How to Offer Constructive Feedback that Writers Will Love
By Sara Letourneau
Giving and receiving constructive feedback have become essential steps in the writing process. Authors can hold their stories so close to their hearts that they often miss glaring inconsistencies or mistakes in plot, characters, and other elements. Having another set of eyes can help make your stories the best they can possibly be. Thus, it’s a good idea to consider both sides of the practice: allowing others to read your work (eeek!), and volunteering to review theirs as well.
Sure, the thought of reading someone else’s manuscript and letting them know what works and what doesn’t can be daunting. However, it can also be a truly gratifying experience. The only three “tools” you’ll need to prepare yourself are a love of reading, a familiarity with the elements of storytelling, and the desire to help other writers. Already have all three? Then you’re ready to critique!
What to Look For When Critiquing
A manuscript critique involves asking questions, making observations, and listening to your gut feeling. The reader needs to 1) pay attention to emotions such as confusion, boredom, or excitement that they may experience; 2) identify the possible triggers from the manuscript; and 3) record those reactions along with any suggestions or questions. Here are some examples, divided into categories of storytelling elements and devices.
Plot: Does the plot grab your interest? What scenes did you enjoy most, and why? Does the plot have a consistent pace, or is it too slow or too fast in parts? Has the author established the stakes and/or conflict by the end of the first chapter? Were you satisfied with how the external and internal conflicts were resolved?
Characters: Are the characters believable? Did you relate or connect to anyone in particular? What do you admire or like about these characters? Does the protagonist have any weaknesses, flaws, or personal challenges to overcome? Does the protagonist change or evolve during the story? Do the supporting characters have a purpose in the plot or in helping the protagonist reach a goal or overcome an obstacle?
Backstory & Description: Does the story seem overloaded with backstory in parts? Are any physical descriptions of a character, setting, etc. too lengthy or detailed? On the flipside, is there enough backstory and/or description to help you understand, visualize, and experience each scene? Does the author strike a balance between showing and telling?
Logic & Clarity: Does the plot and conflict make sense with regard to the novel’s genre? Do any scenes or plot points confuse you or seem out of place? Does a character’s body language match the emotions conveyed in speech or tone of voice? If the manuscript is categorized as speculative fiction, do the supernatural and/or magical elements follow a set of rules established by the author? Or, do they happen randomly or without explanation?
The Administrative Side of Critiquing
It might sound contradictory, but the administrative side of critiquing is equally as important as the creative side. Keep the following in mind before and during your review to help you stay organized and on track.
Stick to a deadline. Ask the author when they’d like to have your feedback. Don’t be afraid to request more time if the deadline’s tight. Authors know you’re doing them a favor, and they’ll most likely be happy to accommodate you. However, don’t push out your target date too far or leave it open-ended.
Ask for the writer’s preferred response format. Some writers may want your comments plugged directly into the text file using in-line comments or change-tracking. Others may prefer a separate comment sheet. Whatever the preference may be, make sure you adhere to that format.
Use tact and honesty. Your critique should not only point out what needs improvement, but also commend the writer for what they’ve done well. If you love a character or a scene, say so! Enthusiasm is 100% merited there. When it’s time for constructive feedback, though, balance honest opinions with compassion. If something seems off, explain why in one or two sentences and with a considerate tone, then suggest some possible fixes.
Don’t sweat the “small stuff” when it comes to editing. It’s OK to list errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation in a manuscript critique. However, avoid hyper-focusing on the tiny details so you don’t lose sight of the big picture. I work as a technical writer / editor for my day job, so I often find myself line-editing manuscripts I’m reading (and then kick myself for it!). Don’t follow my lead if you fall into the editing habit. Keep the line edits, but stop to remind yourself of what else needs evaluating.
Keep in touch with the author. Take the time to get to know the story’s creator. Chances are they’ll enjoy the interaction with you. And if they don’t live nearby or within calling distance, just hop onto your computer. Thanks to the Internet and incredible leaps in technology, people from all over the world can communicate in real time. Skype made it possible for me to talk to the New Zealand writer whose manuscript I recently critiqued. That’s what you call bridging a 16-hour time difference!
Finally, keep your promises. If you agree to critique a manuscript, do your best to follow through with it. Authors will value your completing the project and see you as respectful, dependable, and generous. That said, if you’re unable to finish your critique, contact the writer to let them know you have to bow out. They’ll appreciate your honesty.
Critiquing another writer’s manuscript may be a commitment of your time and energy, but the rewards of this experience outweigh the negatives. Just think of it as extending a hand to a fellow writer and saying, “Hi! I’m here to help.” It reminds the author that they’re not alone on their journey. And who knows? Maybe they’ll return the favor and critique your work as well.
Sara Letourneau thrives on practicing versatility as a writer. Her poetry has been published in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. She also freelances on occasion and was previously a staff writer for the Sonic Cathedral Webzine. Sara is currently working on her second novel (her first completed one is unpublished). Visit her website (http://saraletourneau.wordpress.com) and public Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/sara.letourneau.official) for more information.See other articles by Sara Letourneau