• Joel Ryan

4 Ways to Give Better Feedback to Writers and Artists


No matter where you’re at in your writing goals, finding readers who are willing to provide insightful feedback on your work is a vital part of the writing process.


As I discussed in my previous post on Receiving Feedback, feedback helps us see the good and bad in our writing that we often can’t on our own; it challenges us to develop a resilience and tolerance for criticism; it encourages humility and fosters confidence; and it gives us the muscles and motivation to keep pushing, keep writing, and keep growing.


This is true of many areas of life, not just writing.


However, as those of us who are writers work to improve our writing, we will inevitably encounter other writers looking to do the same with their work.


Having a desire to receive feedback, therefore, should always exist in tandem with an ability and a willingness to give thoughtful feedback to other writers when called upon.


Writing may be a lonely passion, but it is not meant to be pursued alone.


As writers, we must learn to praise other writers in their moments of triumph, encourage and uplift in their moments of weakness, and challenge or cultivate in their moments of stagnation or complacency.


Of course, it is not our solemn duty to share every note with every writer whose work we’ve read. Sometimes, our notes really should remain our notes.


However, when a writer asks for an honest evaluation of their work, they’ve turned to outside readers because they value their insights and opinions.


Most of us are not professional readers, publishers, or editors. That is okay. A writer will have their own reasons for choosing the reader pool they’ve assembled to review and critique their work-in-progress. They may (or may not) tell you why you’re in that pool.


Regardless of your writing ability, experience, or why you were chosen, if you agree to read a writer’s work and offer feedback, read their work carefully and offer an honest critique that seeks to help (not hinder) the writer in their goals (stated or not).


Above all, remember that it is not about you!

So whether you are an avid reader, prolific writer, or trusted friend called upon to offer your opinion on a friend’s manuscript, here are four things to think about when giving feedback to another writer:


1. Be Specific


As I mentioned before in my post on Receiving Feedback, nothing is worse for a writer than receiving a vague or generic note that doesn’t give them much to work with.


We all want praise. We all want people to enjoy reading our work. A general “I liked it”, “I loved it”, or “it was really good” is wonderful to hear sometimes.


It’s also encouraging to hear someone who truly knows our work, be it a friend, fan, or editor, say, “this is one of the best things you’ve ever written.”


Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for genuine, honest praise of this sort, and we shouldn’t be afraid to give it if we genuinely believe the work is exceptional.


However, what kind of feedback is really going to help a writer looking for things to improve? The specific kind.


Some writers will ask specific questions of their readers at the start. Not all writers do, though. Many would rather let the reader approach the work with a fresh set of eyes, untainted by their questions, concerns, or biases.


Some writers will ask specific questions after their reader is done reading. Some won’t. They’ll silently take their reader’s notes but reveal very little of their own thought process.


In any case, when giving feedback, you can help the writer by being as clear and specific as possible.


If your notes are too general, many writers (myself among them) may begin to wonder if you’ve really read their work or just skimmed through it.


We can all remember high school English class and our fellow students who clearly hadn’t read the book but offered the most BS, non-specific answers when called upon.


“I liked this character because he was interesting.”


“This book was like a metaphor.”


“That chapter was really fun.”


Don’t be that kind of reader.


If you liked something, explain why you liked it. Talk about what worked.


If you recognized strong writing, point to specifics in the text.


If something didn’t work, discuss why you think it was a problem. You don’t have to get into “how” it can be fixed (perhaps you shouldn’t). You just have to explain why something didn’t work as strongly as the writer may have liked.


Cite specifics from the manuscript as much as possible.


Generalizations force the writer to search their manuscript for a problem that may have only been a single issue on one page.


If you notice something (good or bad), note the page, then point the writer’s attention to that issue.


If there’s a pattern, highlight several examples.


I recently had a friend get a note from a reader who said, “I hated this character!”


While that is an important piece of feedback to note, when the writer followed up by asking, “what did you hate about him?” his reader gave him a generic: “I don’t know. I just didn’t like him!”


Not all writers get the chance to get clarification from their readers. In this instance, however, an attempt at clarification never really materialized.


The writer never knew if the reader hated the character because they were viewed as evil or hated them because they were poorly written. Maybe they were hated them because they had crossed too many moral lines and therefore become irredeemable in the eyes of the reader.


There are major differences between most readers’ loathing of a character like Joffrey Baratheon (A Song of Fire and Ice) and our temporary frustration with a character like Walter White (Breaking Bad). And both are separate from the general fan annoyance with the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks (The Phantom Menace).


You can “hate” all three characters in different ways. However, the more specific your feedback is, the more the reader will know what to change or improve upon (if changes need to be made).


2. Be Honest But Also Encouraging


I have been on the fence many times about how to deliver notes to good friends and fellow writers when their writing isn’t incredibly strong.


There are those readers who have no problem telling another writer when their work sucks! Most of us have a little more compassion and restraint than that. Many of us would also struggle to give an honest note if we knew it would inevitably discourage a writer as well.


Writers, like most artists, can be incredible sensitive to criticism, particularly when it involves work they’ve poured their heart and soul into. For some writers, a critique of bad writing on the page can feel like an attack on the person off the page.


It’s not, and a mature writer will know how to separate the two. It’s also not your job as a reader to navigate the emotions of the writer.


An easy way to avoid this entanglement is to keep your feedback focused on what’s on the page.


Evaluate the written work, never the writer. Keep your feedback pointed, never personal.


Our fear of hurting others, brought on by a genuine sense of empathy, is often what prevents us from telling those around us the truth.


However, love for others must strike a balance between compassion and truth.


A mature writer will seek feedback knowing their reader may not love everything they’ve read. In seeking to grow, they will accept criticism as a path to improvement without feeling discouraged or defeated every time they receive a note.


If the writer has asked for your feedback, that is an invitation for you to be honest.


Prioritize your feedback and balance the positive with the problematic.


You’re not doing the writer any favors by lying about weak or bad writing. You’re not helping them by showering them with false or empty praise either.


Be honest but also constructive.


How you give notes to other writers will be influenced by why you are willing to give them in the first place.


If your goal is to encourage, edify, and uplift the writer, that will come through in the tone of your feedback.


3. Return Your Feedback in a Timely Manner


This is a relatively straightforward suggestion, but if you say you’re going to read someone’s work and return with feedback, follow through. Return your notes in a timely manner.


How long should it reasonably take to read and review someone’s work?


That is largely going to depend on the length of the work and the extent of the desired feedback, not to mention your other commitments as a reader.


I recommend, and this goes back to the honesty point, that the writer and reader establish (up front) an agreed upon timeline for review and notes. At the very least, the reader should provide an estimate for when they think they can get notes back to the author.


A few years ago, I had a friend ask me to read and review his two-hundred-page manuscript in less than a week. In that instance, I had to decline, not because I didn’t want to help my fellow writer. I had to be honest about my time and my ability to review his work thoroughly in his desired timeframe.


Furthermore, if a writer is asking for a major time commitment, like reading an entire novel in a shorter turnaround, they may want to consider hiring a paid reader or editor to do the job.


As a reader, be honest about what you can and cannot do.


That being said, if you commit to reading someone’s work and giving them notes, follow through.


Sometimes writers are just thankful for any feedback they can get, they don’t communicate their timeline to their readers. If they don’t, try and return your notes as soon as possible and keep the writer updated on your progress.


Most writers have their own timeline for when they hope to gather feedback, review it, and apply it to rewrites.


A reader who takes too long to get back to the writer is a lot like a college professor who takes three months to grade an assignment. By the time they get the paper back to the student, the student has already moved on to other projects. It’s also too late for them to do anything about it.

4. Focus on the Writer, Not Yourself


In giving feedback to another writer, one of the most important things to remember is that you are commenting on their work.


It’s not your work. Therefore, it is not your job to fix it.


Unless you are being paid to rewrite someone’s work, you are not the writer.


Don’t, therefore, offer prescriptive comments or suggestions on how you would rework or rewrite something. You’re not the one doing it.


It’s not about you!


This is not your manuscript. You may have ideas of things you’d like to do. Unless specifically asked, keep them to yourself or apply them to your own stories, not theirs.


Learn to be objective and detached by letting the writer decide what to do next and how to apply your notes to their work.


Again, if your goal is to encourage, edify, and uplift the writer, you will keep your notes and feedback focused on their work and their process, not your genius.


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On that note, I hope you have a wonderful week. Thank you for taking the time to stop by. If you liked this post, please hit the heart icon below or leave a comment below.


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Thanks again.


Now get back to writing!

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