One of the most daunting elements of writing groups, classes or workshops is that you’re required to critique other people’s work as part of the learning process. There’s more to this than simply saying what you think. It’s often a delicate balancing act of being helpful but tactful. So this blog post is aimed at anyone who is new to this, and looking for pointers on providing feedback that won’t have your peers throwing their laptops out of windows, never to write again. Or vowing to hunt you to the ends of the earth (this almost never happens in creative writing circles, but you can’t be too careful).
1. Be kind. It may seem obvious, but do go easy when giving feedback – particularly if you don’t know the writer in question or how robust they are when it comes to taking critique. Find a balance of elements you like as well as highlighting things you feel need work. And try to phrase the latter in a positive way (“Maybe you could consider….” etc). If I’m reading something that’s still at a flawed early-draft stage, I try to hone in on the most important things that need addressing, and overlook more minor things. They can be picked up at a later stage. There’s nothing quite as demoralising as getting a piece back that’s more red than black because then the author won’t know where to start to make it better and may lose faith. And obviously, obviously, don’t say things like, “This is terrible.” If in doubt, ask yourself how you’d feel if someone made similar remarks about work you’ve shared.
2. …but be constructive. The opposite is also true. Giving bland feedback along the lines of “Great stuff, well done!” doesn’t help much, particularly if the writer in question knows their story isn’t quite there yet. If you genuinely think that something is really good and doesn’t need any further tinkering, that’s fine – be honest and say that. It may be that they’re doubting their ability and just need a bit of reassurance. If the writer is unhappy with it, perhaps you could ask them what it is specifically they want you to look at so you can focus in on whether that aspect works. Even discussing it might help them to figure out an alternative themselves.
3. Be specific. If something isn’t working, it’s helpful if you can articulate why you think that is. Does the rhythm of the sentence feel clunky? Does the concept not ring true? Is there an inconsistency with something in another section? Statements like “That doesn’t work” or “I just don’t like this” aren’t terribly constructive and the writer will probably have to ask you to elaborate. You don’t necessarily have to provide them with a solution, but try to explain why you’re highlighting a point if you can.
4. Don’t get carried away. If you give ten people the same prompt, you’ll end up with ten completely different interpretations, no matter how random or specific it is. That’s the beauty of writing, everyone’s take is unique and all are equally valid. How does that fit in with giving feedback? Well, this is purely my personal opinion of course, but I think it’s unfair to suggest changes to a writer’s piece that are the creative choices you would make. That’s hijacking their story, unless they specifically say, “Hey, I have no idea where this is going, and you’re so amazing at this imagination stuff, can you suggest something?” Sometimes it’s hard to resist if you can see the potential in a story and they’re missing a trick or two. But there’s a fine line between helping that writer draw out what’s lurking in their subconscious, and trying to steer it towards your vision. If a writer is early-stage or lacking in confidence, they may well take on board these suggestions and end up with something that’s even further away from their original intention.
5. Be reliable. Don’t offer to read something and then leave the person hanging. Writers will keep refreshing their emails every two seconds hoping to hear back. It’s agonising waiting on the verdict of a piece of work, so do please give a timeframe and stick to it as best you can. This is even more important if the writer has a deadline, eg an upcoming competition or journal closing date. They might miss their opportunity while waiting for your pearls of wisdom, or not be left with enough time to fix whatever issues your notes throw up if you cut it close. Or they might have a last-minute crisis about the piece they thought was ready to go, and won’t have time for the necessary sulk/cry/eat crisps/redraft stages. And if you’re swamped and can’t fit in reading their work, say so. Most people won’t mind.
6. Be open-minded. Sometimes you’ll be asked to critique work that isn’t your cup of tea. For example, you hate romances and a friend asks if you’ll read their bonkbuster. You can’t then go in on it with a scalpel advising that all the sex scenes be removed. Or you don’t like gore and you’re asked to read a horror. “Too much blood! Too many severed limbs!” would be unfair to them. You have to read the piece for what it is rather than what your preference would be (see point #4 above). If you really feel you’re the wrong person to read their tale of a cupcake bakery in a remote lighthouse, it might be wiser to say that – in a tactful way, of course.
But wait, there’s more!
When I started working on this blog post, I actually thought I’d be padding it out to find six things of note. Instead, I’ve had to divide it in two because there’s quite a lot to say. So if you’ve found this in any way useful, do please pop back tomorrow, when I’ll have a companion piece about being at the receiving end of feedback. Because that isn’t easy either, but in my experience it’s an essential part of becoming a better writer.
In the meantime, if you agree, disagree or are outraged at all the things I’ve failed to mention, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Edited to add, you can find the companion piece on how to deal with getting feedback here