Over the next two weeks, I’m going to cover topics about giving and taking feedback about writing. While I’m going to talk specifically about writing, I think some of my tips could come in handy for other creative pursuits as well.
The topics I’m going to cover are:
How To Give Writing Feedback
How To Take Writing Feedback
Myths About Critiquing
Things I’ve Learned From My Critique Group
So… lets jump in, shall we?
Giving and getting feedback on writing (or any creative pursuit, I imagine) is an intimidating endeavor. We writers pour our hearts into our stories and getting critiqued feels a little like sitting in one of those dunking booths. For this reason, it can be difficult to know how to give (or take) feedback.
1. Know your relationship with the person you’re critiquing.
I’ve been in online writing groups and small groups where the same people meet every week. I know larger writing groups with changing attendees also exist. I’ll give different feedback to a stranger than to a friend, and I’ll give even different feedback to a sensitive friend vs. someone who’s fine with blunt criticism. In one of my writing groups, a friend critiques me in such a harsh manner that we’ve had to assure new members that he won’t critique them like that. While it may bother other people, we’ve negotiated a particular way of critiquing one another.
2. Be open to feedback about your critiquing.
This means both verbal feedback and non-verbal cues. Sometimes when I’m critiquing someone with the best of intentions, I notice them start to get uncomfortable. They shift around or they start to look hurt. At that point, I’ll edit my review on the fly, trying to soften criticisms and pointing out more positives. In one group, I was told that I was “too mean,” and I appreciated the feedback. After further discussion, we identified things I could do better when giving critiques.
3. Use the sandwich technique.
People tend to best remember first and last comments, so it’s important to start and end with a positive. People can hear criticism better when it comes packaged in a way where they don’t feel attacked. Plus, if you’re using the sandwich technique, it makes you focus on the positives as well as the negatives.
4. Remember that your goal is to be helpful.
This is such an important one. Your goal is not to make the work perfect. It’s not to make it something you’d want to read (especially if the story is romance and you only read science fiction). Your goal is to help the writer reach their goals, not yours.
5. Find something to criticize.
This is seriously so important. The worst critiques I’ve ever gotten are not the ones that made me cry (and there have been one or two of those). The worst critiques are the ones that get a lukewarm, “It was good.” I’ve actually had one critique in my entire life where the person had nothing to say, but it was still an effective critique because they were so moved by the piece that they couldn’t talk about it. Other than that single instance, I’ve never had a “praise only” critique be useful. If you can’t find anything to criticize (and don’t just pick on something for the sake of being contrary), then react. “This part makes me think you’re foreshadowing something.” “I didn’t expect this character to do this!” “This made me gasp.” And so on. Sometimes it can be helpful for a writer to know how you’re reacting so that they can tell if it was what they intended or not.
6. Keep it impersonal.
Especially if you don’t really know the person. This is one area where passive voice works well. Instead of “You didn’t capture my interest right away,” try “My interest wasn’t caught right away.” It can soften hard to hear information.
7. Make sure to mention when you’re critiquing outside of your interest area.
It’s fine to critique something outside of your preferred genre, but be aware that different genres have different norms. I belong to a critique group with a bunch of guys who read mostly science fiction and/or literary fiction. So, when I bring in horror stories, they’re sometimes a bit out of their realm. I still get great feedback most of the time, but the one frustrating comment I often get is “This isn’t horror” because it has more real world than speculative elements. Obviously, the person saying that isn’t familiar with The Lottery or We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson (to name two examples). If something doesn’t work for you, absolutely note it, but it’s best to also say something like, “I don’t know what the convention is in Nordic Noir because I mostly read Bildungsroman stories, but when Sven said…”
8. Remember to say if you liked a story, even if you’ve said it before.
This is so important. I told the tale of a writer who left my group because she got a difficult critique (I imagine). I still think about it, even though it happened a year ago. I can’t remember if, the last night she was with us, I told her how much I loved her story. I had a ton of critique for it, but that’s not because I thought it was bad; it just needed a lot of work. I truly believe she had something special, and I know I’d said it before, but I can’t remember if I said it in that last group or not. In my mind, when you love a story, you can’t tell the author that too many times.
Do you have anything you’d add to this list?