Critique Tips: Providing meaningful feedback for someone else.

Writing is a fragile thing, and self-doubt and fear are creatures that can easily consume the desire to write. Just as you don’t want a critique partner to feed your writing demons, you should take care not to feed theirs.

The chances are good that you joined a writing group because you are excited to grow your own writing skill and polish your manuscript. Most of us are as eager to help fellow writers as we are to master (or attempt to master) our own writing skill. It is a fantastic way to learn from your peers. Here are some tips and tricks for providing your partners meaningful and actionable feedback.

What to do:

  • Be gentle
  • Watch your tone
  • Try to be unbiased (remember this isn’t about whether or not you agree with what the manuscript is saying, or the theme, etc.)
  • Try to articulate why you feel the way you do (why is important because it allows your partner to see the effect their writing is having)
  • Start with what you like about the piece and give plenty of positives (pointing out what is good about the manuscript is just as important as pointing out what isn’t working, maybe more so, and it is one aspect we often neglect when providing feedback)
  • Stay away from style issues and personal preferences
  • Give yourself time to think about what you’ve read (this helps when trying to articulate why you feel the way you do)

What not to do:

  • Don’t say you don’t like something, but rather try to articulate why something isn’t resonating with you. The “why” is important. If you can’t explain why, then the problem is probably one that is personal preference or style, and you should stay away from those when providing feedback.
  • Don’t use derogatory writing terms (purple, esoteric, verbose, effusive, pretentious, impenetrable, arcane…).
  • Avoid “need to” phrases, which send implied messages that something didn’t go well. Often these phrases are indirect and don’t address the specifics of what you are talking about. Besides, the writer you are critiquing doesn’t “need to” do anything. It is their writing. If you are going to go this route, give suggestions and be specific. (“You might try_______ when _____ in order to_______”).
  • Avoid sarcasm.
  • Provide your observations, not your interpretations. What I mean by this is tell what you’ve noticed, not what you think of it.

Sentence starts for giving constructive feedback when things don’t work:

  • I was confused when you wrote…
  • I needed to hear more ..
  • Why did you include…
  • How did you decide which part of your story to put first
  • _____ would be stronger if_____.
  • I appreciate _____, the next step might be _____.
  • I noticed _____, but I wish_____.
  • Are you saying that_____?
  • Can you please clarify_____?
  • I wish I understood why_____.
  • I found myself wondering_____.
  • One element that was not clear to me was_____

Here’s my go-to feedback format:

Intro statement:

I make a list of big things I loved at the top of the piece I’m critiquing (This usually happens after I have read the piece and I go back and add to it after I’ve had some time to think about what I’ve read):

For Example:

  • Your main character’s voice is unique and engaging.
  • I love the dialogue, it is very realistic.
  • Your characters are round and feel real.

Some things to ask yourself when listing positives:

  • What parts were engaging? Why?
  • Did you laugh or feel intense emotions from part of it? What causes that reaction in you?
  • What made the piece effective?
  • Be specific in your positive feedback.

Sentence stems for positive feedback: (Highlighted parts are also good for putting in margin notes as you read).

  • I liked…about this piece.
  • I was really interested in what you were saying when…
  • My favorite part of this section was…
  • I could really see/hear/feel what you were describing when…
  • I could relate to what you said when…
  • My favorite word/phrase you used was…
  • This piece made me feel…
  • This piece reminded me of…
  • I was fully immersed in the story during…

Margin Notes:

As I read through, I make margin notes to keep track of thoughts and feelings, reactions, and other things that pop into my head as I read.

Things to mark with margin notes: (refer back to the positive and negative feedback sentence stems for help on crafting these responses).

  • Beautiful writing
  • Good dialogue
  • Info dumping or sections heavy with telling instead of showing
  • Questions that pop into my head as I read
  • Confusing parts
  • Parts that resonate with you
  • Parts you have to reread
  • Anything the author asked you to watch for (tense changes, falling out of POV, etc.)

Closing statements:

I usually provide a quick summary of what worked at the end and then I make some suggestions or add questions. Generally, I will also address anything the author asked me to watch for in my critique. Those sentence starts will come in handy here. I will often jot down my initial thoughts for this section after I finish reading, and then I go do something else and give my brain some time to digest it and come back later to add and clarify my feedback.

Example closing statement:

Your characters are well written and fully developed. They grabbed me from the start and pulled me through the pages. I especially like the voice and tone you chose for your protagonist. Her snide remark on page 13 had me nearly in tears I was laughing so hard.

Some thoughts going forward:

  • The setting could be fleshed out a little more. Consider adding a few more sensory details to ground the reader.
  • Your scene surrounding Allen’s death was poignant. I found myself wanting to spend a little more time there and I wasn’t ready to move on yet when you switched scenes. Maybe you could spend a bit more time there? I think that doing this might help the reader connect more with your protagonist’s grief.
  • I was a little confused at the end. Did Ella actually kill that man?
  • I found myself wanting to know more about the relationship between Ben and Ella.
  • You asked me to watch for POV changes and inconsistencies. I only found two. I marked them in the margins. I think the way you are handling the POV is very effective.

Moving forward with your writing group:

Remember that feedback, ultimately, should open up a dialogue about the piece. The author should have an opportunity to ask questions, engage with you, and clarify a few things. This is especially important for parts that don’t work in the piece. Remember, though, just because it doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work for everybody. Don’t get defensive is others don’t agree with your feedback.

My writing group brainstormed a list of questions to help us as we work through manuscripts together. I recommend this practice for each writing group, but here’s what we came up with as a jumping off point:

  • What questions come up in your mind as you read through it?
  • What’s good?
  • What’s boring?
  • Is anything confusing?
  • Any clichés?
  • Are any scenes repetitious?
  • Do you spot any general tics (repeated words, etc.)?
  • Do you spot any confusing plot points (let me know when and where I lose you and what needs to be clarified)?
  • Does the opening grab you?
  • Is there an appropriate balance of action with the other subplots?
  • Was the setting clear? Did you feel like you had a clear idea of what things looked like in the scenes?
  • Can you give me a brief opinion of the main characters? Did you understand who was who and what their problems/goals were?
  • Any problems with the dialogue?
  • Does the overall tone welcome you? Or is it off-putting in any way?

Questions to add if you are doing a complete manuscript read through:

  • Did you understand the themes, and did they become more complex and interesting as you read?
  • Did the character arcs express the themes well?
  • Was the story easy to follow? Did the plot keep you engaged? Did the overall arc make sense?
  • Was the ending satisfying?

Looking to get feedback on your manuscript? Check out my post, Four Ways to Seek Out Meaningful Feedback on Your Manuscript

Thinking of getting an editor? Check out my post, Finding a Freelance Editor (Coming January 23)

Need guidance on revising your own work? Check out my post Revision Tips and Tricks (Coming January 21st)

Got feedback that you need to incorporate into a revision? Check out my post, Creating Action out of Feedback ( Coming January 17)