How to Give Constructive Feedback

Anyone who has ever shared his fiction with others has known the crushing despair of a bad review. It can feel worse than a high school breakup. It can sting more than a bouquet of wasp nests. A deeply guarded secret of writers is that after a bad workshop, when that guy we don’t even know calls us an amateur hack, we go home and eat everything in the fridge, the rest of that box of wine from the holiday mixer, the yogurt from three weeks ago that surprisingly still smells good. We even eat the condiments, but not with chips or anything. There’s no time. Yes, the pain humbles us and reminds us to study our craft, but is “cruel to be kind” really necessary? Many scholars agree that writers benefit more from constructive criticism, feedback that gives direction and tips on improvement.

Red pen from one of my peers. Kevin is the perfect mix of critical and constructive.

Red pen from one of my peers. Kevin is the perfect mix of critical and constructive.

Workshops can be a great tool for writers, but when feedback is too harsh, it can stifle productivity. Some writers enjoy hearing all types of criticism and can easily shrug off knowing that they can’t please everyone, but as a general rule of thumb, in a workshop setting, one should use an approach of constructive criticism.

– Let the Writer Know What Works. Writers don’t need to get a big head and start thinking they’re Shakespeare, but telling them which parts of their story worked effectively can be extremely useful in the revision process. Tell them if you were emotionally engaged by the text. Let them know if a line in particular really touched you.

– Give Advice on How To Make It Better. The objective of workshops is to give writers a destination. Your feedback should focus on providing solutions. Even if you cringed through every sentence of that story, you can give suggestions without ever hurting the writer’s feelings. Point out issues while saying how they can be improved upon…

  • “This section of nostalgia would be more effective if instead of a flashback of his mother in the kitchen, John eats a cupcake in a bakery that directly reminds him of childhood.”
  • “I didn’t understand this part because the transitions were too sudden. Spend a little more time establishing place.”
  • “This word doesn’t work here because it means something very specific. A better word might be ‘prosecutable.’”
 Keep Personal Opinions to Yourself. Unless the writer specifically asks, “Did anybody hate it?” don’t let your personal distaste for Science Fiction lead you to say “I found the writing style annoying and the entire premise vastly unrealistic.” Nobody benefits from knowing that someone doesn’t like the writing. Think about the writer’s goals and what they are trying to accomplish.  Offer tips like…
  • “Try taking out some adverbs for better readability.”
  • “Do some more research on this topic to make the scientific aspect more believable.”
 Be Courteous and Respectful. Not everyone is good at the art of constructive criticism, but all we have to remember is to treat every person with respect. Don’t name-call or suggest that the writer is unskilled. Encourage fellow writers not to give up, but to strive for excellence. Thank them for sharing their work and wish them luck on their revisions!
Writer_John
Everyone should leave workshop with a feeling of hope. The more criticism received, the more excited the writer should feel about getting to work. Hope makes all the difference in how a page of red ink is utilized. Share with us your favorite workshop moments, or let us know what we can do to make the Jersey City Writers workshops even better!

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