How to Give and Receive Constructive Feedback as a Writer

How to Give and Receive Constructive Feedback as a Writer

The first time I sat down to critique another writer’s work, I was one week into an MFA program for creative writing. I had never read literature with an eye for anything more than the pleasure of the language or the plotline, and I’d never shared my own work with other writers.

In short, I had no idea what I was doing.

Without guidelines to follow, I had only two basic goals in mind: I wanted to offer solid advice on my fellow students’ craft, and I wanted to receive their critique with grace without it crushing my spirit.

The first time around, I did not succeed on either account.

But, with two more years of critique ahead of me, I needed to find a way to improve both my and my fellow writers experience.

How to give a writing critique

1. Allow for failure

The ability to offer constructive feedback is a skill that develops over time.

It takes practice to grow into the kind of reader who can observe the writerly moves beneath the words. Allow yourself to fail at this in the beginning. Just as writing takes practice, so does the art of critique.

The first time I offered feedback to a classmate, I focused on their punctuation and use of passive voice. I felt ridiculous when all of the other students asked leading questions and focused on the content.

But, I learned from my failure. The students gave me a safe place to fail while demonstrating how to do it better.

2. Apply the Golden Rule

How do you want your fellow writer to feel after reading your comments? Hopeful, encouraged, and challenged or frustrated, angry and doubtful?

Put yourself in their writing chair, and imagine what it would feel like to receive the feedback you provided.

Always critique the writing, not the writer. You may not care for their subject, or even the manner in which they choose to tell it, but stay focused on their craft.

We don’t get to choose the material we critique. In school, I’ve critiqued a number of essays I would never willingly read based on their subject matter. However, I learned to put my personal feelings aside with regard to the topic.

I balance comments about necessary changes, with comments on a word choice or turn of phrase that worked well.

3. Take a wide lens view

Remember you are critiquing the overall craft, not mechanics like punctuation and misspellings.

You’re not reading as a copyeditor, but as a fellow writer looking at the bigger picture. When you hyper-focus on the minutia, it helps the writer improve as a practitioner, but not as an artist.

Save the editing for later drafts and focus first on the larger revisions. Look at the broader ideas and themes, and learn to ask good questions.

Think like a reader. Ask for clarity when needed. Ask the writer to delve deeper where the work is shallow. Ask why — why this word choice, illustration or character?

4. Read and critique literature for practice

Choose a well-received work of literature in your genre, and read it like a writer, rather than a reader.

Take notes on what you observe the author accomplishing across the pages. What are the themes you see emerging? How does the writer use dialogue? How do they use description? Once you recognize these literary moves in a published work, you will begin to see what’s missing in the rough drafts of your fellow writers.

As a writer of non-fiction, I read and take notes on stacks of memoirs. One professor identified a weakness in my ability to set a scene when writing, and assigned James Joyce’s Dubliners for me to analyze.

Reading these books through a critical lens, helped me improve my own writing, but also helped me to identify areas of weakness in my fellow writers.  

How to receive a writing critique

1. Check your ego

No one receives purely positive feedback, and once you begin working with editors regularly, you will need the thick skin you’re developing.

We are all on a journey towards improvement in our craft. If you receive feedback from a defensive posture, it will take longer for you to see real improvement in your writing. If a critique leaves you feeling inadequate, remember we all struggle with imposter syndrome.

After receiving my first writing critique, I wanted to rip my essay to shreds and cry. Instead, I called my husband who reminded me that ultimately, my fellow writers’ comments would make my work stronger.

2. Remember critique is subjective

Your fellow writer and your future readers come to your work with their own set of values, experiences and preferences that color how they read your words.

If a critique doesn’t resonate with you in any way, you’re not compelled to make the recommended changes. You decide how far and how many of the changes will make their way into your work.

Trust your instincts. You, the writer, have the final say.

3. Rely on more than one reader

Because feedback is subjective, you will need more than one critique, as well as different types of readers.

Beta readers provide comments based on their reading experience, rather than a place of expertise. Fellow writers are able to read as practitioners, and provide a critique on your skill as a writer.

Both are important to the development of your craft. Take note where similar themes emerge between readers. If more than one reader recognizes the same weaknesses, it’s a sign you should address them.

In my most recent submission, every classmate recommended I remove my favorite quotation. I wanted to keep it in the essay, but when every writer agreed that it didn’t belong, I decided to remove it. Reading it again after the edits, I believe my piece is better for it.

With an eye towards craft, an attitude of humility and a lot of practice, you’ll be well on your way towards improving your own work as well as improving the work of others.

Writing is a solitary occupation, but our work becomes stronger when we include others in the editing process. We need the writers who have gone before us and the writers who work alongside us to propel our work forward.

To grow and cultivate our craft, we need to sit down and do the work, but we also need each other.

Filed Under: Craft

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14 comments

  • Thanks for this. I am about to teach a few memoir workshops, and I am grateful for this outline. I appreciate a blunt critique, but most people do not, especially when it is presented in public.

    • Hello Ann: I notice that you too are planning to offer memoir writing workshops. How is that going? It would be great to share information with you if you’re interested. Gillian Andrews

    • Kimberly says:

      Hi Ann,
      Thanks for reading! I’ve seen all sorts of reactions to a critique, but the most challenging are public critiques gone wrong. Always best to be fair but kind. Good luck!

  • Thanks for this post. I particularly found the part of giving a critique helpful as I’m planning to offer writing workshops. Your comments helped me to put things in perspective.

  • I just wrote a blog post about a personal experience with critique: https://www.suzanneboles.com/writing-critique-with-kindness/ . I mentor writers and teach writing courses and I find a gentle approach with some guidelines in writing to refer to works far better than full on harsh negative comments. My students’ work always flourishes with this approach and several have gone on to become freelance writers.

  • Paul says:

    Kimberly – thanks for sharing this post. It has a positive and encouraging tone. I especially like the wide-lens-view perspective. Great reminder during a critique.

  • MJ Brewer says:

    Absolutely LOVED your voice in this and the suggestion that having more than one input is imperative. What frustrates me is that all of us have friends who write but won’t give helpful feedback when there are many companies willing to take advantage of people who pay for hideous results.

    I once paid a screenwriting company over $100 for constructive feedback. It was clear by the third sentence that he had no idea what the story was even about, much less the mindset of the protagonist. So, I always advise people to find a trusted friend, who won’t be too lenient, to work through it as if it’s their own work.

    Thanks again for your incredible words of advice.

  • Mike says:

    Hi Kimberly,

    Thank you for sharing your experience in writing.

    Agreed that we need more than one person to write a good book or any piece of writing. In today environment, we need to take the benefit of the technology to get the feedback. For example, we can create a Facebook group the writing project. Those members will become a part of the launch team and they will help us in many ways.

    All the best to the writers here.

  • Nicholas says:

    Thanks for sharing this great thought. Giving and receiving constructive feedback is a great idea, which every write should adopt.

  • Hi Kimberly thank you for this article explaining how to critique and what to expect in having your own work critiqued. Since 2013 I have been a member of a fabulous critique group where all the members are writing fiction or non-fiction in a variety of genre. It’s thrilling to see these works published and to read the final version. I have shared your article onto the group’s facebook page https://www.facebook.com/EurobodallaWriters/ Thanks again. cheers Suzanne

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