You know you need peer feedback to improve your own writing. You also know that to get feedback, you need to give it as well. But providing truly effective feedback goes beyond a cold business relationship. Effective feedback is the kind of criticism that inspires and motivates. It is always honest, but never harsher than it needs to be. It works, and not just because the recipient has learned to mold an iron brace around his heart.
Look at it this way: As a writer, part of your job is to evoke the desired emotional responses from readers. When you learn to provide effective feedback, you are learning some of the same tools you will then use in your own writing to evoke hope, fear, anger, or love. As a writer, you will need to learn to take harsh criticism. Nothing will prevent you from receiving it except writing exclusively for yourself. (There's nothing wrong with that, but if you're reading this, I imagine you harbor dreams of recognition.) Even effective critiques sometimes seem harsh just by being honest. But some criticism is harsher than it needs to be, through combative phrasing or rudeness.
Offer opinions, not facts.
Example: “It was obvious that the evil sorcerer was going to turn out to be Nathan’s father. Ever since Star Wars did it, that is so cliché.”
One person cannot speak to whether or not everyone will have seen the ending coming. If it is that painfully obvious, then multiple critiques will reflect this truth. It isn't your job, as a critiquer, to try to speak for everyone.
Another problem with this example is that it does not leave the author with any hope of fixing the problem. It comes across as an attack, rather than a suggestion, partly because (whether intended or not) it suggests the entire story should be buried.
Don't quote the rule book.
Example: “It says on page 26 of ‘The Writer’s Handbook’ that you should always, ‘Show, not tell.’”
First of all, there are no rules when it comes to writing, only guidelines and suggestions. Any “rule” of writing can be broken with good cause so long as the writer understands the consequences and is willing to accept them.
If you have a problem, definitely say so, but your reason should be your own, and not because you read it in a book somewhere. Telling instead of showing is often a problem, because it puts distance between the reader and the story, or because it fails to evoke any emotion. THAT is why you're suggesting they show, don't tell – not because it's in some rule book.
Make it about the story, not the author.
“I got the impression that you never studied physics.”
Never make assumptions about the author, his knowledge, or his motives. There is no more combative statement than to start making personal assumptions about the writer of the piece. It doesn't even matter if you're right, it's rude.
I didn’t care for…
I find this passage…
I wonder if…
I got the impression that…
Perhaps you could…
Have you thought about….
You might consider…
Try to avoid:
Here are some ways you could rephrase the above examples:
“I suspected the evil sorcerer would be Nathan’s father early on, when you said he was an orphan. I wonder if this twist really adds to the plot? I found the hero’s quest to be compelling enough by itself.”
“Usually, when a car crashes into a wall at 60 miles per hour, the car is not drivable afterward and the driver does not walk away unscathed. I expected a magical explanation for this miraculous crash, and felt disappointed when I did not receive one.”
The “Wise Reader” Critique
Have you ever read a piece of feedback that sounded to you as if the reader was looking for problems? Think about how you read a published work. Probably, you accept on faith that the writing is up to a certain standard and read it relatively unhindered. From time to time, however, you may come across things that throw you for a loop. These things usually fall into three questions categories that all readers ask themselves from time to time:
Huh? (I don't get it!)
Oh yeah? (Seriously? I don't buy it.)
So what? (I'm bored.)
All readers ask these questions. The wise reader notices when he or she asks these questions and writes it down so he can mention it to the author.
***If you don't feel comfortable doing anything else, if you're new to writing and worry that you might make bad suggestions or might phrase things wrong, you can still be a wise reader. As you gain confidence, you may learn to deepen your critiques, but you never have to – the wise reader critique is immensely useful to authors, as long as you are being honest.
Pointing Out The Positive
Truly effective criticism not only points out weaknesses, but also notes strengths. Assuming that our intention is to help writers learn to write even better, then it is at least as important to tell them what not to change as it is to tell them what to change. Also, suggesting positive elements of a story gives writers hope that they do have some promise, even while reading about the negative aspects of their writing.
Different people will give you different guidelines for making positive comments. I have heard a suggestion called the “cookie method,” in which every negative comment is sandwiched between two positive comments like an Oreo cookie. I have also heard people suggest that three is the magic number of compliments, and so the number of your complimenting should be three.
I don't buy any of that. Effective critiques are, first and foremost, honest, so you should always compliment honestly. I do not believe in magic numbers or cookie approaches that tend to lead to false compliments.
I mentioned that when reading, it's best to read wisely, rather than looking for problems. On the other hand, I do think you should actively look for the promise in a story. I have seen almost no samples of writing that did not warrant at least one sincere, heartfelt compliment, but if you really feel you've found one, don't make something up.
Advanced Critique: Symptom, Diagnosis, Prescription
If you're reading along, and begin to notice that the spot on the wall is more interesting than the story, you have observed a symptom, but not the actual problem. At this point, it is most helpful to an author to let them know of your lost interest (wise reader). It is also helpful, if you can, to let them know why you lost interest – that is, to make a diagnosis.
Maybe the story started in the wrong place; either too early so that the setup takes too long, or too late so that you don't know what is happening. Maybe the main character is unsympathetic, keeping you from caring what happens to him or her.
The most effective feedback gives the author the symptom and the diagnosis. If you say, “I lost interest in the story when your hero killed the man in a bar fight,” then you are accurately explaining your feelings. If you follow up with, “I think it is because I cannot sympathize with a character who commits murder, even accidentally,” then you have really given the author something to work with.
What you have to be careful of, is adding your own personal prescription. That is, telling the writer what changes to make: “I think you should cut this scene.”
Prescription is not evil, but it does have its problems. The biggest problem is its use to the exclusion of citing symptom and diagnosis. If an author doesn't understand the great “Why?” of your suggestion, then it's hard to make a change at all. Plus, it's their story, and they have every right to make the changes that reflect their personal vision. With a symptom and diagnosis in hand, they can do this. With only a prescription, they first have to guess at what was going through your head to make such a suggestion in the first place. It's like reverse engineering, and it isn't particularly effective, especially when there are any number of reasons you might make any given prescription for change.
Even when you do include the symptom and diagnosis with the prescription, it is the first two parts that will really help the author. The prescription itself may or may not do a thing, and it is always optional. I only make prescriptions when I have a flash of brilliance, and even then, I'm probably catering to my own vanity. At least, with the what and the why in place, I know they can take it or leave it.
Be honest. Be supportive. It's what you'd want other people to do for you, isn't it?
Christine Amsden has been writing science fiction and fantasy for as long as she can remember. She loves to write and it is her dream that others will be inspired by this love and by her stories. Speculative fiction is fun, magical, and imaginative but great speculative fiction is about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. Christine writes primarily about people and it is in this way that she strives to make science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone.
Christine currently lives in the Kansas City area with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success. They have two beautiful children, Drake and Celeste.