Last week my writing buddy sent me her new novel and asked for my feedback. This is the one I’ve been hearing about for a year, the novel she’s written that’s closest to her heart, and the one I feel will earn her a deal with a major publisher. And it got me thinking about the delicate balance between giving constructive criticism and dashing a writer’s dream so badly they put their manuscript away in a drawer.

(Full disclosure: that’s what happened to me–I believe the words were “it’s like trying to get the icing roses right on a cake that has all the wrong ingredients. It would be a waste of time.”)

First, set up expectations.

You don’t have to sign up to give a critique if you don’t want to. Maybe you feel that this is a writer who doesn’t take feedback well, who argues with people in roundtable when they offer suggestions, who you sense really wants praise and nothing else. If you feel you’ll lose a friendship if you share your honest opinion, nothing prevents you from saying “this sounds like an exciting project but I’m swamped right now with (1.family commitments, 2.my day job, 3.my own revisions) and don’t feel I can give your work the careful consideration it deserves.” You have the right to say no.

If you do opt to read their work, ask them to give you 3-5 questions they’d like you to focus on. For example, they might ask for your comments on the pacing in the middle or whether they’ve waited too long to introduce the inciting incident. Often they already have concerns about plot holes or whether their setting descriptions need shoring up and are looking for you to confirm their misgivings. Having these items to focus on, at their request, gives you permission to be more honest and also gives direction to your feedback.

Second, strike a balance between honesty and diplomacy.

You’re a writer so you’ve no doubt been on the receiving end of critiques, either through buddy exchanges, roundtable presentations, or online classes. Remember what it was like, reading through those remarks? If you’re like me, you skipped right over the praise and homed in on the criticism, not because you’re a glutton for punishment, but because you wanted to get better at your craft and you depended on your writer friends to help you do that. Later I’m sure you went back and read the nice things (maybe more than once), because hey, we all need a little sugar to help the medicine go down.

We don’t expect our critique buddies to tear our manuscript apart but we do expect them to help us question our assumptions and view our manuscript with a discerning eye. You need to walk the fine line between deflating the writer’s ego and giving out false praise. Make sure whatever you write will encourage them to keep going, even if it means a significant rewrite. They need to know your sole purpose in giving feedback is to make their story stronger and more resonant for readers.

Third, be specific and show examples in the manuscript itself.

Generalities don’t belong in a good critique. Saying “Way to go, this is so good” or even the more specific “I didn’t believe Paul for a minute” isn’t all that helpful. Instead insert comments in the document through Track Changes right at the point in the manuscript where you noticed the problem. Point out things that the writer can take action on, not vague feelings. If you disliked the character, mention a few places where you were particularly turned off by their actions or their words. Just a few tweaks in those places may be enough to have the reader form a different view of the character or at least understand better why they behave as they do.

And don’t forget to add comments when the writer does something particularly well. “This passage was lovely, it really moved me” will let them know you’re sensitive not only to their weaknesses but also to their strengths. Who knows? If you don’t mention the positive sections of the story, they may very well cut them in future revisions. Be generous with your praise when it’s deserved. Remarks such as “this particular dialogue exchange really put me in the scene” or “your description of the workplace was so detailed, I could clearly picture it in my mind” will help them see their strengths and give them confidence to attack those story elements that need revised.

Couch your remarks in the form of a question.

“This action seemed out of character for your protagonist. I wonder whether you should consider adding some backstory or foreshadowing to help the reader understand her better?” or “Would this argument between the two siblings have a greater emotional impact if we saw them earlier bonding over their parent’s divorce?” or “on page 42, would this be a place for the mother to support her daughter with her issues with bullies by sharing an experience from her own teenage years?”

The writer can of course feel free not to take your suggestions, and that’s okay. Your goal is to get them thinking from a different perspective about how they may have made assumptions that didn’t show up on the page or may have skipped over actions that would help make sense of the plot. If you get them questioning places where the manuscript needs work, that’s the first step toward a solid revision.

Remember, it’s their manuscript, not yours.

Resist the urge to rewrite sentences for them or tell them how you’d like the story to go. Respect their individual style of writing and their author voice. They may have chosen to tell the story from three POV’s, or in first person, or in present tense. They may have played with chronology, jumping back and forth in time. They may write in short sentences or have passages that fill a paragraph. Their chapters may be as short as three pages, or as long as 25. You’re free to mention any of these stylistic choices if they confused you, but ultimately it’s their choice and every single one of these tweaks to the “way it’s done” has appeared in best-selling novels.

Remember, your role is not that of a developmental editor or a proofreader or a copy editor. You are not being asked to fix the story; you are being asked to be an astute and knowledgeable reader. Your job is to challenge your writing friend to hone their story themselves until it shines like a gem, until every reader that picks it up wants to immediately recommend it to a friend.

If that happens, you’ve done your job.

4 Comments

  1. Wendy Schoua on February 4, 2021 at 8:11 am

    What a wonderful, precise article you wrote!
    It was partially a map for how to critique constructively. We look for specifics when we ask fellow authors or friends to tell us how to improve what we did in a short story—I have not written a complete novel yet—but what we want is truth. We are seeking to become better at our craft, the best we can be.
    When someone tells me or writes to me, “It was a good story,” I am disappointed. I want more.
    I also admired the tactful ways in which you suggested how not to give an opinion, and will certainly adopt some of them.
    Thank you.

    • Maggie Smith on February 4, 2021 at 11:46 am

      Wendy, so glad this was helpful. Writers really need outside perspective but not when it isn’t helpful and actionable.

  2. Polly Hansen on February 4, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    I hate getting the following and try not to do it myself, but know I’m guilty of it: “Resist the urge to rewrite sentences for them or tell them how you’d like the story to go.” I’d rather hear what seems to be missing rather than how I should plot the story. I love pointing out passages that worked for me, and love it when readers give me the same kind of feedback, along with the, “I don’t get it” and “This part is confusing,” etc. This article is a good reminder of what to avoid and what to offer when giving feedback.

    • Maggie Smith on February 4, 2021 at 1:20 pm

      Polly – appreciate you taking the time to comment. Yes, it’s so tempting to begin adding our two cents about how WE would write their piece. And I always make it a point to highlight the passages I like. I know that always makes me feel better when I’m reading other’s remarks.

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