Critiques must be handled with a deft touch. I always thought I had a knack for giving useful writing feedback—that is, until a writer friend asked for my thoughts on her novel-in-progress. I gave them, pointing out where her plot seemed to lag and the characters felt flat. Surely, I thought, she would be grateful for my insight.
Not so much. In fact, she eventually confessed that my comments caused her to shut down and stop writing for months, convinced she was doomed to fail and that her writing career was over.
Most people have good intentions and don’t want to give blistering critiques. You’re here because you want to learn how to give good, straightforward feedback that’s helpful, not deflating. Here’s how to make that happen.
Writing is a vulnerable act. And, ironically, the more experienced the writer, the more likely one may be to think they’re a complete fraud. In fact, some creatives rack up impressive achievements all while feeling certain that, at any moment, someone’s going to expose them as a poseur.
This psychological phenomenon is called impostor syndrome, and it strikes writers who produce anything from poetry or fiction to monthly marketing reports. When you start giving honest feedback on someone’s writing, keep this in mind.
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.
—Neil Gaiman, author
When you’re preparing your feedback, make sure you acknowledge what they’ve done right as well as what needs improvement. Every piece of writing has some strengths, so look for them and be prepared to point them out.
Read the whole thing thoroughly.
Give the manuscript a thoughtful read-through (or two) before you give feedback. The writer is in a vulnerable position. You owe it to this person to prove that you’ve invested more than a quick glance and offered a snap judgment.
Don’t skim. Read deeply. Take notes.
Forget about the compliment sandwich
You may have heard of the compliment sandwich, a technique for sandwiching criticism between praise. It’s often used by managers when giving their employees feedback, but it’s recognized by many professionals these days as ineffective. Would this help soften a critical blow?
“I read most of your article and liked it, but your spelling awful and your grammar sucks. Are you sure you graduated from high school? You did lay the manuscript out really well, though—good job!”
Instead, of sandwiching harsh criticism between empty positives, be honest. “Diplomacy” is your watchword.
Ask questions that lead the writer in the right direction
The goal of a critique isn’t to show how much you know; it’s to help the writer expand on his potential. The best feedback leaves the writer feeling they’ve had an awakening and knows what needs revision to make their writing work. Here’s an example:
Feedback is really about the quality of your suggestions, not the quantity. If the writer’s work needs proofreading, suggest a thorough line edit rather than picking at every little grammar, spelling, and punctuation nit. If passive voice or weak language choices are a theme, recommend that the writer take a closer look at those things.
A mountain of feedback, no matter how constructive, can be overwhelming. Choose a few of the most important things the writer can do to improve the manuscript, then point out an example to help them understand what you’re referring to.
He was walking walked to the market to meet Mary.
It’s a critique, not a review
Don’t treat feedback the same as you would a review. In most cases, when someone asks you for feedback, you’re looking at a work-in-progress, not a finished product. Giving feedback is about finding ways to suggest improvements. Share your ideas and tips.
When you critique writing, your job is to determine whether the writer accomplished what they set out to do, whether that goal was to tell a good story or to write a convincing sales pitch. Focus on what the writer can do to improve the next draft and you’ll help them create a winning manuscript.