Do’s and Don’t’s of Constructive Criticism

When I was in school, one step in our writing process was the “peer review,” during which we would swap papers with an assigned partner, read it, and give them feedback in the form of constructive criticism: Comments and tips focusing on how to improve the piece, rather than just pointing out what’s wrong with it.

Constructive CriticismIn the writing world, this is called beta reading, critiquing, or developmental editing, and it is a necessary step in the writing process if a writer wants to get published.

Originally, I was going to combine my tips on constructive criticism with my post on giving book reviews, but I realized that would be a horrible idea. Making a review of constructive criticism would sound rude and pretentious, and it would be too late for any of the feedback to matter.

Constructive criticism should only be given if sought. If you read something on a blog or Wattpad, ask “Are you seeking feedback on this, or just posting?” before offering any feedback beyond the cursory. (Personally, I state that I am seeking feedback on my Wattpad profile.)

The number one rule I have about constructive criticism is: Ask questions. Asking questions acts as shining a light. If you can’t figure something out or if you’re curious about something, other readers will be as well. Never assume it’s just you or that you missed something. Asking questions is also a useful, neutral way to draw the writer’s attention to something you’re not sure what to make of, or if you are concerned your criticism may hurt the writer’s feelings.

And you should be concerned about your writer’s feelings. Receiving feedback is tough. It requires chocolate and blanket forts at times. This does not mean, under any circumstances, you should hold anything back. Make ALL the comments, but consider your phrasing and give reasons for your criticism.

Pad your feedback. Just like with book reviews, don’t focus on just the things that need Criticism sandwichimprovement. “Two positives for every negative” works well here, since your feedback is – for the most part – private and personal. Point out what you loved, made you laugh, what resonated with you on a deep, personal level.

When editing L. M. Bryski’s Book of Birds, every other page had “LOL” in the margin, accompanied by “OMG” and the occasional crying emoticon when she threw my heart on the ground and stomped on it. Positive feedback like that pads the moments of “I think you should cut this scene you love” or “This one detail unravels your entire plot” (not that I have ever had to say that, thank goodness!).

I’ve known people who suggest front-loading the positive feedback before giving the critical feedback, but that doesn’t sound efficient to me. I use the Comments feature in Word now, so the feedback is chronological, but when I write my critique email, I note the smaller comments, and save the overhauls for the end.

You will never be alone. Assume you are Everyreader while reading to give feedback. If something rubs you the wrong way, it is bound to rub someone else the wrong way. Or if something sounds awkward, is confusing, seems out-of-character, is triggering, etc.edit

On the other hand, your personal experiences are invaluable. In addition to being Everyreader, you are also bringing your background to the table. If you’ve been to the setting and the writer hasn’t, tell them a little about it (“If you blow your nose after a day in London, the snot comes out black from the air pollution.”). If you’re an EMT, tell them what it’s like to deliver a baby (“Afterward, you have to wash the blood off the ceiling of the ambulance.”).

The best feedback from my editor, Michael Keenan.

If you have the spoons for it, you should also be giving feedback as a sensitivity reader, so if something is wrong/offensive/triggering, let the writer know.

Reread your notes before you submit them. I learned this the hard way. Although I had excellent rapport with one of my clients, some of my notes were phrased in a harsh or unprofessional manner, and she took great offense – and rightfully so. I made it a policy to tone-check before I send my comments.

Don’t fight. This is as much a tip for the writer as it is for the reader. Any and all feedback is only a recommendation, not a heavy-handed demand, however it is phrased, and whoever is saying it. Don’t get attached to the changes you are recommending, just state it, explain it, and move on. Despite getting a real kick out of the horse comment displayed above, I did not change the line, arguing that it is from the POV of a child who may not know better. After publication, I received a review that cited this as the reviewer’s favorite line.

As another example, I have one client who loves to write alpha males, but often that “alpha” behavior forays into the controlling or abusive. I don’t expect all writers (or even all women) to see why that is problematic, but I fought tooth and nail for her to change certain scenes. She refused. I had to acknowledge that I was over-stepping my bounds by fighting, stressing myself out far more than the job called for, and step away. (She did end up tweaking the scenes in question before publication.)

Last, but not least, be open for questions. Invite the writer to ask you for clarification, to review their changes, or for emotional support.

I would love to hear your tips and stories for giving or receiving feedback. What was your most traumatic critique? What made it so rough? How did you respond? Leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!

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