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The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes

How to Give Good Writing Group Feedback

I’m a big fan of writing groups. I’ve been attending and leading them for over 20 years, and I’ve seen how they can transform a lazy writer into a productive one, an insecure public speaker into toastmaster, and an unpublished writer into a published one.

I’ve also witnessed some real train wrecks.

I’m not talking about the writing. I expect to see unpolished material in my critique group. (If it’s perfect, don’t show it to me, man! Send it to your agent.)

No, I mean the feedback, itself.

A few examples:

“I don’t read science fiction, so I can’t really comment.”

“Books written from the point of view of dogs are so cliché.”

“I love your writing. The prose is so beautiful!”

“Your story sounds like a racist wrote it. Using the n-word is totally inappropriate.”

If you’ve ever heard comments like this about your own work, the experience probably left you feeling bewildered and maybe even a little bit hurt.

There may be good feedback here. But, if so, it’s buried so deep in judgmental language that most authors won’t be able to find it.

And that makes it useless.

I believe most writing group members genuinely want to be helpful when they provide feedback. But many struggle to express their opinions without gushing, sugar-coating things or coming off like a total jack wagon.

Whether you’re a newcomer to a writing group or a charter member, these pointers will help you deliver feedback people can hear:

Your opinion is valid.

You don’t need an MFA in creative writing to give good feedback. In fact, those kinds of credentials can be a hindrance. Some of the best feedback I receive about my writing comes from my mom! She’s not a writer. She just likes to read.

Book lovers make the ideal critiquers. Why? Because writers want people to love their books. So don’t be shy!

Your opinion is just an opinion.

Critique is subjective. That’s what makes it so helpful. But it can go the other way, too.

We all have infatuations, pet peeves and past grievances that color our tastes and perceptions. For instance, if you’ve never experienced the joy and frustration of having a new puppy around the house, a story written from a dog’s point of view might leave you flat.

But you’re just one reader. 600,000 dog owners in New York City might have a bone to pick with you.

Offer your opinion, and then let go of your attachment to it. It’s up to the author to decide what to take and what to leave.

Tell me what you think is going on.

When I put words down on paper, I’m trying to convey something very definite: a person, a situation, a mood, a setting, a feeling. If you didn’t get what I meant, or thought something else entirely, I need to know so I can fix it.

One way to approach critique it to pretend you’re a newspaper reporter. Make “who, what, where, when, how and why” a part of every critique you deliver.

Even if that’s all you do, you’ll be doing better than most.

Let people know if you’re a subject matter expert.

Everyone is an expert in something. If you once worked for the IRS, and my story is about a character whose business is being audited, speak up! Your insights may be particularly helpful to me.

Speak from your personal experience of reading the piece.

Delivering feedback is not the time to show off your writing chops. I don’t care how Hemingway would write my story, or what the New Yorker prefers, or how your PhD adviser told you to do it. Right now, I need you to be a reader.

Focus on how the story unfolded for you personally.

Here are some examples of better ways to phrase the less-than-awesome feedback above:

“I was really invested in the hunt for the alien, but the many scientific details about the asteroid mine distracted me from what the characters were going through emotionally.”

“Being in the point of view of a dog made me feel claustrophobic. I wanted to be more connected to the thoughts and feelings of the humans in your story.”

“The use of long vowels and ‘s’ sounds in the passage describing the river conveyed how calm and peaceful this setting is. I wish I could spend my summer vacation at a cabin like this!”

“When your character said the n-word, it made me think the story was set in another time period. The only people I know who use that word today are rappers and my racist uncle.”

Be specific.

Did you notice how much more information there is in the statements above? Details are the hallmark of excellence critique. In order for me to fix what’s wrong in my story, I need to know exactly where in the text you experienced problems.

Which word, sentence or paragraph is unclear? Where were you when you got bumped out of a smooth reading experience? What jarred you?

Sometimes the discomfort, confusion and admiration we feel when we read other peoples’ writing can make us go a little foggy in the head. That’s normal! Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, but then get to the bottom of it. Zoom in on the text and locate exactly what made you feel this way.

Not only will you help me understand what’s working well and what’s not working in my piece, but you may also find new ways to avoid or develop the same things in your own writing.

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