Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Last week, I gave you a few tips for knowing when it’s time to share your writing with someone else, and how to get up the courage and strength to do it.
We talked about the importance of knowing who “your people” are and finding readers who understand what you’re trying to accomplish with your work. But what if you’re on the other side of this situation? What if someone comes to you and says, “Hey, I wrote this thing…will you tell me what you think?” Seriously—have you ever thought about what a huge deal it is to have someone personally ask you to read their work?
It’s an indicator that they not only value your feedback and insight, but that they trust you.
That’s a good feeling…but it can also bring with it a lot of pressure.
For one thing, in most cases, this person asking you for feedback is a friend, and naturally, we want to please our friends. If all goes well, you read their story and think, “Wow, this is great!” and then you go to Starbucks and have a love fest about how awesome it is.
But often, this scenario does not happen (and even if it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. I’ll get to that).
More than likely, your friend’s story has numerous flaws…and that’s when you have a choice to make. Do you gloss over the story’s faults in order to make your friend feel good?
Or do you give them a dose of tough love and tell the truth? Because here’s the hard reality: if you ignore their writing’s weak points for the sake of making them feel good about themselves, you’re actually lying to them.
And in the long run, dishonesty does damage.
Not just to your friend’s writing—but to the trust they showed in you by asking you to read their work to begin with.
Good feedback is not about your ego. It’s not about showing how much you know about writing or how many authors you can name drop in a sentence or giving bossy directives about what the writer should do.
But it’s also not about sugarcoating your response so they’ll like you more and you’ll get to avoid hurting their feelings.
Imagine you’re in a doctor’s office dying of lung cancer…and your doctor comes in and says, “Oh, it’s just a cough. No worries. Just drink some Nyquil and you’ll be fine.” Three months later, you’re dead.
That’s an extreme example…but if you don’t diagnose the problem, you can’t offer solutions to help fix it. I’ve spent fifteen years as a participant in writing workshops and in classrooms teaching and mentoring high school and college students. The method I use for providing feedback to my Inkling Creative Strategies clients is the same one I’ve used to support writing colleagues and students of the craft.
And now I want to teach it to you. So…without further ado, I present The Inkling Formula for Giving Feedback.
Read the manuscript at least one time while making comments.
I read all manuscripts once for my basic services and two (or more) times for my more comprehensive services. My goal when I read is to get a sense of what the experience of the project is like for the reader. While I read, I use the comments function in Google Docs or Word to mark things I liked, ask questions, or note sections I thought were confusing. This will be vital when you go back later to summarize your thoughts.
Don’t correct any grammar and sentence level errors.
No, that’s not a misprint. Unless the author has come to you specifically requesting that you edit their work, your goal is to examine how well the story is working. If you bog yourself down with inserting commas and correcting spelling errors, you’ll miss the larger issues with structure, plot, characterization, etc. that genuinely are holding the story back. Until those issues are sufficiently dealt with, there’s no point in digging into anything else. It’s possible to have a story that is totally free of grammatical and mechanical errors, but still sucks. Compelling people and conflicts make good stories. Perfect comma placement doesn’t.
Describe what worked well for you as a reader.
I write a formal critique letter for all my clients and I recommend that you do so as well. It takes a little extra work, but it helps you to organize your thoughts and provide clearer, more specific feedback and suggestions. It also shows the author that you truly care about and are invested in their creative growth. The first step in this process is to talk about what works well. You can talk about your favorite character, your favorite part of the story, quote a paragraph you particularly enjoyed, or comment on the plot development.
I also like to provide some general statements about how I think readers will respond to the story in general—what they will find relatable, meaningful, or helpful. This brings home the fact that ultimately, we’re writing for other people, and we need to consider how the story will impact our audience.
Discuss areas where you felt confused, had questions, or “felt taken out of the story.”
Oof. This is where people usually get stuck, typically because they’re not only worried about being offensive, but also don’t know how to put their criticisms into words.
Casting your feedback as confusion or questions rather than pressuring yourself to write a complex explanation of the problems with the piece puts the focus on the reader’s response, not your critical aptitude.
As a result, it eliminates a lot of the anxiety that comes with critiquing someone’s work—it’s easier to say, “I felt confused here” and describe why than to explain “what’s wrong with it.” You may also encounter parts of the story where something happens that distracts you from the “flow” of the plot. Maybe a character says something that’s inconsistent with what you’ve learned about them so far, there’s too much summary of action rather than using scenes to dramatize what’s happening, or something happens that doesn’t fit within the world of the story.
The feeling of having your experience with the story “disrupted” can point to larger issues the writer can uncover when revising.
Remember that it’s not your job to “fix it.”
Ultimately, the biggest thing you need to keep in mind is that it’s not your story. You don’t have to have a solution for everything. That’s the author’s job. You just provide the raw evidence they need to explore the questions you identified.
When you take away all the anxiety that can come with having to advise the author on all the issues in the manuscript, you are more able to genuinely describe what your experience with the story was like. That information alone will be enough to direct the author toward ways to revise the piece. Want more resources about revision and giving feedback? Grab a copy of my free Revision Scorecard. It pinpoints the most common structural weakness of early drafts and lets you score yourself on which ones you need to focus on the most. You can use it for your own work, as well as a guide for giving feedback to friends. Also…if you’ve got questions about revision, feedback, or have specific concerns to talk about, grab some time on my calendar for a complimentary 30-minute Virtual Meetup on Zoom. I love connecting with writers and would be glad to talk about whatever’s on your mind.
Click here to learn more about these meetings and set one up!