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How to Give Effective Writing Feedback

As writers, we rely on one another to provide feedback to help us improve our work. Outside eyes can identify what we’re doing well, and where our stories need work.

As readers, this means we need to know how to give effective feedback to other writers in our community. This will not only allow you to be a helpful partner to your fellow writers, but it will teach you to read with a more critical eye. Whether you’re a beta reader, critique partner, an editor, or anywhere in between, these tips will help you deliver feedback that is useful and impactful to your fellow writers (and maybe yourself as well).

#1 — Be more specific.

Imagine your friend just asked you to read through a new draft of a scene they’ve been struggling with and they want to know what you thought. Here are two examples of feedback you might share:

Example 1: “Wow, that was awesome! This is so much better!”
Example 2: “Wow, I loved that scene! Your protagonist’s goals are much more clear and with the addition of the backstory, the stakes are evident. I have a great sense of why this scene is important now!”

Which example of feedback is most helpful? The second, for sure. But why? Because it’s specific, which means it’s actionable.

Feedback that lacks specificity doesn’t help or teach writers anything. A writer can’t take action from general feedback like “this section needs some work.” Writers need to know exactly why something went wrong or right. In order to make your feedback more specific, explain the ‘why’ behind your opinion, and if possible offer clear examples to back it up.

#2 — Give positive feedback.

This seems like a given, but you’d be surprised how focused people become on giving negative feedback (also called constructive criticism). When someone asks us for our opinion, and we truly want to help them get better, we usually default to all the ways we think that should happen. This can result in more constructive criticism than positive feedback which can not only be discouraging but also not representative of the writer’s actual work.

Focusing on someone’s strengths can be much more effective for encouraging improvement. In fact, positive feedback is critical for learning. By focusing on what the author has done well and reinforcing those strengths, you ensure that they continue to embrace their strengths. Just don’t forget: be specific with what the author is doing well and why.

#3 — Be a good listener.

Feedback should be an ongoing and open conversation. Not only will you be able to expand on where you think a writer can improve but you’ll also be able to hear directly from the writer why they made their choices.

It’s also your job to be a better listener to the author’s needs and thought processes. Ultimately, the book is their work. You are there to help, but your feedback should be suggestions, not prescriptions. Always listen with the intent to understand, rather than the intent to respond or be “right.” Recognize that you are helping the writer serve their story, and check your ego at the door.

#4 — Avoid the shit sandwich.

One of the most counterproductive pieces of feedback advice I see is the “shit sandwich.” If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the idea to provide your negative feedback (constructive criticism) sandwiched between two pieces of positive feedback. Here’s an example:

You did great on that dialogue between your main character and love interest! The characters lacked agency so they came off as a little weak and unrelatable. But I really loved the descriptions!

Personally, I see the shit sandwich used when there is important constructive criticism to give, but the person does not have confidence delivering it. The sandwich is often used as a cop-out to avoid specificity and the positive pieces are usually afterthoughts simply to cushion the “bad news.” This thinking is backwards.

Instead, focus on tip #1 and tip #2. Feedback is meant to be specific and direct, because our purpose is to help each other get better. If your feedback is specific, don’t shy away from it. Trust that the writer wants to hear your honest opinion (see tip #5). The writer also deserves positive feedback that is relevant and important, rather than just thrown together to fit a mold.

#5 — Assume positive intent.

I wrote about assuming positive intent in our post about receiving feedback, but it’s still just as important in giving feedback. This concept is a comprehensive attitude adjustment that switches your thinking to assume good intentions in another person. It means you believe the best in that person, rather than assuming the worst.

It’s critical to giving feedback because it gives you confidence to be honest and direct. If they’re doing their best, then you can assume they want to hear what you have to say and that they are open to it. When you truly believe another person has good intentions, it changes the way you interact with them and trust them. Feedback can be a transformative conversation, and it all starts and ends with assuming positive intent.

This story was first published at goldenmayediting.com. We provide book coaching & editing to fiction writers. If you’re interested in our other blog posts or in checking out our services please visit us there!

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