One of the times an author feels most vulnerable is when they give their manuscript to a trusted friend and/or fellow writer to ask for feedback. If you are entrusted with someone’s work, it’s important to be honest in your feedback—but if it’s largely negative, the situation may need to be handled delicately. The most important thing is to be constructive rather than critical.
What is the difference between constructive feedback and criticism?
Constructive feedback is intended to be useful or beneficial, while criticism merely expresses disapproval or points out mistakes.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t point out mistakes. By all means, if you catch spelling or grammar errors, timeline inconsistencies, or think something doesn’t make sense—note it. These are all things that can help the author make the book better, and thus are constructive.
A critical response would be I hate it, or it sucks. It can even be more specific, like your characters all talk like robots, or the timeline makes no sense.
How do I make my critical feedback constructive?
Start with a compliment
Find something you like about the book—the character development, the plot, the pacing, a particular line that creates a compelling image—anything. This makes the author feel that you went in with a positive attitude and did enjoy the manuscript as a whole, even if there were some major issues.
Don’t just say their dialogue sucks—highlight specific places where the dialogue was weak. Tell them what felt unnatural about it. Suggest an alternative in at least one of them, so they can see what you mean. If possible, also find an example in their manuscript where they did it right, so they feel that they can do it well, they just didn’t do it well in the places you highlighted.
If there are big structural issues, merely pointing them out isn’t enough. The author may just resign themselves that the manuscript needs to be tossed or completely rewritten, and will be left to flounder, trying to figure it out themselves. Brainstorm how the timeline could be rearranged to make more sense. Come up with ways to justify the actions. Suggest ways to fill the plot hole.
Sometimes, you know something doesn’t work but you’re not sure why—or you know why, but you’re lost as to how to fix it. This is a great time to recommend an external resource to the author. Suggest finding an expert reader to help make the scene more believable. Recommend a trusted writing coach to help with an element that you feel you can’t. Send them links to articles that can help with their problem areas. Not only does this take the burden of trying to help them get the manuscript into tip-top shape off of your shoulders, but also shows that you believe in them and want them to succeed. This can largely offset negative feedback.
Use “I feel” statements
This tried-and-true technique for working through conflict is also an effective technique at softening the blow when giving negative feedback and makes the author more receptive. Instead of saying this is poorly written, you could say I feel that this section could be stronger. It naturally reframes criticisms stated as fact into an opinion. Opinions can be addressed or ignored but stating a criticism as fact doesn’t leave the author anywhere to go.
Do you have any tips for giving constructive feedback? Share them below!