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.

  1. Jodi,
    This is great advice. I’ve always shied away from critiquing simply because it makes me nervous to judge another’s work. I was brought up to be polite always: “If you can’t say anything nice…”

    I also share with you the experience of being raked over the coals when I was younger. I have only recently begun taking the chance of letter others review my work, and reviewing the work of others, through submissions and the #fridayflash community on Twitter. My shell has grown thicker and my confidence brighter. I know that receiving comments from my contemporaries, I will also be expected to give as well. These are hurdles I must get over if I’m to do the things I have planned (NaNoWriMo, Critters critiquing site, publishing, teaching, etc.). I have bookmarked this article. Thanks for the helpful pointers on how to critique.

  2. danpowell – You’re right, it’s important that you trust the person you’re sharing feedback with. See my video on University qualifications as to why tutor’s are good in that rule.
    Ben – I’ve written a post here on just that very subject. Jodi might have some thoughts too.

    M. D. Benoit – You’re right. In fact, being gracious, or having humility, is an extremely important quality in a writer.

    Marisa Birns – Be confident! If you have the talent, you can fly!

    Maria – I think we’ve all had some unpleasant experience or other and it’s tough to recover from. But recover we must. Keep perspective, take on board any comments you can action, then move on. Good luck!

  3. I’ve been lucky enough to critique your work, Jodi, and have my work critiqued in turn by you. I can say without reservation that every input you have had on my work has helped make it better. And each piece I have critiqued has shown me other ways of doing things. I would definitely agree that the key to enjoying/benefitting from the process is finding the right people to work with.
    Great article.

  4. Awesome advice Jodi, thanks! I’m really nervous about providing negative feedback. Framing it with a positive is a great idea. Do you have any advice on providing critical feedback to the work of friends?

  5. Great post, Jodi. There’s the reverse to the coin, as well. If you’ve asked for critique, regardless of how it’s given, you have to be able to graciously accept it.
    Whether you accept it or not is another story.

  6. Excellent — and very kind — thoughts here! I agree with you that there is always something positive to be found in a story, even if it is not really well written.
    I know some people who follow an oreo cookie approach. Start with positive, then critique what needs work and why, then end with something positive.

    I always keep in mind that I can’t be everyone’s cup of coffee/tea.

    Odd thing is that while my professors always lauded my writing, it was I, myself, who felt I had some nerve to call myself a writer and stopped for years!

  7. A recommendable modus operandi (beloved in counselling supervision circles) is called ‘The Shit Sandwich’… 1) start with a positive 2) then the challenging difficult stuff 3) end with another positive. It prepares the ground, fires the dart, leaves the recipient with the wherewithal to take it forward if they wish. Respectful and supportive.

  8. Jodi,
    Great post. I was an educator at one point in my life. I taught “train the trainer” kinds of courses. An integral part of the course was providing feedback to these new instructors. The onion sandwich approach worked best. The more onion they had to eat, the more important it was to thicken the slices of bread. Give them the good stuff, gently relay the bad and then finish with more good stuff (bread).

    I do love these points and folks should take them to heart. Many folks have a fear of writing directly related to a fear of feedback.

    George

  9. This is a great post; thank you very much for putting together such cohesive advice.
    A few things that really help me confidently give feedback is keeping the opinion thing in mind, and also the fact that, if people are ASKING for critique, they want to hear what’s wrong with it, or they should. I get lost in my own work after a while. I have no idea what’s clear and what isn’t, especially if I’ve just written something, and I yearn to have someone tell me that some part is too thin, too thick, confusing, out of character, because at that point I have direction and I can make changes without feeling like I’m beating a dead horse, or changing things for the sake of changing them.

    Also, it should be kept in mind that highlighting the strong points of a piece is much more than just a nice desert reward after eating your greens. It’s far from lip service to tell an author what parts of their work in progress/revision worked best so they can look at those, and apply the same style or principal to parts that didn’t work as well.

    I’m curious about what kind of ‘general’ impressions you’re warning against in particular? I do like to give (and receive) more general statements about what I took from a piece, my overall impression after reading it, the mood of the thing as a whole, et cetera. These are usually positive, but if something feels funny throughout the whole of a work, I will mention what I’m unsure of.

  10. I think one of the essential things beginning critique writers need to remember is to talk about the WORK, not the WRITER.
    For example…a negative way to put things:

    “You need to stop writing in passive voice, and you should tighten up this scene.”

    Instead:

    “This scene contains a lot of passive voice, which can make the narrative drag.”

    See the difference? I’ve gotten critiques full of ‘you you you’, and even if it MEANS the same thing, it feels personal if it’s worded as YOU, as though it’s a criticism of the writer, not the passage.

  11. Thanks for all the comments. This is the first chance I’ve had to respond as I’ve been enjoying the laid back vibe of Byron Bay on the NE Coast of NSW – attending my favourite writers’ festival!
    Ben: You asked about providing critical feedback to friends. My advice is to first decide if you want and/or need to give feedback to friends (are there better people to provide it?) The general rule isn’t to ask friends and family for feedback and I suggest the same in return. My best friend is a writer (we were friends first and then both fell into writing about the same time) and we generally always seek help from other people. We knock around and flesh out ideas but ask other writer friends to critique and edit our work.

    If you decide to provide feedback – stick by the same rules. Look at their work as if you didn’t know them, or didn’t owe them emotional or social fealty!

    Dom: indeed. I think people forget when they ask for a critique they’re inviting someone to provide a critical opinion of their work so it can be the best piece possible. If they want an ego stroking… perhaps they should seek out another profession or pastime. They also need to remember it takes time to critically appraise a piece of work – I would bargain between two and five hours depending on the piece. If you’re not open to hearing both the positive and negatives, then you’re not reading to have your work commented on.

    Marisa: you point out something important which I left out of the list – as a critiquer you need to acknowledge your bias. If you don’t read or enjoy the genre the piece is in – perhaps you are not the right person. It took three time, taking my sci-fi in development to my critting group, and being knocked flat by the comments each time, before I realised I was barking up the wrong tree. My critting group read lit fic… so sci-fi is lost on them. Make sure you’re both drinking from the same pot of tea!

    Maria: I agree. Publishing my fiction on the internet was a big deep breath moment for me. There used to be a guy PJ who did [Fiction] Friday when I was starting out and he always told it how he saw it – postives and negatives. I’d be terrified of him coming in and commenting, but at the exact same time, hoping he did. #fridayflash is such a wonderful opportunity to critique and be critiqued back. My general rule is say what works, say what doesn’t work (for you) and what you think could be done to improve it.

    Cynthia: onwards and upwards from here. There is nothing like critically looking at the work of others to see what works and doesn’t work in fiction… and it has wonderful knock on effects for your own writing.

    Jilly/George: rather than tack on another bit of positive at the end, I always conclude with a “where to from here”… what the writer could focus on to make the piece stronger, clearer, tighter etc. When I get feedback, I’m often looking not just for what works and doesn’t work in my writing, but pointers on what to attack/concentrate on in the next draft.

    Marie: the generalisations I was thinking of were “This piece is really good/bad/boring.” You can/can’t write.”

    And not bothering to move on to explain what is good or bad about the piece. A postive generalisation can be as useless or damaging as a positive one (are they just giving me lip service by saying this story is ‘good’?)

    You can give you general impressions at the start which is a nice segue into a critique – “I really enjoyed this piece and kept turning the page wondering what was going to happen next.” I’ve written several articles else where on this topic which goes more in-depth into the mechanics of critiquing. Here I was looking more at the “manners” required in the critiquing process.

    India: what a brilliant illustration of focusing on the writing and not the writer. Thank you! You is personal and has no place in a critique.

    Iain: Thank you very much for the opportunity to come and have my own little rant here at Write For Your Life. Last year the first day I was away in Byron I got my first by-line in a popular broadsheet here in Australia. But I think being here was possibly more exciting. Sorry I couldn’t stop in until now.

  12. All – Thanks for the great comments, this is a great discussion and very interesting. A couple of great points made about making sure you focus on the writing and not the individual. My one horrid experience with feedback was because of this, and by someone with the knowledge and standing to know much better! No names mentioned.
    Jodi – You’re more than welcome – and blimey, thanks!

  13. Great post. We use a lot of this as a foundation for our critiques at Cola Factory. I’ve had similar experiences where the feedback wasn’t specific and was about me and not the work. It can be very frustrating.
    Equally it can be difficult to receive feedback and seperate the work from yourself and not feel like an idiot and a fraud when your work needs help.

  14. […] But you should try to fight it. If you’ve reached a point with whatever you’re doing where you want to ask someone for feedback, then ask them for feedback and expect feedback. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Up Next:

Zen and the art of not writing

Zen and the art of not writing