How to give and receive critical writing feedback

Last week we discussed the importance of beta readers and how they can provide valuable feedback on your writing. But what happens when they’re feedback isn’t as glowing as you hoped? Or even worse, you find issues with their work as well?

Critical feedback can sting, but as long as it’s constructive, it can be even more helpful than praise. And I always want my beta readers and critique partners to be as brutally honest as possible. Because that’s what will make my book better!

But writing is a very personal endeavor. We’ve poured our heart and soul into the words. So how do we approach critical feedback without taking things too personally or hurting someone’s feelings?

How to Receive Critical Feedback Without Losing Hope

This is probably the most important skill a writer can learn because you are going to get a lot of feedback – positive and critical – over the years. From beta readers, agents, editors, family and friends… The list goes on and on.

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Some will say you just need to grow thicker skin, but there are other concrete methods to make the most of critical feedback without feeling downtrodden.

Let it settle before reacting.
When you first read the feedback provided, you are going to be filled with swirling thoughts and emotions. So the most important thing you can do is nothing. Take a step back, go on a walk, sleep on it. Then read again and formulate a plan once it’s settled in and you’re thinking more rationally.

Leave emotions out of it.
As said above, writing is very personal, so it’s easy to take criticism personally as well. But it’s crucial to remember that it’s not really about you. It’s about your work. Don’t get defensive either. Instead remember why you asked for this feedback in the first place. To make your novel better!

Don’t forget to see the good.
It’s highly unlikely that every piece of feedback is critical. And if they’re a good beta reader, they will have highlighted all the wonderful things about your work as well! Getting too wrapped up in dwelling on the negative can ruin your day. So instead be proud of the things that are working well!

Do your homework.
Depending on the level of experience both for yourself and your beta reader, there may be things in your edit letter that you don’t understand. For example, if you’re unfamiliar with the Hero’s Journey, a comment about your inciting incident being in the wrong place may not make sense. Luckily, there are a million fantastic blogs and craft books out there to study. And that comment that you didn’t get may open the door to a whole new way of writing.

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Ask questions.
If there are still areas in which you are unsure – or maybe a particular question you’d like their thoughts on – just ask them! Most beta readers are thrilled to talk about reading and writing and will be totally willing to talk through things with you. In fact, I recommend sending a list of questions over at the beginning so they can think through them as they read.

Remember you don’t have to take every piece of advice.
Oftentimes, there will be a sort of random comment that seems odd to you or you don’t agree with. That’s okay. This is your book and it has to align with your vision. While helpful, the feedback is optional. However, if more than one person notices the same thing, then it might be time to take another look. There are multiple ways to improve something while still staying true to your story.  

Say thank you.
Sometimes this can be hard, especially if it felt like a particularly brutal set of notes. But your readers put a lot of time and energy into providing feedback, so whether you like or agree with their feedback, you must still be gracious. It will not only maintain the relationship for future questions or projects, but it’s also just the right thing to do.

How to Give Critical Feedback Without Hurting Feelings

For me, delivering feedback that isn’t totally positive is much more nerve-wracking than receiving it. I always want to be honest – there’s nothing worse than having someone lie and only tell you good things – but there’s a fine line between candor and crushing.

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Recently at my day job, I submitted an article for review, and the response was “It’s pretty bad, and the first sentence makes no sense.” Not only was it harsh, but it wasn’t helpful. I had no idea what how to fix it from there. So how can you walk the line while still being as constructive as possible?

Remember it’s still a draft.
If someone is asking you to review, it’s obviously not the finished product. (Unless you have have a writer who just wants you to rave about it – which happens but is a whole other issue.) You can’t go into a beta reading assignment thinking the book is going to be perfect. It’s likely only an early draft! This will help set your expectations and frame the right critical mindset.

Ask questions.
Ultimately it’s not your book, so it’s not your job to tell the reader how to fix it. But leading questions that spark thought are extremely helpful and can read a little softer in some cases than outright criticism.

Example:

DON’T: I have no clue why Tom is doing what he’s doing. I would totally rewrite that chapter. 

DO: In chapter 12, I thought Tom was avoiding the hospital because of his rocky relationship with his father, but that wasn’t the case. How could you adjust the scene to make Tom’s motivations a little more clear?

Pick the most important issues.
Choose quality over quantity. A giant mountain of things that aren’t working can be extremely disheartening and overwhelming to the writer. So instead of nitpicking, choose the most important things that need to be paid closer attention to. Most of the time when you are asked to beta reader, you are being asked to look at the story itself. So if – for example – they also have some grammatical editors, suggest a close proofread and leave it at that.

Utilize the compliment sandwich.
This method is sometimes contradicted, but I am still a big believer. The compliment sandwich recommends starting and ending with some positive and then including the critical in the middle. Starting and ending on a high note leaves a more positive impression on the writer, and this applies to the overall edit letter and the individual components within. However! Don’t just make up empty positives to make things sound better. Honesty still applies, as does kindness.

DON’T: Overall I liked your story, but the characters were lame and totally one-sided. But great job with the descriptions! 

DO: It’s clear you did a lot of research about military protocol and that really shines on the page. However, sometimes it reads a little too technical, and I’d hate to see your hard work get bogged down that way. You do a great job of descriptions in other chapters. Why don’t you try using that technique with the military moments as well?

Set aside your personal preferences.
Say you prefer novels written in first person POV as opposed to third or you don’t like present tense. Try to leave those opinions at the door when you begin reading or writing up feedback. If it’s not working, then it’s fine to note. But if it’s just pure preference, it doesn’t need to be included.

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Be specific.
There’s nothing wrong with pointing certain passages or moments that aren’t working for you. In fact, it’s usually recommended. Pointing out an example of one of the bigger issues you’ve seen can help a writer identify it. Often we’re so close to the project that things pass us by that another shrewd eye can detect.

Example:

DON’T: Sometimes your characters do really unrealistic things.

DO: On page 56, I thought Clara was too calm when Brian told her he was leaving her. It felt unrealistic to me considering their past and her fiery personality. I wonder if she’d lose her temper instead?

Avoid the word “you.”
Always refer to the project instead of the writer. That way the writer doesn’t feel personally attacked and can do a better job of keeping his or her emotions out of it. 

Example:

DON’T: You made a mistake on page 34 that you need to fix.

DO: I think there’s a mistake on page 34 that may need a closer look.

Offer to help brainstorm.
Hopefully the writer will have a list of questions for you to answer, but if not, they may not know where to start with fixing their story. Brainstorming is often the best way to solve issues, but if no one else has read their novel, it’s hard! Offering to brainstorm with them is so meaningful. If you don’t have the time or experience to do so, that’s okay. You can also name a few resources (blogs, craft books, etc) that may help!

Follow up to offer support.
This isn’t necessary, but it goes a long way to maintaining relationships and making the writer feel valued. After a few weeks or a month, a simple “hey, how are your revisions going?” can mean the world.

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Constructive criticism is the best way to identify your weaknesses, hone your craft and improve your story. I’ve come to the point where I seek out as much as I possibly can just because it has helped me so much in the past, and I’ve made some fantastic partnerships along the way. The key is to not be afraid or apprehensive about giving or receiving critical feedback. As long as you are honest and kind, you’ll not only be able to help yourself but others too.

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