Giving advice to another writer is often a core feature of a writer’s group. That’s why Thanet Creative holds a fortnightly all genre feedback evening.
For those moments when you are not sure what advice to give or how to give it, here is some advice on giving advice.
Helpful areas to focus your advice
As a test reader giving advice to a writer, there are some basic questions that you ask yourself. What did I like? Which parts did not work for me? How did the story make me feel?
This is helpful feedback especially when an author is trying to gauge how the story comes across. checkout our post on three questions every test reader should ask to learn why these questions matter and how to answer them.
A well prepared author may pose specific questions they would like you to address. At our fortnightly feedback evening Thanet Creative provides a selection of simple feedback questionnaires to help you give good advice.
Here are ten questions a writer might want answers to about their work.
Remember what you are giving feedback on
It can be tempting to give feedback on font choice, formatting, paper quality, spelling, and other matters that are not terribly helpful. That is why, when giving advice, it is important to be mindful of the focus of your advice.
You are giving feedback on someone’s work. Sometimes this is a work that has come from deep within the writer and they are very attached to. For example, positivewriter.com describes some work as an ugly baby – no matter how hideous the baby, it is still someone’s baby, so be gentle.
Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s first tip in her 5 Keys to Giving Constructive Writing Critiques is, read thoroughly. You are giving feedback on writing, not the person, the paper, or the font choice.
In another example, writingforward.com suggests you “devour the food, not the hostess”. In other words, focus on the writing, not the writer.
advice for the person.
A new writer will benefit from very different feedback from a seasoned professional. Consider who you are giving the advice to and their experience level.
For a first time writer, I tend to focus on the basics – narrative, character, and setting. While someone I know who has been writing for a while I might address theme, voice, and style.
There is only so much a person can take on board at once. Rather than show your full breadth of experience, try to give just enough feedback that the writer has something useful to build upon without getting overwhelmed by it all.
Don’t forget the positives too.
Unless the focus of your writing circle is brutal unvarnished truth, the positive parts matter too.
While it would be unfair to simply seek out “the good” while ignoring “the bad” the reverse is true too. It can be helpful to know which areas were strongest. Learning that a paragraph you had doubts about really made the passage pop can be a huge boost for an author.
Try not to insult someone’s ugly baby, especially early on in the writing process. Instead, ask questions to help the author find their story. Sometimes they’re too close to their own words to achieve objectivity, says positivewriter.com.
I’ve gotten in the habit of drawing a simple smiling face in the margin next to bits that I loved or was amused by. It never fails to delight a writer to see those.
Use humour to soften the blow
There are a few writers that I have had the pleasure of giving feedback to over a long period of time. With many of these
You can’t always add humour to feedback but when you can it can make the whole process much more enjoyable.
There are a couple of mistakes I used to make a lot as a writer. I can no longer make these errors without instantly remembering the laughter I shared with other writers over them. As a result of humour, I spot my mistake as I am about to make it.
Humour has been a most effective learning tool for me. Try it out and let me know how you got on.
Seek balance in your feedback
Giving advice and feedback requires balance. Suzannah Windsor Freeman reminds us to Praise, but don’t sugarcoat. It is possible to be “too nice” as well as “too harsh”.
I sometimes ask “how
Balance requires honesty and tact
There is a fine line between being too honest and being too tactful. One is hurtful while the other is ineffectual. Yes, be honest about what does not work for you but try to identify what is good too.
There is nothing wrong with saying, “you clearly put a lot of work into this but it wasn’t for me.” No one expects you to have high praise for everything you read.
Put criticism between praise
If in doubt, fall back on the old “feedback sandwich” – a shortcoming slipped between two slices of positivity. This is something that Celes from
If you cannot find anything praiseworthy at all – given enough time you will find something that bad – you can still praise the effort and enthusiasm of the writer. While you do, try to identify one or two things that would bring about the biggest improvements and then leave it at that.
The surprising thing is that when you start looking for positive points, you can almost always find them.
Try using two pens
It might sound crazy but I like to use two pens when giving feedback. This is a suggestion from weareteachers.com. My prefered choices are one red and one black or blue. Red is for things that did not work for me, were unclear, or I think warrants further attention while the other colour is for general comments and things I loved.
If you have one colour for the positives you have noted and another for the things that need work, you can see instantly if you are being balanced.
That’s why I try and bring red and black pens to Thanet Creative events – so other people can use the same approach should they wish. (And also because people sometimes forget to bring a pen).
You do not need to offer solutions
You are not the author of the work you are giving advice on. So do not try to be. It is enough to say that a passage does not work for you. The rest is entirely up to the author.
It might, depending on the writer and their expectations from you, be appropriate to say why you felt it did not work for you. It is still none of your business how they fix that (or even if they fix it).
If a writer asks you how you would change or fix something – assuming it is an appropriate time to discuss it – you might offer some broad advice. Even then, it will still be down to the author to decide how they want to shape their own art.
Sometimes feedback can be a little crushing. Having handed out a dose of reality to a writer, are you ready to follow up on it? This is why writingforward.com suggest that you “Nurse the Hangover”. In other words, contact the writer a few days later and see how they are getting on.
By following up with writers who bring work to Thanet Creative events (Tea and Chat or a dedicated critique and feedback evening) I have had the joy of seeing a piece of writing at various stages in the creation cycle. It is lovely to see something that I felt had good potential finally reach that potential.
Thank the writer for sharing
Sharing your work with other people – strangers especially – is a daunting thing. Even if I am strongly convinced that another person will love what I am showing them, I still get nervous as they read it in front of me.
The simple act of saying, “thank you [Insert Name Here] for sharing your work with me” will make a huge difference. It signals that you appreciate the privilege of seeing their hard work. It tells the writer that you understand how hard sharing can be.
Over to you
Do you have any tips to add? Have you given feedback that really helped? Have you had truly great or very bad feedback? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Advice on giving advice is based on an article on our old blog. This version has been revised, expanded, and improved.