Contrary to what Simon Cowell might say, not all feedback needs to be nasty. That goes double for writers.
When critiquing our fellow scribes, it’s important to be kind and respectful. Not that I think you’d ever behave like Mr. Cowell—it’s just that we should take extra care when offering criticism.
You know from experience how hard writers work at their craft. Therefore, we want to help each other maintain enthusiasm while still providing useful advice. Here are some ways to do it.
Strive for Objectivity
Rating a book is a subjective exercise. But when offering feedback, it’s important to stay as objective as possible.
For example, imagine you’re asking for an honest critique of your sci-fi story, and someone answers, “I don’t like science fiction, so I didn’t really like this.” That’s about as helpful as flipping the table. Who cares whether they like the genre or not? You’re just looking for feedback!
If the reader in our example tried for objectivity, things would’ve gone much differently. Objective feedback means looking at the parts, not the sum. Your job is to ensure those parts are working.
Analyze the characters, plot, setting, conflict, dialogue, and more. Don’t criticize an author’s genre or subject matter, because those aren’t changing. Instead, focus on what they can change, and how they can make it better.
Begin and End with Positives
This is a classic tip you’ve probably heard before, so I won’t spend too much time on it. Suffice it to say that when criticism comes between two pockets of positivity, it makes said criticism easier to stomach.
Remember, some writers spend hours, days, or even years on their work. They probably didn’t get it all right, but they want to feel like they got something right. So let them know they did. Build your fellow writers up!
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say…
Well, you can still say it. Just be careful how you say it.
If you truly couldn’t stand something you just read, don’t say it. Instead, come up with something—anything—you liked about it. I firmly believe there’s something good to be found in every artistic work, no matter how rough, raw, or just plain terrible it may be.
For example, I remember taking an introductory photography class in high school with a professor who found something interesting to discuss in every photo submitted. This was pretty impressive considering the photos we submitted, some of which were clearly snapped moments before class. I once submitted a photo of my bookshelf, mostly because I was obsessed with that bookshelf, and this professor went on and on about what an artistic statement I’d made. Pretty much none of what he interpreted was intended.
So if my photography professor can find 10 minutes’ worth of talking points from a picture of my bookshelf, you can find something nice to say about the work you’re critiquing. Doing so will help the author maintain confidence. That’s essential.
Admit Your Own Mistakes
A minor change in the delivery of your feedback can make a world of difference. Consider this statement:
“You need to add more conflict to this story. It feels like nothing’s happening.”
Though not outright rude, this is still a pretty harsh statement. Furthermore, word choices like “you need” almost always come across as directives, which never feels respectful. Instead, imagine the commenter said this:
“I know I struggle a lot with adding conflict in my work. I think you could use more of it here.”
This simple acknowledgement puts the commenter and the writer on the same level. No hierarchy here—just peers discussing their shared struggles with writing. Every writer has weaknesses, so when commenting on those of others, it doesn’t hurt to admit your own.
Never Point Out a Problem Without a Solution
“You’re going the wrong way.”
Those are pretty lousy directions by themselves. But if you know the right way to go, that’s a different story.
The same goes for writing. If a commenter says, “Your protagonist doesn’t work for me,” that’s not enough. They need to explain why, then offer an idea of how to fix it.
We follow this idea in my writers’ group and it’s very helpful. Since no one makes comments without explaining why, feedback tends to be thoughtful, helpful, and respectful. That’s all a writer can ask for!
Get Your Feedback Loop Going Today!
I hope these tips help you give honest, helpful, and respectful feedback. Enjoy!