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Giving Constructive Writing Feedback

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If you belong to a writer’s group or know other writers, odds are that they will ask you to give feedback. Constructive feedback shouldn’t leave the writer feeling dejected and ready to give up, but inspired and motivated to make their manuscript better.

Here are some tips on how to give truly helpful feedback.

Find out what kind of feedback the writer is looking for before reading the manuscript.

Ask what the target audience and genre is of the manuscript and what type of edit they prefer. Tailor your feedback to one of the following types of edits.

Content or Developmental Edit: Looks at story structure, character arcs, and plot points. Checks for any major holes, flaws, or logical inconsistencies. Asks if the story is clear and coherent, and if it makes sense. Edits at this stage may result in major changes to the manuscript.

Line and Copy Edit: This is a line-by-line edit looking for grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, and overall quality of writing. May look at passive vs active voice, show vs tell, phrasing, style, and tone. Enhances clarity and readability. Verifies the manuscript follows word count, tone, and style suitable for the target audience.

Structural or Formatting Edit: This looks to see if the manuscript follows the guidelines needed for submission or for genre norms. It also formats for digital copies and/or print versions of the manuscript, including font style and size, chapter headings, gutters, margins, and illustrations.

Recognize your role of support.

A writer friend once told me the best editor is like a midwife. Working in a supportive role, the editor needs to assist the writer in the “birth” of a book. The editor is there to help the labour of a completed manuscript move into the world in a healthy and positive way. It won’t be painless, but will be worth it.

Feedback vs Critique

A critique focuses entirely on the problems of a manuscript, often with cutting and degrading comments, without offering solutions. Feedback is a solution-based process. It recognizes things that didn’t work in the manuscript and offers practical and workable suggestions for improvement.

Be professional in your comments and suggestions. Avoid cutting words and meanness. Point out what the writer has done well and what you liked about the manuscript. Aim to be helpful and truthful while uplifting and encouraging the writer to improve. The goal here is to support the writer in producing the best possible manuscript without tearing them down.

Pose questions. Offer solutions.

If you come across a hole or inconsistency, ask the writer, “Do you know why you did…” or “What if you had done…” Ask questions that invoke thought on motivations and purposes of the plot or character. Give the writer time to consider. Their answer may help them solve the inconsistency on their own or lead a way to a solution. If not, offer a solution to the issue that the writer can work with. Don’t leave them with a list of problems and no workable way to fix them.

Be specific.

Avoid generalities in your comments. Some of the worst feedback I received was, “It was good. I liked it.” My response was, “And..?” It left me feeling unresolved and not really knowing if that feedback was truthful or if there was anything that I could improve.

Point out specifics in story, character, grammar, formatting, etc. that need work.

Emotional reactions.

If you find yourself having a negative emotional or visceral reaction to the manuscript, stop and consider why. Was it word choice, or a trigger for you? Explain to the writer that you had a reaction and why—while focusing on telling them in a composed way. Understand that everyone will have different emotional experiences while reading, and yours is not the only kind, but if you reacted, others probably will too, and a revision may be necessary.

If you have a positive emotional reaction, share that with the writer too. Tell them you laughed, or cried, or felt close to a character. An author always enjoys hearing the reader had a connection with the story.

Meet face-to-face.

When possible, provide your feedback in person. Face-to-face meetings help with clarity and eliminate misconstrued meanings. It gives a chance to develop solutions and encourages discussion.

As a backup, you may also meet via video chat or phone call, although there’s an emotional connection when physically present together that other means can’t replicate. Avoid giving only digital or paper notes without any chance of discussion.

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