You have just finished working on your latest story and you are desperately needing some well thought out, constructive feedback. An action scene in the middle of the plot feels like it’s falling flat, you’re concerned your dialogue doesn’t seem natural, and you can’t decide if your ending is too devastating. You email a copy of the draft to your trusted friend, asking for feedback on all of these concerns, only to receive back, “This looks great! I didn’t see any problems! You wrote this story well!”
It is as if your friend didn’t even read the story and just told you what they thought you would want to hear! You’re frustrated, feeling as if she didn’t care to appreciate the long hours you put into creating this story. The least she could have done is fix the obvious grammar mistakes you made over on page 3.
Feedback, whether you are talking to a friend or a colleague, can be extremely difficult to give. It can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking knowing you are scrutinizing someone’s hard work, looking for errors. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or make enemies based on what you thought about a certain story. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how of how uncomfortable one may feel, critiquing and giving feedback is a completely necessary process for writers to go through to grow in their craft. Any serious writer will want honest and thorough feedback in order to make their stories worth being on the lists of classics students will have to read for school one day.
Coming from my own experience, I used to struggle with critiquing other people’s stories and essays a lot. At first, I was afraid I was going to ruin others self-confidence if I didn’t say anything but positive comments in my feedback. However, I had to learn to recognize the fact that when giving feedback, both parties are there to make the story or essay the best it can be. If having that common goal means that you have to tear a piece apart to build it back up, that is ok. In fact, sometimes, it is even highly encouraged!
That being said, sometimes the feelings aren’t what is getting in the way of creating strong feedback. Sometimes, you simply don’t know where to start. What should you deem most important to talk about when you have limited time? In all honesty, the answer to that question doesn’t have a very straightforward answer. However, hopefully the following tips and tricks will help answer the questions of where to start and what to focus on.
To start, before you even begin to read, plan to go in with an open mind. This sounds easy and self-explanatory, but there may be stories or essays you read that go against your religious beliefs, your morals, or even just push you way outside of your comfort zone. Just because a story falls into this category, doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong. It just means that you probably wouldn’t pick this up and read it in your spare time. This is okay! As long as you read the story with an open mind, and don’t let the content interfere with your critique of the writing, you will be well on your way to giving great feedback.
Moving forward, as you read the story or essay, take notes. What parts made you smile, laugh, cry, or cringe? Is there some part that was written so well you have to say something about it? Is there another part that really needs some love and attention? Try not to be overly critical overanalyzing and marking every missed punctuation or misspelled word. If the same mistakes are made over and over, maybe make a note to mention them briefly. However, this should not be your main concern. Instead, try to focus on the bigger picture or what the author asked you to look at specifically. Make specific notes so that when you go back to write out or tell the person your feedback, you don’t forget anything.
Looking back at the example from the beginning of the post, they were concerned about an action scene in the middle of the plot they felt fell flat, they were concerned their dialogue didn’t seem natural, and they couldn’t decide if their ending was too devastating. When reading this story, make sure to specifically look at those concerns and give feedback on them. What did this author do that made their middle action scene fall flat? Are they missing character development that would help fill out the scene? Are they using vague words that don’t create an image (i.e. beautiful, interesting, horrible, amazing, etc.)? Pinpointing the problem and then figuring out options to fix it are your main goals.
One important fact to remember as you read, especially if you are reading with no specific requests of what to look at, is no matter how well written the story is, there is always room for improvement. In contrast, no matter how horribly a story is written, there is always something good to say. Both extremes may take a little extra effort to find what needs feedback, but it can be done. You may have to be just as creative as the author was to figure out how to give them well-rounded feedback!
For the final step, let’s look at how to prepare your feedback for the author. Whether you are writing this feedback or giving it to them verbally, start with a compliment about the piece specifically. Be honest about how the piece made you feel, or highlight something you really liked! You don’t have to talk about this forever. Use this portion to acknowledge the author’s hard work and creativity they had to put into this piece as well as show them you really did read this story and you aren’t just writing something generic. When you move on to parts of the piece they can improve, be blunt. Don’t second guess yourself or act like you don’t want to hurt their feelings for saying they should fix something. You both have a common goal of wanting to make this piece the best it can be as well as the knowledge that in this moment, you are not their friend. You were tasked with critiquing the story, give them the feedback they deserve.
Along with being blunt, don’t forget to give tips on how to fix what is not working. Telling someone their imagery isn’t working doesn’t help if you don’t ask them, “How can you show me the flower blooming instead of telling me the flower bloomed?” You don’t have to rewrite their story, just give them one or two different options they could take. Although they might not do exactly what you suggested, you are giving them an idea of what a reader might be looking for and jump-starting their creative process to fix the issues you are seeing.
Overall, when giving feedback, go in with an open mind. Know that you and the author have a common goal of creating the best story possible. As you read, take specific notes to remind yourself what you want to mention in the feedback. Make sure you are always trying to look at the bigger picture. Be blunt when you try to help fix the parts that aren’t working and provide possible options the author could take to create a better second draft. Although this list isn’t exhaustive, hopefully this is a good start to help you on your future critiques!
About the author: Aly Rosema is a college student currently working towards her BS in Writing. When she isn't doing homework or writing short stories, she likes to bake and have dance parties with her little sister. You can find Aly on Twitter @RosemaAlyson.