Writer workshop feedback

How to Give Good Writing Feedback

Although we’re sure you’ll be turning to Penmob for your every editing need – wink, wink – there’ll probably still be some scenarios where you swap work with friends, join a casual writing group or enroll in a workshop. And in those scenarios, other writers will be relying on you to give them good feedback on their work. And the funny thing about giving good feedback, is that it actually helps you improve your own writing.

By investing time in sharpening your editing skills, you’ll be better able to identify issues within your own work too. Plus, it feels amazing when someone tells you a writing note you gave them really helped them out. So, here’s some advice on how to give advice. #soMETA

Don’t Be THAT Guy
If you’ve ever taken a writer’s workshop, you definitely know what guy I’m talking about. He’s the writer who:

  • Seems to think he’s co-leading the workshop with the instructor.
  • Never has a nice thing to say about anyone else’s writing, just negatives.
  • Rolls his eyes whenever anyone gives him the slightest bit of criticism.
  • Barely makes a single note on your piece after you spent forever leaving him thoughtful feedback.

The issue here is a lack of grace. It may feel like a boost to your ego to sit in a room and judge all the other writers around you, making a mental ranking of where everyone falls in regard to your talent, but that won’t make you popular with your peers. And likability and trust tend to go hand-in-hand. If your feedback is coming from a competitive place instead of a caring place, other writers won’t be very receptive to it. And if no one’s going to take your notes, you’re basically wasting your time by giving them. So, be sure to remain humble. Remember it’s not a competition, you’re all just trying to one up your own personal bests.

Be Tactful, But Truthful
You are not Aziz Ansari, so no one wants to listen to you crack jokes about their writing. If something isn’t working in a piece, by all means, make it known, but do it with tact. It takes a lot of courage to share your work with others. And generally, beneath all that dread of “What will people think?,” there’s also some excitement and hopefulness that your work will be warmly received. So, you don’t want to crush someone else’s hope. The key is to give them feedback in a way that encourages them to keep writing, to keep improving.

How do you do that?

  • Choose your words carefully. “Can you help the reader better follow the timeline in your piece?” is going to go over a lot better than “This timeline is a trainwreck.”
  • Be concise in your feedback. No need to go on and on and on about one particular issue. Cite the issue, offer up a possible solution and move on to the next point.
  • Make eye contact. If you can’t look someone in the eyes and say what you want to say about their work, it’s probably a good sign you need to reconsider (unless you just generally don’t feel comfortable looking other people in the eyes, in which case, disregard this tip).

On the flip side, no one benefits if you give them the marshmallow fluff equivalent of feedback. I’ve absolutely been in workshops where everyone was afraid to say a single negative thing to anyone else. It was as if they were confusing “negative” with “unkind.” But we turn to others for their thoughts on our work because we need guidance about how to make it better. It’s completely unhelpful if that guidance is withheld. It’s very rare – although it does happen – that you’ll read any piece of writing that doesn’t have a single issue. So, if something stands out to you, be sure to share it with the writer.

It’s Not You, It’s Them
A couple of weeks ago, I saw the new “Fast and Furious” film – I will not apologize for being a fan of that franchise! – and there were so many plot holes. Afterward, I told several people what I would have done instead to make the story work better. But you know what, I mean I can’t be for sure, but I don’t think the F&F folks set out to make a movie with an airtight plot. Their main goal was probably to make a movie that featured a lot of fast cars, the Rock’s award-winning charisma and some cool looking stunts. And, in which case, they accomplished their objectives.

It’s the same thing when you’re giving someone feedback on their writing. What you would have done with the same idea isn’t relevant. The writer doesn’t care if you would have killed off the mother instead of the father. Have a clear convo with the writer about what they’re attempting to do with their piece and then given them feedback based on their execution. So, if the piece doesn’t work set in 1997 because it’s about a disco club at the height of its glory and disco had already died by the 90s, then let the writer know that. But if you’re not a fan of the piece being set in 1997 because you prefer 80s hairstyles, keep that info to yourself.

Don’t Be Stingy with Your Notes
Seriously, please give yourself a generous stretch of time to closely read someone’s writing. People can always tell when you rushed through. Either your notes are skimpy or they just aren’t all that insightful. You know how fast or slow you read, so plan accordingly. You should give yourself enough time to read a work through twice. You’ll notice different issues on a second reading than you did on the first reading. You’ll also know where the piece is headed and can make suggestions that help the reader reach a satisfying ending.

You should make line notes as well as leave a block of feedback at the end of a piece with your overall assessment. On Penmob, you’ll notice that line notes function as spaces for you and your editors to chat or for editors to discuss their thoughts with other editors about a specific portion of your writing. Editors are also given a box at the end of your piece for their overall thoughts.

If I’m reading the work of a writer I’ve been working with for a while or I will be continuing to work with, the end is generally where I give:

  • Bigger picture feedback
  • Commentary on their writing style and writing bad habits (Have I mentioned how much I comma splice?)
  • Suggestions for resources, readings and other writers they might find helpful
  • Encouragement to continue working on their piece

More Advice
For more specific advice on how to behave in writer’s workshop, you can check out our guide to writers’ workshops. You can also pick up more tips on how to give better feedback by taking note of the kind of feedback you receive from your Penmob editors. Which editors did you rank highly and why? What was helpful about their feedback? What did you like about it? There’s no shame in adding some their tricks to your feedback arsenal.