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How to Give Constructive Feedback

If you are a writer or editor, get used to giving and receiving feedback because you'll be doing a LOT of it. You might dread being on the receiving end because you associate it with deleting everything you have written and starting from scratch, or worse that everyone in the group is going to spend an hour making you feel as if your manuscript is a slug they’ve just wiped off their shoe. Or maybe you’re nervous to be the one giving feedback—what if the author takes your negative feedback personally? Maybe you should just stay 100% positive? But none of these examples are constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback energizes you, builds you up, and empowers you to work on your manuscript to make it stronger. It gives you a space to hear honest reactions to your work, both positive and negative, to let you know what is and is not working in your writing.

There is a difference between useful feedback, critical feedback, gushing about everything someone writes, and tearing someone to shreds. Here are some helpful tips for giving constructive feedback:

Always remember . . .

1. Send positive feedback alongside the negative. I usually send something like 1 positive comment for every 5 negatives. Or one positive comment per page, if the piece is short. I’m not sure if there’s a golden ratio for this, but that's how I do it. Balance is key!

2. Start with a positive comment before launching into negative feedback. What did the person do well? What was strong? What made you laugh or feel for a character? What drew you into the story? What little details caught your eye?

3. Refuse projects or critique sessions with manuscripts that are against your morals.

4. BE CLEAR. If your comments are not clear, your suggestions won’t be made. You must give relevant examples of what you mean. Tell someone WHY you don’t like something and take a crack at fixing the problem in your comment.

5. EDIT YOURSELF before you send (if possible), and/or write down a mix of positive and negative comments before you go into a critique session. Think to yourself: What would I think if I got this comment? How could I word it better so the person won't take it the wrong way?

6. ALL FEEDBACK IS A CHOICE! Unless you're a publisher, literary agent, or someone's boss, you don't have any say over whether someone makes changes to their work. In the end, this piece you’re critiquing is NOT wholly yours (though it might be a collaboration). Pose most comments as a choice to the author:

  • This could be much better if __________.

  • I might change this because __________.

  • I like what you did here, but this was confusing to me because __________. Here are a few examples of how you might change __________.

  • I would do ___________ here.

  • See what you think of my change here.

  • This story needs to lose 300 words so I thought I’d give you the first crack at it.

Try to avoid these habits when critiquing . . .

1. Gushing. No piece of writing is perfect. Editors and writers try to achieve perfection in everything they write, but flooding or showering (to keep up with the water metaphors) a writer with positive comments and no critical feedback is just lazy. Push yourself to think about what’s wrong, what’s missing, and what could improve a manuscript.

2. Being a hater. There is a place and a time for hating manuscripts, but a critique or feedback session is not the time. If you tear someone down, it will either make the person resent you on a personal level or ignore all of your feedback (whether the advice is sound or not!). [ can hate on it after it's been published!]

3. Beginning with negative feedback. Beginning on a bad note can turn someone off to what you have to say immediately. I always force myself to remember why I like something before I go in on the things I don’t.

4. Agreeing to critique something that’s against your code of ethics. I’d rather refuse to edit or critique a piece based on moral standards than to put my effort into critiquing something that I find morally abhorrent. I'm not responsible for teaching someone not to be an asshole. Tell the person that you can't work on their manuscript because it's racist, sexist, homophobic etc. and move on.

5. Giving SO many comments the author feels overwhelmed and hopeless. Make sure you only mention big picture comments and give authors autonomy to make the changes in the way they see fit. You won’t want to mention that all of their commas are wrong and that the spelling is terrible (not yet, anyway). If you are an editor, you might be putting your hands on a manuscript, but for now we’re just giving feedback so you won’t be tinkering much.

6. Forgetting all about positive feedback. Sending 200 negative comments and 2 positive comments is more likely to turn someone off and be a blow to their self esteem than to encourage someone to make changes to their manuscripts.

7. Repeating the SAME feedback over and over and over again. Just mark the first instance and assume that the author will be clever enough to notice this error in their writing. If they aren’t clever enough, that’s the author’s own problem. But, at least you pointed it out.

8. Sending unfiltered comments. When first writing feedback, my comments are always blunt and direct. Before I send them, I always add smilies, exclamation points, abundant examples, and encouraging words. Change something like “Too wordy, dialogue flat, slows down plot” to “I like the emotion here, but I’d like to see this part cut down a bit. I think we need to reach the action more quickly and build some tension.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you begin critiquing:

  • What do you like about a manuscript?

  • What makes you cringe?

  • What was confusing or what did you have a hard time following? Was any of the logic faulty? Did the logic of the world contradict itself?

  • What do you think could be improved and how could it be improved?

  • What was the balance like? Was there too much dialogue and not enough description, or vice versa?

  • Did you have a hard time connecting to the characters? Did you love them or feel for them immediately?

  • What was the pacing like? Was it too slow or too quick or just right?

  • What do you think the author’s motivation was behind a manuscript? Do you think their intentions were too obvious or too vague?

  • Were the jokes/humor landing? Did they make you laugh?

  • Did the tension pull you to the edge of your seat? Or did it feel flat and emotionless? Did the emotional parts move you or just make you feel bored and tired?

  • Were you able to clearly visualize the setting? Or were things too blurry and vague for you to picture what was happening?

  • What could you cut without losing any of the story’s heart? Do any scenes or characters need to be taken out or added?

  • Was anything too sappy, cliche, or repetitive?

  • What felt unique and different?

  • Was the tone, characters, setting plot, etc. right for the intended audience?

Post any additional critique session advice below! How do YOU walk into a constructive critique session?

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