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How to give and receive writing critiques and feedback

Giving and receiving writing critiques is an art. I’ve experienced great, good, and awful critiques from writing mentors over the years. I’ve belonged to writing critique groups off and on for over twenty years, graduated from an MFA program, been blessed to have a blogging partner, and attended writing conferences where I’ve had the opportunity to receive feedback from bestselling authors and agents.

Probably the best feedback I received (and by best I mean most useful for my growth as a writer) came from a mentor in my MFA program. Also a successful author, she had a real-life grasp of what it takes to get published and was a consummate artisan as well. What made her critiques so effective were not only the content but the style in which they were delivered. She was blunt and unmercifully honest, but never mean. She always found something positive in my writing—even if it was only a little thing, she would point it out so I would do more of these good things in the future.  

On the flip side (or is that dark side?), I had an embarrassing experience with a man who wrote in the margin of one of my submissions: “Oh my God—this is just awful!” No comments on what exactly was awful or how it could be made better, just his stark hurtful judgment. Now I can laugh at the experience (I am the “forgiver” character type), but I still wish he’d been specific in his feedback so I could’ve learned something from the experience.

Another writing mentor had the habit of butchering my work—she’d cut and rewrite far beyond what was needed, changing not only my meanings but also my voice. As a new prose writer, it took me awhile to catch on that this wasn’t the most helpful feedback because it didn’t teach me how to develop my own voice and style. It was, however, a great learning experience about how not to give feedback.

So what is the best way to give a writer feedback or advice? And, as a writer, how best to receive that advice?

When giving feedback:

  • Tell the truth. Be truthful and honest in your critique of the work but don’t be hurtful or just plain rude. The Golden Rule applies: treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself. Once you attack somebody, they close down and won’t hear anything else you have to say, even if it’s positive.
  • Point out the good. Don’t just point out the areas that need improvement. Also draw attention to what is good about the piece. Writers need to see what is working, as well as what isn’t. See how the “father of the short story,” Anton Chekhov, gave writing advice to Maxim Gorky.
  • Give specific advice. If you don’t like something, don’t just cross it out—say why you don’t like it. The writer’s golden rule, “Show, Don’t Tell,” also applies to giving feedback.
  • Be encouraging. Like toddlers learning to walk, we writers need encouraging words on our journey. Would you be the person in the room to stick out your leg and trip a toddler just learning to walk? I hope not!

When receiving feedback:

  • It’s all subjective. Remember that everybody has a different point of view. Critiques can be very subjective. I once entered a nonfiction essay in a contest that gave the writers feedback. One judge loved my work and gave me a score of 9 (on a scale of 1 to 10), the other judge didn’t love it so much and gave me a score of 5.
  • Trust yourself. Ultimately, you have to feel good about your writing. If a suggested change doesn’t feel right, honor that feeling. Get a second opinion, if needed, until you feel secure in your own judgment.
  • Ask questions. If somebody gives you feedback that seems unusual or you don’t understand ask them what they mean. Ask them to be specific. If you can’t talk to them, show your work and their feedback to a trusted writer friend for their interpretation.
  • Notice resistance. Sometimes, I receive feedback that I object to at first. I get a certain feeling inside—an instant, “No way. They’re wrong!” I’ve learned not to react but to take a deep breath and wait a few days. When I revisit the feedback, often I find it’s sound advice that I end up taking. Resistance may be a sign that somebody has pushed your buttons and shown you a truth that you may not have wanted to see.
  • Remember, it’s your story. Editing or giving feedback is one thing, but sometimes people get overzealous and cross the line into trying to change your story or your voice. Why do people do this? Insecurity. Ego. It doesn’t matter. Just remember it’s your story, not theirs.

Giving and receiving feedback is about learning who you are as a writer. It’s about learning to trust yourself so that your readers will trust you too.

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