Giving feedback to other writers on their stories is such a rewarding and beneficial thing to do. It not only gives them a boost and sharpens their skills, but it will also hone your writing practice. Partnering with other writers will give you friends that understand the highs and lows of creating imaginary worlds and trying to make them make sense on paper. Essentially, it’s just a great thing to do!
However, we’ve all had those people read our books who make those kinds of comments. It may have been someone you loved who was totally well-meaning but didn’t understand your vision and kept making distracting suggestions. Or maybe it was a more experienced writer who littered their advice with so many shoulds, musts, and alwayses (totally a word), that it felt like they were proclaiming rules rather than making suggestions. And you may have had some advice that simply didn’t make sense – it was vague and confusing.
This kind of feedback helps no one. It makes the writer feel confused and can create a block for further creativity, and it will alienate them from the feedback-giver. Let’s not be those people!
I love giving feedback to other writers – so much so that I do it for a living – and I try so SO hard to make sure that the critique I give is helpful and practical. I want my editing reports to be a launch pad for writers to dive into their stories and make them shine. And, understandably, I’m equally passionate about other writers honing their skills as feedback-givers so that we are all lifting one another up.
Below are my top tips for giving constructive feedback and avoiding the pitfalls.
Always, always, always.
Someone has trusted you with their book baby. Or maybe they’re not as dramatic as me, but they have at least trusted you with something they’ve worked really darn hard on. That deserves gentle handling.
Even if there are major issues with a story, make sure to point out the great stuff they have done too. Frame any negative feedback with practical advice and reassurance that you can work through the problem together if they’d like to.
Some of this is around wording – which is so important when giving feedback. Telling someone that a scene was boring is mean and unhelpful, telling them it was a bit slow and that they could tighten the dialogue is kind and gives them something to work on.
An aspect of kindness when giving feedback is being thorough. Vagueness is unhelpful and, at worst, can be interpreted as disinterest. Tell the storyteller everything that jolted you out of story, every time a character shone and made you smile, all the odd moments when the plot seemed to fizzle out – but always do it with kindness.
Kindness is the blanket that covers all the feedback I give to editing clients. Yes, I will point out the flaws and issues in a story but I will also help writers to see the way to improve and I will always tell them all the stuff they are really great at. Feedback should give people things to work on, but if it’s delivered with kindness then they will leap into those revisions with renewed energy and a smile on their face.
Kindness shouldn’t be confused with niceness. A nice person wouldn’t tell you anything that was wrong with your story. They would let you believe it was utterly flawless to avoid having to tell you something you might not want to hear.
Kindness means that issues are raised, but in a non-confrontational, humble way. A problem is spotted and it’s talked through without judgement or blame, but is honestly pointed out and explained.
Niceness means that a story will stay stagnant, but kind and honest feedback will help the story soar and the writer develop their skills.
An important part of being honest is being specific. It’s important to tell another writer they lost you when explaining the layout of their extremely important and very convoluted castle, but unless you can tell them exactly when and how they lost your interest then the comment can feel a little unhelpful.
This is often a point, when I’m reading client’s work, that I might have to set it aside for a bit. Sometimes, when you’re reading a story, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s becoming jarring or causing it to slip from your grasp. A bit of time away usually helps me to figure out that it was the moment when measurements started being used to tell me about the bricks of the castle (so the writer was perhaps trying to show off too much of their research), or it was that I didn’t understand why I was being told about the castle in such rich detail (so I didn’t feel informed about the character’s aims and how the castle fit into them).
But sometimes, you will simply be unable to tell the writer exactly what doesn’t feel right. You’ll just know that something doesn’t fit. In these cases, I’d suggest giving as much detail as possible and making sure to reiterate that this is how it feels for you – it may feel totally different for other readers.
That’s one important thing to remember as you’re giving feedback – everything you’re saying is informed by who you are. You might find a character totally unrelatable or think a situation is unbelievable, but that may not be the case for other people with different experiences to you. This is one reason that giving feedback needs to be done in gentle way, because you could be totally wrong. Actually, for some readers, that character would feel like a blueprint of their mum or the situation might feel uncomfortably real.
This is why it’s best to honestly acknowledge your limitations as a feedback-giver. We can’t know everything, so some feedback needs to be given with the caveat that you actually don’t know much about this type of person/setting. This is when suggesting a sensitivity/authenticity reader might be best – as they have lived experience that can really enrich a story and make characters real.
REMEMBER IT’S NOT YOUR STORY
I craft what I hope are incredibly thorough and honest reports for my editing clients. I throw everything I’ve got at them, give them the best of my knowledge and understanding of how stories work, and provide workable examples of how to write themselves out of any issues that have cropped up. I talk specifics, and make sure I’m driving in the direction they want to go for this story. Kindly and honestly, I tell them all I think they are great at and point out those things I think might need to change.
But before all that, I tell them to feel free to totally ignore everything I say.
I say this first because it’s super important. As soon as someone asks for your advice about something, you’re put into a position of trust and power. They trust that you won’t steer them wrong, but you have the power to do so.
I recognise that I am a flawed individual and I will not always give perfect feedback on stories. It’s really important to acknowledge this. I will give feedback that I believe will help improve the story, but the only person who can really figure out if it should be taken on board or not is the writer.
This is their story, and it needs to be told their way.
So it might be frustrating if you keep giving a critique partner the same advice and they’re just not listening, or you might think of the perfect plot twist to end a friend’s novel but when you tell them about it they just shrug – BUT that is their right. They are the writer – they are in total control. All we can give are suggestions, we can’t make demands.
Let’s build up other writers. When giving feedback, let’s be kind and honest, and always remember that it is their story, and they can do whatever they please with it.
This post links to another I’ve written about receiving feedback well. You can read that here.