘rules’, rather than bias based on what you prefer. For example, perhaps the story includes a romance between the two main characters. If you dislike romance stories and then write a critique saying that the story is bad because you dislike romance, that’s not very helpful and will result in an upset writer. But if you were to say the story could use some improvement on the romance because you found it unengaging, that would be far more constructive.
Understand your biases and try to figure out the balance of where personal bias helps you recognize legitimate issues and where to ignore it altogether. This way, your feedback will be as useful and objective as possible.
You can also avoid giving feedback on content you don’t enjoy or content you don’t feel qualified to give feedback on. Since you are the one giving feedback, you are in control of who you offer your service/help to, which means you can set your own boundaries. You might not feel comfortable giving feedback on explicit content, or perhaps someone asks for help ensuring their historical fiction is historically accurate. It’s perfectly acceptable to turn down requests on work you don’t feel qualified or comfortable critiquing. Remember to always set your boundaries, for both your sake and the writer you’re giving feedback to.
Decide on a list of things that you feel qualified to give feedback on. Common aspects include grammar/spelling, characters, plot, realism, dialogue, etc. By having this list and using it regularly, you will know what you can give feedback on and can look for that specifically while reading. This will allow you to look at a manuscript more critically, which will allow you to have a clearer vision of your own writing, too.
If you’re thinking of opening up a feedback shop (on the Wacky Writers forum?), either for free or for payment, keep in mind that it’s your shop. You get to set the boundaries, decide how many people can go in your queue, how much time you’re willing to spend on it, how large and detailed your feedback is in terms of word count, what genres/books you give feedback, and how much payment you’ll ask. It’s always a good idea to explain details such as how much you will critique, what you expect in return in regards to payment, and a timeline of when they can expect you to be done. This helps your client understand what they are agreeing to and avoid misunderstandings.
About payment, if you are asking people to read your writing online as payment (be it on writing sites or via Google Docs), be sure to put your best work forward. If you show that you are a good writer who knows what they’re doing, the people you’ll give feedback to will feel reassured that your help will be just what they need. They might just stick around to read the rest of your manuscript, too.