How to give feedback to other writers

Put yourself in the other writer’s shoes

When we write we put ourselves on the line, sharing work with others is scary! In general writers are sensitive types, so remember that the writer asking for feedback will be feeling vulnerable.

When you’re preparing your notes on a novel or story, make sure you acknowledge what the writer has done well as well as what needs improvement. Every piece of writing has some strengths, so look for these and be prepared to point them out.

Consider the tone of your feedback

Make sure your advice comes across as helpful and encouraging. There are many terrible tales of writers receiving negative feedback and giving up on a novel. Remember that any piece of writing can be improved, the aim of feedback is to give a writer notes to create a better draft.

Remember we all have different tastes

Any feedback on a story or chapter should not be a review. You can give helpful feedback on a story even when you don’t like the genre or theme. Writing groups usually have a wide range of genres among the submissions, so members should expect to read styles of fiction they don’t particularly enjoy. It can be helpful to point out to an author that a story is not a genre you’re unfamiliar with, but rather than saying ‘I don’t like spy stories’ you should consider the factors common to all stories such as character, pacing, dialogue and structure. Of course, all feedback is subjective. If you receive negative feedback, then you should always remember that not everyone will like every story.

Read the story or chapter thoroughly

The writer is in a vulnerable position when they submit work for feedback. You owe it to them to give it more than a quick glance and a snap judgment. Don’t skim read, consider the work, and take notes.

Be honest, but diplomatic

The technique of sandwiching criticism between praise is often used when giving feedback, but it can be rather transparent. Instead of sandwiching criticism between empty positives, it is better to be honest but always diplomatic and encouraging. If something doesn’t quite work always suggest how a writer might learn and improve. If a story has dialogue that feels unrealistic, it would be best to say something like, ‘To me some of the dialogue doesn’t sound believable, have you thought of reading it out loud, or reading about techniques for realistic dialogue?’

Ask questions that lead the writer in a positive direction

The goal of giving feedback isn’t to express about much you know about writing stories; it’s to help the writer expand on his potential. The best feedback leaves the writer feeling they’ve learned something that will make their story better in the next draft. Here’s some examples of questions that can guide a writer to improve.

Have you thought about your character’s motivation in that scene?
Have you thought about where that conversation might take place? I’d love to get a feel for the setting.
Do you think there’s a way to simplify this plot point? There’s a lot going on, maybe it could be spread over more than one chapter?
Have you considered changing the character’s name to something more distinctive?

Don’t spend too long on small points

Sometimes a writer submits work with a lot of typos or grammatical corrections. Instead of outlining every single point that needs attention it is usually better to make a broader point about a need to proofread the work. In a similar way, if there is problem with an erratic use of tense, rather than outlining each case where it occurs it’s best to suggest the writer take a look at tense in the whole piece.

Less is more

A long list of feedback, no matter how constructive, can feel overwhelming. Choose a few of the most important things the writer can do to improve the story, help them understand what you mean, then trust them to fix things. The most supportive writing groups will look again at a piece and read the next draft.

Remember this is a work-in-progress, any story can improve

In most cases, when someone asks you for feedback, you’re looking at a work-in-progress, not a finished piece. Always remember the goal of a writing group is to support each other to become better writers. Whatever the quality of the piece, or however new to writing someone is, your job is to help your fellow writer take the next step in learning this craft. Occasionally writers submit work and seem to think it doesn’t need a rewrite at all, in this case a feedback group may not be the right place for them. I find it is best to give feedback anyway and hope they learn lessons for the next project.

Consider the writer’s goals

When you critique another writer’s work it can help to ask what they might find useful from the feedback. Some writing groups encourage writers to add a note on this point. So, a writer might say, ‘This is an early draft and not very polished, I’m mostly interested in knowing if the scenes further the story.’ Or a writer might ask for feedback on a particular aspect of the work such as whether a character is likeable, or a plot point believable.

It’s their story!

You should never try to guide the direction of a story or try to rewrite a story in your own style. There is nothing more annoying than another writer saying, ‘you should make the ending exactly like this’ and presenting their own version of a story. It is fine to tentatively present ideas for a different way to do things, but writers almost never want to explore someone else’s idea, they have plenty of their own!

In conclusion

Feedback groups are not for everyone. These groups suit the kind of writers who are honest about their stories weaknesses and prepared to listen, learn, and do the work to rewrite a draft. You need a thick skin to hear your precious story isn’t perfect, but it will help you improve the work. You will almost certainly become a better writer if you join a critique group, particularly if you find a few trusted writers who are honest with you.

One thing I’ve learned from many years of attending feedback groups, is that if one person says something, I’m okay to ignore it. But if three people say the same thing, I need to pay attention! Getting a great many opinions on a story at an early stage is a big help.

I hope you will consider the advantages of joining a feedback group and use these tips to give writers helpful feedback on their work. WriterLink offers all the tools you need to start a feedback group, or join an established group. So, what are you waiting for? Good luck on your writing journey!