Critiquing etiquette: six ways to provide gracious feedback

Guest post by Jodi Cleghorn

“Receiving feedback is difficult. But giving feedback with grace is even more so.” Casing Compliments | Bobulate via Broomeshtick

To grow and evolve as a writer you must offer your work to others for critique and editing. It’s one of those terrible truths you come to terms with, sooner or later. The thing about feedback though, it is reciprocal – like a rubber ball it will come bouncing back to you.

Why?

Quid pro quo. If you invite someone to invest time and effort in your work, at some point they will expect the same from you.

While writers will begrudgingly accept the need for un-biased opinion, most writers feel incredibly uncomfortable being the one giving that opinion. It’s like taking the uncomfortable feeling of sharing your work and turning it up to 11.

It’s not that you’re stingy, or don’t want to help. It’s to do with that feeling in your gut which warns you away from scary things. And let’s not beat around the bush – giving feedback is terrifying.

What could possibly go wrong?

What if you accidentally say something hurtful? Or you derail someone’s creativity or confidence with a misunderstood comment? What if they stop writing because of what you said? Or what you said was wrong!

It’s much easier to play safe and say nothing.

I can empathise. As an editor, and a writer, I have a foot in both camps, and I always find it far more difficult (and stressful) to provide rather than receive feedback. This is despite hangover sensitivities to critique after a bad experience as a young writer.

Agreeing to provide feedback is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing skills. Plus, being asked implies the writer trusts you to help them take their story from good to fantastic.

The good news is, you can provide feedback which is tough, gracious, thought-provoking and, dare I say, compassionate and constructive.

Here’s a six-part guide to critiquing etiquette.

1. It is only one person’s opinion

Always frame (and remember) your feedback is only your opinion - that's all it is. And, it’s also just one person's opinion. Others may have different thoughts or suggestions – including the author!

I have a codicil at the bottom of my feedback emails which states: please accept/reject/alter or ignore anything here as it is your work and this is my take on it.

2. Dialogue between two people

What people often forget about feedback is it’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Always offer to discuss your comments or suggestions with the writer.

Remember though, it is not gracious and far from professional, to be defensive about your feedback. It's OK if they disagree with you. It is the writer’s work after all and they do get the final say.

Some of the most fulfilling editorial relationships I’ve had with writers have come about due to a lack of consensus. Disagreement opens the channels for discussion, and stories thrive in such hothouse environments.

If possible have these conversations live. You can ask questions and get new insights into a story when a writer talks about it in real-time.

3. Stick to Specifics

Useful feedback focuses on specifics. Always choose specific examples to illustrate your point/comment and give specific suggestions on how the writer may make changes. Be honest. Feedback, given constructively is more likely than you realise to give a writer an ‘a-ha!’ moment, even if it initially feels like a slap in the face.

Useless feedback is broad-sweeping statements or generalisation. It slaps the writer in the face and that’s it. Steer clear of these at all costs. For one, it gives a writer nothing to work with. It is also gives ample fodder for a writer to fill in the details (and they’re never positive, these fillers).

Most importantly, never critique or make comment on the author (this is why you should always stick to specifics). It is only, and will always only be about the work at hand.

For example, I was told by a writer-in-resident when I was 18 that my writing was naïve and I should go and live in the real world. He mentioned nothing about problematic writing mechanics or narrative flaws in the piece I submitted.

I filled in the gaps with shame, believing I’d had the audacity to think I could write. I didn’t show my work to another soul for almost a decade!

4. Be Positive

Always, always, always lead off with something positive. Even the worst piece of writing has something good about it – it might be a brilliant idea which has been poorly executed on the page. Again – be specific!

5. Time is of the Essence

Be mindful of the turn around. Don't leave people hanging for weeks waiting. The general assumption is, if people don't get back to you in good time the your work stinks and whoever you gave it to is struggling to find the right words to tell you that.

Give yourself a deadline to return the feedback – or even better, get the writer to provide you with one. If you can’t in good faith provide feedback in that timeframe, don’t agree to take the piece.

6. Work from the brief

Ask the writer for a brief. This will assist you in doing your job. In this they should tell you:

  • what kind of feedback they’re looking for
  • what draft version they are sending
  • where they are considering sending it (especially important if for a competition)
  • the word count
  • the due date for submission and the date feedback is required.

Stick to the brief. If they’re asking for general comments don’t return a file with massive tracked changed edits. If the writer won’t or can’t provide you with a brief, don’t do the critique for them.

Start small. Check your ego in at the door. Be truthful. Offer creative alternatives. And know, the more you provide feedback, the less excruciating it will become.