How to Deliver Solicited Writing Feedback
According to a survey published by The New York Times in 2002, “81 per cent of Americans feel they have a book in them.” Adjusted for today’s population, that’s 269 million people. Extrapolate those figures to the rest of the world, and you get nearly 6.5 billion aspiring authors. Admittedly, most will never set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Of those that do, only 3% will finish their manuscript and 0.6% will publish. But that’s still a lot of authors. When the figures reach this scale, chance indicates you know someone who has at least started writing a book. Moreover, if you’re reading this article, you may have been asked to read one and provide feedback.
The responsibility is equal parts flattering and daunting. Yes, someone has given you the honour of being among the first to read their work, meaning they trust you, but that trust comes with responsibility. You want to help the aspiring author improve, but you also know that too much feedback could look like criticism, and you don’t want them to feel discouraged and stop writing altogether. In this situation, many of us start out excited, only to feel our jovial expression fade as we encounter obvious flaws. To our horror, we realise the book needs work if it’s ever going to succeed. The question is, how do we tell them without crushing their spirit?
Firstly, don’t panic. Authors face this exact situation every day and most get through it with their friendship intact. Yes, new writers can be a defensive bunch, averse to criticism. As the poet W. B. Yeats once wrote:
“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
That said, it’s possible to help a new author improve their craft without ruining your relationship or crushing their dreams. All you need to do is learn how to tactfully administer impactful feedback. In today’s blog post, we’ll explore a few guardrails you can use to provide real help without leaving anyone hurt.
Identify What They Want
Say an author wants to write award-winning or commercial prose. Gaining honest feedback from relevant, experienced peers who know how to level-up their skill is a quick way to make that happen. If you’re written a book or two yourself then you know this to be true. The crux to consider, though, is whether your feedback recipient actually has these aspirations. Is that the case, or have they just written a book for fun and want a pat on the back from friends and family? If an author has shared with you their work then gauging what they want before you deliver feedback is essential. Get it wrong and the consequences can tarnish your relationship.
How you answer a question like “What did you think?” should depend on context. For example, have they already published the book? Are they aiming for a particular goal? Are they likely to act on your advice? If they’ve already published and their book is simply a bucket list item they don’t want to edit then you might be better off keeping the feedback light. It’s possible they want flattery, not a detailed report of the flaws. Ask yourself, how thick is their skin? Will my feedback lead to change or leave them feeling insulted? Do they want an in-depth edit, a short critique or a favourable review? These insights will help you form an appropriate response.
Frame Your Feedback
You can often be blunt with experienced authors. This is because these individuals have learned to have emotional distance from their work after surviving a gauntlet of hard knocks. They would rather skip the flattery in favour of actionable comments they can use to help them fix a story. That said, newer authors frequently lack this level of distance. Hence, when helping a newcomer, how you frame comments is just as important as the comments themselves. Lots of editors agree that a sandwich approach typically works well. Something like this:
Start with positivity to encourage them.
Make suggestions for improvements.
End with more positivity to lift their spirits.
This feedback delivery structure is optimised to ensure a new writer listens to your feedback without getting angry or discouraged. It administers the medicine but in a way that’s palatable.
What do you do, however, if you can’t find any positive aspects but they still want genuine feedback? Simply preface your criticism with a caveat to get them onboard. Tell them beforehand that their work has “lots of good qualities” but that “flattery is a waste of time” so you would rather “jump right ahead to suggestions you believe will help them improve the book.” Avoid sarcasm or humour; they will only convolute your message. Then reiterate that the work “has potential,” ending with well wishes and a reminder that you’ve been in their situation. Bypassing praise with a caveat can help you deliver honest feedback without ruining an author’s day.
Give Helpful Feedback
What is the author trying to achieve? Finding the answer is vital for giving relevant advice. After all, every author has a different motivation and target audience. So, what does your author want? Are they seeking a literary award? Do they want to produce a passion project? Are they building a commercial romance brand? You’ll need to ask the author what they want to achieve to ascertain this information, and read their whole book before making suggestions. Start scribbling premature feedback before understanding this context and you could end up crossing jokes out of a comedy book or adding romantic scenes into an action novel, which is unhelpful.
As authors, we all carry stylistic preferences, genre interests and opinions on whether to write in American English or stick with our local dialect. Truly helpful feedback only exists when you remove your preferences from the equation and stop trying to bulldoze other people’s books with your style. Look at your author friend’s work objectively and consider the type of book they want to write. Remember, not everyone likes clipped dialogue, gunfights or hearts aflutter. The best feedback you can offer is that which helps the author achieve their goals with the book in question.
Prioritise for Impact
An average full-size novel can require anywhere from 100 to 5,000 editorial amendments. Remember that many authors looking for feedback don’t want a full edit. Yes, trawling through every line with a red biro or Word’s Track Changes enabled might seem like an act of generosity — you’re providing free editing services — but your author-friend might see the act as overstepping a boundary if they haven’t asked you to go into such depth. Offend them and they won’t even look at your comments, meaning you’ve wasted your time. Meanwhile, a few brief ones targeting their manuscript’s biggest weaknesses might enjoy a more welcomed reception.
Consider distilling your thoughts using the Pareto Principle for best results. Doing so forces you to address the 20% of issues that fix 80% of the problems. For new authors, the 20% tends to include developmental changes like:
- Story structure
Spelling, grammar and punctuation (SPAG) also pose friction for readers, but they’re of little consequence if the author is yet to master pacing and perspective. Hence, it pays to leave individual SPAG faults to a proof-reader. That way you won’t overwhelm your mentee with 3,000 nit-picky comments but instead give them 15 broad ones they can use to solidify the foundations of their writing style.
Critique the Text
One final guideline for delivering solicited writing feedback is to focus on the text rather than phrasing criticism like a character assassination that’s likely to offend. For example, try to avoid making comments that start with some variation of, “You have a tendency to…” Instead, use an approach that keeps the focus on the writing: “This line doesn’t match your intention to…” Feedback delivered in this way is less likely summon a defensive response from your author-friend as you aren’t challenging their identity, just pointing out a weakness in the project, which enables them to view it with more emotional distance and accept your feedback.
The technique also provides you with a framework to give specific examples that will better clarify your meaning and help you avoid misinterpretation. For example, rather than suggesting an author is “bad at dialogue,” highlight a few lines and ask, “Would this character use this many modern words in the eighteenth century?” or “Could you make this monologue more of a conversation?” The author is more likely to understand that your comments are about the work rather than criticising their ability this way. Plus, they’ll better understand what they need to do to improve.
Giving effective feedback requires sensitivity, even if an author has asked for it and claims they want brutal honesty. Whether your words help them depends on your ability to communicate and their readiness to accept an honest critique. Keep this in mind when you respond. After all, even those of us who are considered masters of our craft are still developing. Tread softly on others’ dreams because — you never know — one day the newbie in front of you could be the master teaching you a new discipline, and you the vulnerable student.
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