Giving And Taking Feedback On Writing

So you’ve joined a writing group, but now it’s time to give feedback to your fellow writers and worse, receive feedback. Both can be daunting and both can be handled badly. When it comes to giving criticism, being too nice doesn’t help the writer improve, but being too blunt or even nasty can crush someone’s confidence. Equally, hearing that your work isn’t a thing of wonder can be hard to take, but it’s invaluable because writing in a vacuum is just vanity.

With these tips on providing and receiving criticism on writing, you’ll learn how to respect the feelings and opinions of your fellow writers, but you’ll also learn when to ignore your writing group.

Giving and receiving feedback on writing

Writing group critiques don’t have to be like this (img. Raging Bull © 1980 – MGM)

Providing Constructive Criticism:

  • Begin and end with a positive: Always start on a positive and then address weaknesses and issues, before highlighting something you liked to wrap-up.
  • Don’t attack the writer: Direct comments at the work, not the author e.g. the opening drew me in, but breaking up the action with some dialogue would make it even stronger. Not – you need more dialogue.
  • Don’t leave them hanging: Don’t make criticisms without offering suggestions for improvement. Make notes and give examples of areas that need work and techniques that may help.
  • Respect your fellow writer: A writing group is not the place for petty, revenge critiquing. It’s unprofessional and unproductive. But it is the place for thoughtful, honest feedback – don’t hold back for the sake of being nice. Loving everything is useless, so listen carefully and think about what you like or don’t like and why.
  • Leave genre bias at the door: Don’t roll your eyes every time the romantic or fantasy writer reads and then belittle the tropes of their genre. Is it good writing or is it over-descriptive with clunky dialogue? Remember, fantasy or sci-fi may have more description than you prefer, so take that into account in your critique. Likewise, literary fiction may not focus on plot and pace, so just focus on the writing and perhaps start your feedback with “this isn’t the sort of thing I read, so I may be off the mark, but…”.  It’s not about what you like; it’s about whether the author is achieving what they set out to do.
  • Practice makes you better: Offering constructive criticism is something you’ll get better at over time. Learn to listen and think about what works and what doesn’t and why.

Receiving Constructive Criticism:

  • Don’t argue with someone’s critique: Feedback is just opinion, so you’re entitled to disagree with suggested changes, but do it internally, not at the group. Make a note of the suggestion, say “Thank you” and move on. Arguing with every point and being defensive just makes people wonder why you joined the group and wastes time.
  • Feel free to ask questions: If you need clarification on a point, just ask to understand why a suggestion was made.
  • Not all feedback is good feedback: Remember you’re the author, so don’t make changes just because someone in the group didn’t like something. Take time to consider the point and then you make the final decision.
  • Sometimes the writing group is right: If the majority of the group has the same comment, it’s likely that they’re right. You can ignore them if you wish, but it’s likely that an agent, publisher or reader will have the same reaction. Consider changing it, even if you don’t agree.
  • Sometimes the writing group is wrong: If the group is telling you there’s a problem with the opening of chapter 10, then listen up, but if they tell you Chapter 10 would be better if it had a car chase or perhaps an alien invasion, then ignore. Uninvited suggestions on how to write your story are usually a sign of genre bias. Look for the cause of the comment, but don’t always act on the advice. Just smile and nod. Try Anne R Allen’s great post on ignoring your writing group.

Taking criticism is a difficult, but necessary part of writing. Writing is a personal thing, so it’s hard to hear that you’re not as brilliant as you first thought. The reason you join a group or blog is to get honest feedback and find out whether you’re any good – it’s valuable and will make you a better writer.

What are your tips for giving and receiving feedback? How does your writing group do things? Are you scared of joining a writing group because of the critique? Let us know in the comments.

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