In a previous post, I talked about how to process feedback and criticism when you’re on the receiving end — but what if you’re on the other side? What if you’re looking to offer constructive feedback, but aren’t sure where to start?
Part of being active in the writer community is forming connections with other authors, trading manuscripts/queries/synopses/pitches/etc. and learning from one another. And that’s great! Wanting to get involved is a fantastic thing. Not only are you meeting new people and forming lasting relationships, but you’re inevitably learning things that will strengthen your own writing, too.
So if you’re new to the scene and want to dive in by offering a critique of someone’s work — or maybe you’re a veteran and just want some ideas for offering constructive feedback — then I’ve got some tips to help you along.
5 tips for giving constructive feedback
Offering useful, helpful feedback isn’t as easy as simply reading a manuscript and saying, “it’s great!” Thoughtful insights require a bit of work, and delivery of your critique requires some finesse.
Don’t be derogatory.
Try a compliment sandwich.
Consider the author’s needs.
Leave an open line for communication.
While not every person handles criticism the same, these five tips should help you get started in the right direction.
1. Don’t be derogatory
I feel like this should be self-explanatory, but too often have I seen feedback that’s downright mean. And their justification? “Well, the author told me not to pull any punches, so I kept it real.”
Y’all. The phrase “pulling punches” does not mean “tear down absolutely everything I’ve put on the page.”
Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in the need to provide feedback that we go overboard. But there’s a difference between, “I’m not sure I understand your character’s stakes, here. Can you try fleshing it out a bit to give us a real sense of her drive?” and, “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. I just want to chuck the book aside.”
It’s okay to get heated because you’re invested. It’s okay to feel strongly about a scene, story, character — whatever. What’s not okay is delivering that reaction in a way that could cause harm or heartache. There’s nothing constructive about “this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” Not only that, it’s just plain mean.
If you’re on the verge of leaving a comment and aren’t sure whether or not it might be perceived as rude, ask yourself, “What good does it do for me to leave this comment? Can the author take this piece of feedback and apply it throughout to make their work stronger?” And if your answer is yes, just make sure you leave out the derogatory slips or expletives. Seriously.
I’m not saying we’re special flowers who can’t take feedback, because we can. Authors have a serious level of tenacity that I haven’t seen in any other profession, but depending on how long we’ve been in the game, the thickness of our skins might vary. The last thing you want is to give overly harsh advice to a newer writer and sour their taste to the community — and writing as a whole.
2. Try a compliment sandwich
Ahh, the compliment sandwich. If you haven’t heard of this phrase before, it’s a great method for offering constructive feedback and ensuring that it’s well-received. It goes a little something like this:
- Bread — ”I love the way you weaved the world-building into this scene. It’s so natural and lovely, and it really adds to the plot.”
- Meat/fixings — “Now that we’re grounded in the world, I’m wondering if there’s a way we can amplify the stakes, here. It seems like Mary is really driven by getting her next promotion, but we don’t get any instances of that on the page in this scene. Hammering in those stakes will help with the pacing, too!”
- Bread — ”Oh man. The interaction between the love interests here is gold. Can you say conflict of interest? And I bet if you touch on Mary’s internal feelings again, it will only elevate the tension in this exchange even more.”
Not everyone needs a compliment sandwich every single time you find an opportunity for constructive feedback. But your criticism shouldn’t be one giant monologue about what went wrong and what needs to be altered. Think of the manuscript like a triple decker, with some bread layered in between to show the author what they’re doing right along the way.
3. Be specific
So I kind of hinted as this earlier with the “this is dumb” vs. “make the stakes clearer” example, but I’ll really hit it home, here: give clear, actionable feedback wherever you can. Because writing is subjective, it’s highly possible that you not liking a scene might be received differently from another pair of eyes. So, if your only feedback is, “I don’t like this, consider tweaking,” it can leave the author confused and uncertain — especially if another reader provides opposing feedback.
If something falls flat or doesn’t ring true, give specific examples as to why. And don’t be afraid to link to credible, outside sources to provide the author with other resources and examples to fine-tune their work. Constructive feedback is all about offering actionable insights.
4. Consider the author’s needs
Every author expects or needs something different for their writing. Understanding the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader is key, as well as communicating clearly about their expectations up front.
Ask questions like:
- What type of feedback are you looking for?
- Do you have any specific issues or problem areas you’d like me to be on the lookout for?
- How would you like to receive your feedback?
- Is there anything other readers have noticed that you don’t agree with or can’t pinpoint?
- When do you need your feedback by? (This question is important, because you don’t want to leave anyone hanging.)
After you’ve established what their expectations are, keep them front and center when you’re reading. Make notes when you find something that addresses one of their pain points, as well as anything outside you might notice that they could be unaware of.
A quick tip: An author’s needs go beyond their expectations for their manuscript. It might be in your best interest to sample critique a few chapters to ensure the style of constructive feedback you offer aligns with what they’re looking for.
5. Leave an open line for communication
I’m not saying you have to dedicate the next six years of your life to helping this person with their manuscript. Hell, six weeks might even be your limit — and that’s okay. We all have lives and work and writing outside of providing feedback.
But, even if you are the exact wrong person to be reading this style of manuscript and don’t feel like you have much to offer, simply leaving room for the author to ask questions and seek clarification is important.
Once you’ve compiled your feedback in a way that works for the author and explain your take on their story, be sure to give them the opportunity to ask questions if needed.
Just like things can get convoluted in your own work, the same can be said for constructive feedback. While your comment about amplifying stakes might make perfect sense to you, it’s possible the author might miss the connection. You don’t need to hand-hold them through the revision process, but if they ask a question about a comment you left, you should be able to clarify. After all, that’s part of forming a lasting relationship.
Providing constructive feedback takes work. And it should. There’s no quick and easy path to getting a book published, and that’s in part because we care so much about the stories we create and the edits that go into them. Treat other people’s work as you’d want yours to be treated — that’s the golden rule of offering constructive feedback.