Whether you’re a critique partner, beta reader, copy-editor or just a friend offering to read over a writer’s manuscript, it’s crucial to know how to give good feedback. If you go too easy and don’t leave a single critique, the writer won’t learn how to improve their craft, but go too far the other way and you can end up putting them off ever writing again.
Giving good feedback is about striking the right balance between positive and negative comments. The word ‘critique’ is not synonymous with ‘critical’. It doesn’t mean tearing a piece of art to shreds. It means looking at it closely and pointing out what works well and what needs fine-tuning.
If you’re asked to provide feedback on a writer’s work, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Know what feedback is required
This is the FIRST thing you want to do. Never go into a critique without knowing exactly what level of intervention the writer is looking for. Someone who is in the very early stages of the project with a patchy first draft might just be looking for an answer to the simple question of ‘does this concept work?’
Someone who is feeling the claws of impostor syndrome digging in might be in need of a ‘positivity pass’, which is exactly what it sounds like – a review of their project where you only mention the good.
Then there are those who will email over their manuscript with the subject line ‘do your worst’.
Each writer will be looking for something different depending on what stage they’re at with their work in progress (WIP) or how confident they’re currently feeling about their project. So ask what level of critique they’re after and make sure you understand their request clearly before going in.
Be careful what you call ‘wrong’
For those that don’t know, I’m based in the UK, and over here we tend to use the word ‘mum’ when referring to our mother. However, the part of the UK I was born and raised in – the West Midlands – almost always spells it ‘mom’, just like the Americans do! It’s one of those odd little regional quirks.
I raise this point because I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had other UK writers look over my stories and leave comments on the use of ‘mom’ saying that’s the American spelling. Yes, it is. But it’s also how us Brummies spell it. It is not wrong, it’s just not right according to someone else’s style.
All this to say, make sure you’re careful about what you point out as ‘wrong’. If you’re unsure whether something is a mistake or a regional difference, you can leave a polite comment noting that you’re unfamiliar with that particular usage. That way, if it’s a genuine mistake the author can fix it, or if it was intentional they can decide for themselves whether they think the ‘unfamiliarity’ of it might trip up their prospective readers.
Find the good
I’ve read a lot of manuscripts for my job and I have never come across one that didn’t have even a single thing to get excited or enthusiastic over. There will be something. Anything. Was there a particular scene you enjoyed reading? Did one of the characters have an interesting arc? Was the setting well-described and immersive? Did the dialogue come across as natural? Is the premise something you can see others enjoying? Did the style remind you of another author? Was the voice unique and engaging?
If you look for it, you will find something. And this leads me on to my next point…
Serve the ‘Shit Sandwich’
Maybe you’ve heard of this with a less vulgar name, but it’s the term I was first introduced to and it’s stuck with me ever since (I was going to Google some alternative names for it, then I realised what a terrible idea it would be to search this phrase on the internet!). The Shit Sandwich is a method of delivering feedback that squashes a negative comment between two positive ones as a way of softening the blow.
Your characters all have excellent personalities that set them apart from one another and it would be great to see more of this come out in their dialogue. As it stands, they all sound alike when they’re talking, to the point where if we covered up the dialogue tags it wouldn’t be easy to tell who’s speaking. If you threw in some catchphrases, accents or vocal tells that were unique to specific characters, it would go a long way to helping with this. You’ve already got their identities and personalities nailed down well, so it won’t take much to distinguish them in speech.
Leave your own style at the door
This one is important if you are a writer critiquing someone else’s writing. It is dangerously easy to impose your own style when you’re commenting, especially when you’re trying to help fix a section that isn’t quite working. First up, you have to identify if the scene actually isn’t working or if you would just have written it differently. If it’s the latter, zip it. No comment. Move along.
If it’s the former, bear in mind that the way you would mend a scene is not necessarily the way this writer would mend it – all you need to do is point out that something needs mending. It's okay to give some examples or suggestions, particularly for complicated issues that the writer might need to take some time to mull, but you should never imply that these suggestions are the correct solution. It’s not your book – never forget that.