The Road to Publishing: Giving Good Feedback to Fellow Writers

By Stephanie Guerra

Last month, I began a two-post series addressing the most productive ways to work with beta readers and critique groups. The first installment focused on receiving feedback; in this post, I’ll focus on how to offer good feedback.

Beta readers and critique groups are critical to the writing process, and many successful authors find a long-term writing partner with whom they work productively for years. How can you nurture critique relationships—notoriously sensitive—so that they grow and flourish?

Here’s a quick and dirty list of strategies:

peer review1. Ask the type and level of feedback your partner is seeking. Type addresses the range of feedback your partner desires. Global? Character-focused? Plot-focused? Language-focused? Line-editing? Level addresses the thoroughness of your feedback. For a first draft, many writers want general, light feedback, including global impressions of plot and characters. If you pick apart the draft line by line, your partner may be overwhelmed. Be sure to clarify what he or she is looking for before diving in.

2. Offer an even trade. If someone has given you careful, in-depth feedback on one of your manuscripts, be sure to reciprocate in full. Do not read through his or her work quickly and toss off your thoughts as you hurry to get back to your own project. Your writing partner is relying on you and may make significant changes to their manuscript based on your advice. So give his or her work the time and respect it deserves.

3. Link up with writers who are roughly in your skill/professional range. Great disparities in talent can cause awkwardness, and trades may not be productive for the more advanced partner. That said, if you’re willing to consider a mentor relationship (no matter which end you’re on), go for it! Just don’t expect that trades will be “even”.

4. Find the positives. This seems obvious, but having been through an MFA, I know it needs to be said. Critique partners should be honest—but not brutally honest. Remember that no matter how elementary or flawed your partner’s work appears to you, it represents their effort and passion. Find at least three things to praise before you point out what’s not working.

5. Watch for cues. In the case of verbal feedback, watch and listen to the writer’s facial expressions, body language, and words as they receive feedback. If you sense distress, stop. Bring up the positives. Inspiration is a fragile thing and people have varying degrees of sensitivity about their work. You don’t want to be the Dream Crusher.

Editing16. Know when to back out. Sometimes (especially on first trades, but
occasionally with tried-and-true partners) you’ll run into a piece you simply can’t stomach. Maybe the writing is terrible. Maybe the message goes against everything you believe. Maybe the manuscript feels too commercial. Whatever the reason, if you can’t stand it, you won’t be able to offer a good or fair critique. Be diplomatic: “I’m having a hard time with this piece. I’m not experienced with this genre/topic/style. I’m afraid my political views are getting in the way of my ability to hear your story.” Whatever. Let the writer know you’re biased, and wiggle out gently.

7. Have boundaries. This is a good life rule, no? It definitely applies to writing. Critiques are so personal, and for many, so emotional, that they can unleash a storm of follow-up emails and phone calls. If you feel that someone is demanding more of your time and hand-holding than makes you comfortable, repeat (in as many different ways as you need to): “I really don’t have anything to add to what I’ve already said. But good luck.”

8. Don’t argue. Some writers can’t help themselves; they’re compelled to defend their work in the face of a critique. If you’re the partner giving feedback in this situation, don’t engage. Offer your counsel, and let the writer argue and justify if they need to. It’s all part of the process. Some people work things out verbally.

9. Don’t be the alpha critic. I borrowed this one from William Zinsser. Nobody likes the snide, superior critic who has scathing reviews of everything! ‘Nuf said.

10. Be open-minded. You’ll run into all kinds of manuscripts on the trade routes, not all of them your cup of tea. Remember, you’re not buying the book. Unless you have a visceral hatred of the work (see number 6), give it a fair shot. Try to separate your personal taste from your professional knowledge of character development, plot trajectory, etc. If personal taste is causing your review to slant negative or positive, rethink your approach.