How to give constructive feedback on writing that rocks

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Learning how to give constructive feedback on writing is a valuable communication skill. Understanding the difference between helpful and unhelpful feedback is wisdom you can apply in other areas of life – in relationships; when a friend asks your honest opinion. Learn how to give sensitive, useful critique (plus strategies for taking feedback on your own writing better):

How to give constructive feedback:

  1. Remember the purpose of writing feedback
  2. Understand helpful vs not helpful feedback
  3. Prioritize your suggestions
  4. Use the ‘slug sandwich’ to temper criticism
  5. Match critique style to the writer’s level
  6. Critique the writing, not the author

Remember the purpose of writing feedback

Why give writing feedback to others in a writing group, in a critique circle, or as a beta reader? Giving feedback:

  1. Helps others improve their writing so they can reach their goals.
  2. Improves your own problem-solving (developing critical thinking skills you can apply to your own work).
  3. Builds rapport with writers that sustains productive collaboration (when given in a tactful and supportive way).

The purpose of writing feedback depends, of course, on its context.

In a classroom, feedback is to assist language learners in developing skills such as composition, clarity, style and general language usage.

In a fiction writing group or editing process, feedback provides uses such as having an external sounding board, collaboration, and developing your writing towards a further goal (such as publication).

Understand helpful vs not helpful feedback

Helpful feedback is commentary that helps a writer to make a text a better version of itself.

It does not tell the recipient ‘you are bad’ or ‘I am better’. Rather, it is driven by an ethos of ‘let’s make this stronger, together’.

Helpful writing critique tends to provide:

  • Comments aligned to the writer’s stated or implicit goals (e.g. if the author is writing romance, an implicit goal is that the story’s central conflicts involves romantic relationships, the conventions of this genre)
  • Specific, actionable suggestions (compare ‘this part might be even more interesting if you…’ to ‘this part is boring’)
  • Examples – compare ‘Ugh this is full of comma splices’ to ‘you have a comma splice between [two given words]’. The second pinpoints an actionable improvement

Types of unhelpful writing feedback include feedback that uses:

  • Mean/unkind tone likely to discourage (e.g. ‘You should give up writing’)
  • Sweeping suggestions that lack specificity (e.g. ‘This isn’t interesting’)
  • Subjective bias presented as a universal value (e.g. giving a negative critique because the feedback giver does not like the genre, regardless of the writing’s own qualities)

Let’s look at how to give good feedback on writing, given the above:

Prioritize your suggestions

A great strategy for giving critique is to prioritize your suggestions.

George Mason University has a helpful guide to giving feedback that talks about ‘Higher Order Concerns’ (issues such as overall clarity, effectiveness) and ‘Lower Order Concerns’ (minor, sentence-level issues such as SPAG, also known as spelling, punctuation and grammar).

Lead with the most important, standout aspects. First the good elements, then the areas needing improvement.

Our manuscript evaluations are structured this way (the first two sections highlighting standout positives and broad areas for improvement).

This means the writer leads with encouragement they can carry over as ‘buffer’ into any more critical observations. There’s an aura of positivity to tide them over, through any rougher patches.

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Use the ‘slug sandwich’ to temper criticism

This is a classic approach to criticism (often, a curse word replaces ‘slug’ – this is the classroom-friendly version).

What is a ‘slug sandwich’ in writing feedback? You:

  1. Praise (or rather, sincerely and without hyperbole, acknowledge) the writing’s most effective aspects – what gave you the most pleasure or appeared the most effective.
  2. Next, you move on to areas that (in your opinion) require further work, preferably with specific, actionable examples.
  3. End with sincere words of encouragement.
How to give constructive feedback - the slug sandwich - infographic

Example of constructive critique

An example of constructive writing feedback using this approach for the classic fable Cinderella:

[The ‘top slice’ of kudos]
I enjoyed how you showed the complex family dynamics between Cinderella and her step-mother and mean step-sisters – this rang true of an adjustment phase that often does happen in blended families.

[The ‘middle slug’ of suggestion]
The fairy godmother could read like a deus ex machina to some – something that comes in and saves the day, making success a little too certain or easy for Cinderella. Is there perhaps a further challenge she might have where the godmother is unable to assist her, like a ‘dark night of the soul’, something that truly tests her and she has to stand alone and ‘figure it out’ for herself?

[The ‘bottom slice’ of encouragement]
You’ve captured the relationships within the family well. Perhaps consider cutting off the godmother’s support in the rising action towards the end so that the stakes and suspense are even higher. Keep going!

Example of three-part, constructive feedback

Common criticisms of this feedback approach (often shared in the business world) are:

  • Great Circle: A novel Great Circle: A novel This is a story a woman’s unenthusiastic life as she strives to break free. Marian Graves is also from a family which has lost their fame. Instead of bitterness, Marian continues to dream for the future and works hard for her stars. Although her life is not easy, she refuses to let the circumstances of her past dictate the fate of her future. This is an American story about independence, shedding your past,Read More
  • Klara and the Sun: A novel The book Klara and the Sun is an emotional story about loss and love. A peculiar girl, Klara who always insists that someone else is always inside of her body finally comes face to face with her real self. It is a masterpiece is that still contemplative and thoughtful as you are being drawn in by the essence of that “someone else.”Read More
  • The Four Winds: A Novel The Four Winds: A Novel by Kristen Hannah is a charming yet gritty story of women who remember America's iconic dust storms and have been trying to survive since the nation asks them to. This book is a touching story of survival, resilience, and hope.Read More
  1. People come away only remembering the ‘bread’ of kudos and encouragement (criticism gets lost in the mix).
  2. It may seem inauthentic due to having a somewhat ‘templated’ format that can seem indirect.

These are valid objections to this approach. However, if you keep each part to the point, and strive to fill your feedback with empathy, purpose and tact (authentic connection, in other words), your feedback should still be effective.

It’s better than harsh feedback which tends to shut down openness and discussion.

Match critique style to the writer’s level

In a critique circle or as an editor starting out, you’ll likely find yourself critiquing writers who are writing at all different levels.

Some writers may be ready for publication or have already published. Others might have written or have just started their first ever story.

Match your feedback to where the writer is at.

If a writer has stated, for example, that English is not their first language, cut them slack on errors of usage. Rather suggest a general grammar resource they can use for self-study if they wish than tear apart their writing error by error – unless you’ve been hired as a copy-editor for precisely this role.

The best critique helps people where they’re at, not where the reviewer thinks they ought to be. Great editing elevates, never condescends.

Carl Jung quote on knowledge and error

Critique the writing, not the author

There are times where you might read work where the characters are objectionable, or the subject matter is unsavory to you.

It is important to critique the writing rather than leap to ad hominem (personal attack).

For example, if an author writes a story where all the male characters are arrogant chauvinists and all the women are simplistic ‘bimbo’ tropes, this could be reflective of the author’s own limited awareness or sensitivity to gender issues.

They could also hold opposing views to their characters or could think they are offering excellent social critique or satire, unaware of how they could be misread.

In giving good feedback, it is thus safest to focus on the text itself. Frame criticism in terms of the writing itself. Critique the writing.

It is much more likely to reach an author if you say, for example, ‘The female characters at times seem two-dimensional, as though they only exist to satisfy the male characters’ needs, such as when…’.

Compare this to writing feedback that says, ‘Gross, you’re a sexist pig’…

Nuanced feedback opens dialogue instead of shutting down communication (when feedback giver and recipient are open to it). This allows for true improvement and learning.

How to take constructive feedback better

Giving good writing feedback is one challenge. Receiving it without it denting your motivation is another entirely.

In a recent open Now Novel writing webinar, an attendee asked in the Q&A portion how to take feedback.

You could try:

  1. Skim for tone. Is writing feedback given with tact, care, precision and purpose? If not, don’t give it too much weight or power over your self-belief. Don’t even read it to the end if it appears mean-spirited.
  2. Pretend you’re reading editorial feedback for another author. (Active dissociation can help to make it feel less personal.)
  3. Look for supporting statements: Does your reviewer support any suggestions or statements with examples from your own story or others?
  4. State the specific type of feedback you’re looking for upfront. For example, if you struggle with detailed description, you could say ‘Please suggest how I could improve my descriptions’. If feedback doesn’t fulfil your brief you then have reason to skip it.

Need constructive feedback? Get a free sample edit when you request a quote for our fiction editing services.

Further resources

Angela Ackerman offers excellent advice on how to handle critiques of your own work: Evaluating Critique Feedback.

K.M. Weiland gives succinct pointers on sorting good feedback from bad: How to Get Feedback on Your Writing (and Sort the Good from the Bad).

Although business-oriented in scope, Scott Halford’s piece for Entrepreneur raises how important it is to create an atmosphere of safety in giving feedback.

What’s the best writing advice you ever got? Tell us in the comments.

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