How To Give Good Feedback To Your Critique Partners
One thing I’ve noticed as a prevalent thought in the writing community is that one must give “harsh truths” and rip a piece to shreds for it to be rewritten into something better.
Sometimes a project needs a lot of changes, but there are ways to give that feedback where the writer feels energized to make those necessary changes rather than downtrodden.
Editing is an integral part of both writing and the writing community. People swap chapters and attend writing workshops to both critique and be critiqued. Giving feedback is a skill separate from writing though, and is something one must develop.
The end goal of any editing is to leave the writer excited to develop and strengthen their work with your comments while giving them the critiques they need to polish their piece. With that goal in mind, here are five things I always do when editing someone’s work.
Reframe the conversation of “good” and “bad” writing with “effective” or “not effective.”
Approach the piece asking the question “What is the writer trying to accomplish with this work and did they succeed?” Framing it this way is helpful because, at the end of the day, the author is trying to do something and they either do it, or they do not. Writing is incredibly subjective and I tend to stray away from judging something as good or bad because it’s not helpful and doesn’t leave writers with anything to work with as a starting point. Note descriptions that didn’t quite communicate what the author intended, or places where you’re confused. Conversely, you can note what you think the author is trying to accomplish to make sure it fits with the vision of their piece.
There are some conventions of writing that are generally sound, but even the best of writers can break and break well. When reading for the purpose of editing, separate what we personally like from what the author’s vision is. If you aren’t sure what they’re trying to accomplish, you can always ask them!
Ask the writer what they want from your editing!
Writer’s want different things from each round of edits. Someone who is at the end of their drafting and preparing to query or submit to editors and agents usually want something different than someone beginning the editing process. It’s important to get clarification on what level of critique they want. If they are near the end of their editing, they likely have thought about — and committed to — massive plot points and are not looking for feedback on that. They probably want a last minute grammar sweep, any glaring issues, continuity of voice, etc.
Sometimes I just want a final reader after I’ve workshopped something to death to make sure it still makes sense before I put it out there. Conversely, if someone has just finished their rough draft they will probably be looking for plot critiques, heavy line level editing, and character edits.
Going into editing, it’s important to know where the writer is in their project and what they are looking for. Ask them “What are you looking for?” and let them go through places they are concerned about, what they want you to pay attention to, etc. This helps you have a focus point, but it also helps them get feedback on what they are willing to change.
Every comment should have a tangible solution offered, even if the writer ends up not taking it.
It’s important to give the writer something to work with. There’s nothing worse than getting feedback that something just “doesn’t work” with no guidance or suggestion on how to fix it. It makes it feel like the piece is irredeemable.
If something reads awkward, delve into why that is. You might have to sit and really think about why you had the reaction you did to the text. Editing is often balancing the ‘reader brain’ with the ‘writer brain’ — and if your reader brain is throwing up red flags, take a moment with your writer brain to really figure out why so you can offer a suggestion rather than just mark it as awkward and move on. The author may not take the suggestion, but at least you’re giving them the message “This doesn’t work right now, but I can see how it might with a few changes.”
Equally important, when looking over a piece, it’s important to keep a writer’s goals in mind and try to align comments and solutions with their vision. You may see something they could do, but if it’s not what they are trying to do, it won’t be helpful. If a writer chooses not to go in the direction you suggest, it is likely because it did not ultimately align with their vision for the piece.
And that’s totally okay.
Record your reaction as a reader.
Reader reactions are fun! It’s a great feeling to see someone delve into your work and get invested in the story, which can make other, harder, comments more palatable. If a writer feels someone is genuinely invested in their story, they are going to accept your critiques with more grace than if you just throw a bunch of harsh suggestions without compliments or clear vested interest in the story.
There’s an additional benefit of letting a writer determine if the reader is perceiving characters and events in the way they want. There have been times I have completely misread a situation and, by noting my reaction, gave the writer insight on how a reader could interpret what they’ve presented that differed radically from what they were attempting.
When I was getting feedback for a manuscript I had written, everyone collectively hated the love interest. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. It gave me a good opportunity to really assess what I was trying to accomplish with the character and realize I hadn’t done enough character building so his actions would make sense to the reader. He went from insufferably overbearing to endearingly protective with some heavy edits.
Tell the writer when things work well.
This isn’t just because writers are, in general, fairly sensitive and need some reassurance when receiving critique (though we are and we do), but this gives valuable information. Often, writers don’t know when they’re excelling! By pointing out when they’ve done well, you give them ideas on what to do in the future and further hone their writing voice.
I hope these points help you in your journey into the writing community and beyond. The relationship with a critique partner is something that is truly special and one of my favorite things about the editing process. There is nothing cooler than watching someone grow as a writer while they are helping you grow as well.