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5 and a bit tips for giving feedback

December 20th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
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It can sometimes feel a bit awkward giving feedback, especially if it’s to a writing friend. But often, a writer will have at least another writer in their support network, and you may find yourself giving feedback to another writer. Besides, looking at someone else’s work is a great way to keep you thinking about writing in different ways.

So with that in mind, I’ve been thinking about what I do when I give feedback, and also the kind of feedback I like to receive on my writing. And here’s the result – my six tips for reviewing someone else’s work and giving feedback.

Six? Six? That’s not catchy at all is it? Well it was going to be five until I realised I had left out a very obvious, but no less important one. Besides, I’m not going to hamstring a perfectly good list by forcing it to fit a title; that’s not how I roll!

1. Be constructive

This is number one because I want to get it out if the way – it is SO obvious, and should go without saying, but in the interests of completeness…

Don’t just say that something is rubbish. Don’t just say that something is great. If you like/dislike something, tell them why that is. There. Done.

2. Be honest

Another obvious one, but it can be very easy to go all coy and give only praise. Praise is a great ego massage, but there’s only so much you can do with it. If a writer has given you something to look at, it should be because they want to improve it, not because they are showing off. So point them in the right direction!

3. Keep it broad brushstrokes, and don’t write it for them

If I’m asked to give feedback, I will generally keep that feedback broad. I will talk about pacing, characterisation, how I felt about a piece overall. Unless I’ve been asked, I wouldn’t want to pick on a particular paragraph and try to dissect it (apart from to say it was too long, for example – again, quite a broad point to make).

I am not editing the piece, so it would do no good to tell them to cut sentences, or write in more appropriate words. I don’t want to impinge on the writer’s voice, or the direction they are going to take their story. There are times when I think I would have written a sentence differently, but a lot of the time, that comes down to personal taste or style (again, there are exceptions – I would point out if I did not understand a particular sentence for example).

As an illustration, I might read a chapter from a longer piece and say something along the lines of,

“A lot if stuff happens in this chapter, and there are a few different concepts about how the world works that are introduced all at once. I wouldn’t mind a slower pace so that I can digest it all”


“I’ve got a good handle on character A but I’m having trouble distinguishing between characters B C and D”

It’s then up to the author to decide if they agree and to work out a way of slowing the pace down or differentiating their characters.

5. Ask them what they’re looking for

A lot of times you might want to give comments about a piece if work. but the author is already aware of the issue or may even have written it that way on purpose. This is especially true if you are reviewing part of a longer piece of writing. For example, it is not hard to imagine reading a detailed description of a character and commenting, “I don’t think we need to spend so much time over such an insignificant character”. The author might know different, and might prefer to know whether that description was vivid enough that you would recognise the character several chapters later, when they suddenly become vital.

So, with this in mind you can ask the author if there are any specific things they’d like you to look for.

6. Ignore what authors ask you to look for

Okay, so I deliberately phrased that point like that to mess with you! But seriously, even if I’ve asked for something I should look for, I will then ignore that when I read through the text. I will then read the questions afterwards.

The idea behind this is that I want to be able to give an honest answer, untainted by bias because I’ve been primed. After all, the reader is not going to have a list of prompts to indicate how they should read the text. Having read the questions, I may go back and re read parts or all of the text, but this is largely to help decide why I felt the way I did about it. Say I completely missed the description of that character above. I would want to be able to tell the author why I thought that was, and offer any tips I could.

So those are my tips. There’s probably a great many more things you can usefully keep in mind when looking at writing, but these are the points that I tend to concentrate on. If you have any tips, please share them in the comments.