Leaving Better Feedback
Even if it was back in high school, almost every writer has had someone read our work and gotten feedback like "it's good" or "I liked it." I don't know about you, but I feel deflated when I get "feedback" like that. Because it's all well and good that they liked my writing, but I want it to be improved.
Even worse is feedback like "this just isn't working" or "I don't like the end." Why isn't it working? Why don't you like it? What am I supposed to do with that?
Bad or unhelpful feedback is frustrating and writers also give feedback like this. Often. I've discovered that many people are never taught how to give good feedback. I'm very grateful that one of my professors taught me how to critique writing well, so I'll pass those skills on to you.
1. Leave comments
This seems very obvious, but it is so common for people to read 6 pages of writing and leave 4 comments. Bare minimum on short pieces is 2 per page. Longer work, like novels, can have less unless the writer has specifically asked for more.
2. Be careful about your language
Saying "this sucks" is wrong for so many reasons. But keep in mind that this writing means a lot to the author. Saying you hate something in it or calling something bad will be the comments that stick with them. Be helpful, but gentle.
3. Point out good things
Writers want to know what isn't working. But if that's all you point out, they'll likely be discouraged. Tell them what's working, too!
4. Be specific about what isn't working
If any of your comments can be answered with the question "why?" then the comment isn't complete. Don't say "I didn't like the ending" say why you didn't. Don't say "this character feels stiff," say why they feel stiff.
5. Leave suggestions, not commands
The writer gets the final say. If something isn't objectively wrong (like a typo), don't act like is. Saying "make this character's dialogue more emotional" isn't helpful (it can also be answered with "why"). Instead, try "this scene would be deeper if this character's dialogue had more emotion in it. Changing the sentence structure would help."
6. Be specific in how to help
You can see in the last example, I added "changing the sentence structure would help." Often times, you'll know why something doesn't feel right and have an idea of what might make it better. Say that! If you genuinely don't know how to fix the problem, say that too. "I don't know how to fix it, but this sentence reads choppy."
7. Look at the big and little picture
Unless you're told not to by the writer, leave comments on big picture issues (plot, subplots, character arc) and little picture issues (syntax, dialogue, specific words). Telling them when a sentence has a comma splice is great, but not if that's the only feedback you leave.
8. Let them find some of the errors
This relates to what I just said about comma splices. If they're everywhere, then the writer isn't seeing them (This is me. I use many comma splices). Point out a few, then simply say "you use a lot of comma splices." Let them notice them. When you do, that writer will forever be more aware of them.
9. Get into the story
This is mainly for fiction. But I love when people comment towards my characters. For example, things like "Olivia, this is NOT a good idea!" are fun comments to see. I leave them any time I have a strong reaction when I'm reading. Personal anecdotes, times you related to the story, reactions, etc. You may think they don't help the writer, but they do. Knowing where the readers are most invested is very helpful.
10. Vary your comment types
If you just left a string on comments on grammar, make an effort to comment about characterization or dialogue. If you've only left comments like the ones in number 8, go back and leave comments about the writing itself. If you've been leaving a lot of critiques, find some things to praise and vice versa.
11. Leave a wrap-up comment
When you get to the end of the story, leave a little paragraph with your overall thoughts. It's very helpful to put in here what you thought the greatest strength and greatest area for improvement were (notice I didn't say weakness).
12. Communicate the timeline
If you need several months to critique the work, tell the writer that. If you'll have it back by the end of the week, say that. Letting other people read our work is terrifying. Knowing they have it but not knowing when they'll give it back is worse.
That's all I've got for now. You want to give the feedback you'd hope to receive. Make it specific, gentle, and helpful. Find a balance of praise and critique. Above all else, remember: all your comments should be in the best interest of the story. If the comment isn't helping the writer improve the story or get the confidence to keep working on it, don't make the comment.
So before you get out your red pen, think if your comment is really helpful. While you're at it, get a different color. Red is scary.
Have you received bad feedback? What made it bad? Have you given bad feedback? How can you do better?
Shout out to Cynthia Beach for teaching the workshop classes I initially learned these skills in. You can check out her website here.