Giving Useful Feedback
Several weeks ago, I talked about how to get useful feedback on your writing from others. Some of those others are likely authors from your writing group, and if you’re asking for their reviews on your work, it’s only fair that you return the favor.
Here are a few suggestions on making sure your peer reviews are actually useful.
Besides, reading and thinking critically about the work of others will serve to make you a better writer as well.
Have you ever handed your story to a friend and waited with great anticipation for their response, imagining all the ways they’re going to help you hone your craft, only to receive a hearty “Looks good!” and nothing else? If so, you understand that not all feedback is helpful.
And the same goes for negative reactions. “I didn’t really like it” or “Meh” is not helpful.
Both responses are lazy at best. You owe it to yourself and your fellow writers to put more thought and effort into it. Everything can be improved on. And with specific examples of what’s wrong, why it doesn’t work, and suggestions for fixing the problem.
It’s called constructive criticism because it should help the writer build something better after they receive it.
Positives and Negatives
Your critique doesn’t have to be negative from start to finish; that can actually be kind of disheartening.
Pointing out the problem areas is incredibly important, but so is pointing out what they’re doing right. If they know what’s working, they can try to do more of that.
Along the lines of you doing more than essentially sending them a smile and a thumbs up, they need to be able to count on you to tell them the absolute truth.
If it’s a stinking pile of manure from start to finish, they need to know that (though you might want to phrase it a little more gently than that). Lying to make them feel better is actually hurting them.
You don’t need to be unnecessarily harsh or cruel, but it’s much better to have the flaws pointed out before they go to print.
And that’s where the constructive criticism comes in. Giving them a path for improvement saves your critique from feeling like a personal attack.
And if it’s truly a trash heap of burning garbage, focus on the biggest, most important issues they can work on. Remember that your job is to help them become a better writer. There may be no saving this particular piece, but what things can they work on to make their work in general better?
What to Check
We’ve established that a thumbs up or down isn’t enough, so what should you be looking for to make your critique specific and useful?
The details like grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important but probably not at this point. Unless they ask you for proofreading help, pointing out all the times they use their instead of they’re will only distract both of you from the issues that need attention. The mechanics come later, after the developmental work is done.
Unless their grammar is so bad it makes reading nearly impossible.
What you’ll want to focus on are matters like logic, continuity, consistency, clarity, ingenuity, novelty, and value to the readers.
Do all of the parts go together? Do characters’ names or personalities change suddenly? Is the scene clear and engaging? Is the concept new and interesting, or is it a stale repeat of a dozen other popular books? Are some of the events described physically possible or believable?
Will anyone care? Will it bring value to the readers’ lives?
Would scenes or chapters be more effective if they were rearranged, combined, or divided?
Are they guilty of infodump? (See my blog post on the subject.)
Are the characters likeable or relatable, even the villains?
Learning from others holds great value, too.
What kind of feedback have you, personally, found most helpful? Studying those reviews can help you become both a better writer and a better reviewer yourself.
Rebecca Miller is a professional copyeditor and general fan of all things having to do with the written word and the English language.
You can check out her website at Oakdale Editing or connect through Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Email.
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Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.