Three perspectives on giving useful writerly feedback

Receiving good feedback on your writing — whether you're applying for a grant, writing an article, or even penning the draft of your first novel — can be extremely nerve-wracking! It's not completely unlike the feeling of asking a friend (or worse: a respected acquaintance) to honestly judge a picture of your naked body. Well, ok, I admit I've ever actually done that, but I'm imagining the feeling is not dissimilar.

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Giving effective, coherent, and most of all actionable feedback on another person's writing is another task all together! This is a skill that's not only essential for editors or writers, but for anyone who does any sort of writing in their lives.

To figure out what effective writerly feedback could look like, I thought it might be interesting to reverse engineer the feedback process. I asked three greatly talented writerly friends to lend their perspectives on the feedback they've found most helpful in the past. After each answer, I then put together a few generalizable questions which might prompt the kind of feedback each writer found particularly useful, no matter the genre, style, or type of writing.

Intent versus impact

Squinky is an award-winning game creator, writer, and new mixed media artist, who offers sensitivity consulting to teams and organizations, and also runs a really cool Patreon. When I asked them about the writerly feedback most helpful to them in their own practice, this is what they had to say:

When I'm looking for feedback, I'm not necessarily looking for whether someone likes or dislikes what I've written, because that's a very personal and subjective opinion. What I actually want to know is, "Did I communicate my ideas clearly, and what, if anything, did I communicate that I didn't intend on communicating?"

In that regard, the best feedback I've received has reflected not just the reader's opinion on the quality of my writing, but also what the reader understood my intent was when writing the piece in question, in terms of context and audience. If they are part of my intended audience and the piece resonates with them, all the better.

A Few Key Questions To Prompt Effective Feedback

  • What key ideas, arguments, and themes is the reader left with after reading the text?
  • What are the writer's intentions and goals with the piece?
  • Does the quality of the writing itself (as well as its tone and register of language) support these intentions?
  • How does the writing fit into the current cultural context? Is it participating in or starting a new conversation?
  • Who is the piece's intended audience and, if pertinent, will the piece resonate with those outside that intended audience?

Critiquing outside your usual wheelhouse

Oliver is a wonderful poet, award-winning columnist, and dedicated English teacher and tutor. I asked him to share his thoughts, and he got back to me about how critiquing genres you just don't vibe with can be a valuable exercise, and on the importance of creating a writing community you trust:

My favourite bits of advice are actually just encouragement; having a writing community helps build stamina for writing. By encouraging each other, you motivate each other to do the work.There are moments where someone in my writing club is critiquing a genre they just don’t vibe with. I’ve found it best to try and stay open: your distance from the genre can help you catch something the writer might not. Maybe you don’t read poetry or dislike reading romance. Your colleagues will show you what the genre can do. Who knows? You might find a new genre to enjoy.

There are moments where someone in my writing club is critiquing a genre they just don’t vibe with. I’ve found it best to try and stay open: your distance from the genre can help you catch something the writer might not. Maybe you don’t read poetry or dislike reading romance. Your colleagues will show you what the genre can do. Who knows? You might find a new genre to enjoy.

The best writing feedback I’ve received encourages me to write more. Perhaps some advice sparks an idea: for example, a line that could become alliterative, or sudden character motivation. My favourite moment is when my editor circles a word or line and writes, “Tell me more!”

A Few Key Questions To Prompt Effective Feedback

  • As far as you can tell, is the piece following specific conventions of style, genre, or trends?
  • Is the piece using these specific conventions effectively to its advantage? Is it fulfilling them, or perhaps subverting them?
  • Is there a section of the piece that could use further elaboration or seems too vague?
  • Is there a section of the piece that seems to be repeating something already stated in a slightly different manner? What might the writer be trying to emphasize?
  • If you don't vibe with a writer's writerly decision, especially because of your own personal taste, can you at least work out the writer's reasoning for yourself?

That balance between criticism and kindness

Jess is an award-winning writer, game-designer, and maker who, like Oliver and I, comes out of the creative writing workshop tradition. Their most recent project is Strangers on the 'Net, a live-action online game developed as part of the Soft Chaos artists’ collective (of which Squinky is also a part!). Jess shared with me the following gems on how you can sharpen your feedback while remaining compassionate to create actually helpful criticism:

Learning to give kind, generous, thoughtful feedback on writing is a skill that can (and should be) practiced and developed, just like learning to receive and filter that feedback. I come from a workshop tradition, and I have received a lot of marked-up drafts and summarizing thoughts over the years.

The best advice that I've received, first and foremost, has tried to take into account what my goals for the piece might be, rather than speaking only to the commenter's own tastes, and how they would change the piece in my place. Good advice also builds up the writer rather than cutting them down. It's helpful to frame your critique with concrete, actionable suggestions, rather than just "I liked this" or "I didn't like this." I also appreciate balanced critique — I am suspicious of comments that say that they loved everything and that there were no problems with the draft. At the same time, it can be very discouraging to only hear about negative things that need to be fixed.

Another useful way to approach this that I've appreciated in the past is when someone giving me critique talks about what excites them about the draft that they would like to see developed further, that isn't there on the page yet. What does the story make you dream about? What associations does it make you make? These are the things that I love to hear about!

A Few Key Questions To Prompt Effective Feedback:

  • Make a short list of the parts of a piece that most tickled or resonated with you in some way. For each one, how do they fit into the larger goals of the piece?
  • Make a similar short list of the piece's weakest spots (remember, this is your own subjective opinion). How could the writer reinforce these gaps?
  • Imagine you are advising on next steps for the piece. What are some possible directions the writer could embark upon?
  • (Lifting directly from Jess because these are perfect!) What does the story make you dream about? What associations or connections are you making with the text?

Furthermore, I leave you all with one last piece of advice. There is one ingredient that I find extremely helpful with giving and receiving feedback: sleep!

With any text you're helping someone write, give yourself as much time as you can to sleep on it. I know it can be a pretty tall order in our harried, impatient world, but it's essential. After reading something to critique it, write down your first impressions, and then let it marinate. Go for a walk, do your dishes, listen to a good song, forget about work for a while and, most importantly, get some sleep before getting back to the writing. Sleep is key, not just to writing, but also to giving feedback.

I want to extend a warm thank you to Squinky, Oliver and Jess for kindly agreeing to share their wisdom with all of us this month. I heartily encourage you to check out their websites and projects. They are all incredibly cool!

A big thank you to Patricia Mereniuk and Stéphanie Laflamme for their invaluable proofreading assistance.

Note: This is a slightly edited reproduction of the content of my December 9, 2020 Irréductible Langagièr newsletter that I am republishing and archiving here on my blog because I loved collaborating with Jess, Squinky and Oliver and found it personally incredibly useful for the organization of my own thoughts.

Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche

By day I am a writing coach & freelance English-French translator. By night (or rather by dawn because I'm an early bird) I scribble away at poetry, prose, and essays in one of my many notebooks.
MTL // Tiohtià:ke