You’ve just been asked to provide feedback on another writer’s prose. Congratulations! The writer values your opinion. Caution! In sharing their prose, the writer has chosen to make him or herself vulnerable.
Here are 9 steps to help you provide value while avoiding upset or conflict.
- Recognize the writer’s vulnerability. Unless your only response to the submission is to say that it is by far the greatest work of literature ever written and all other writers should now stop because this prose will never be surpassed, your feedback runs the risk of causing at a minimum disappointment and potentially anger. Understand you have another human being’s emotions in your hands.
- Ask questions. It’s important to understand what feedback the writer is seeking. Is the submission just a short segment of a larger story, meaning you shouldn’t focus overly much on plot and character development? Do they have a specific concern, perhaps pacing or dialogue or description? Ideally, you have some guidance before you begin reading.
- Open and close with positives. Surely there were elements you enjoyed. Perhaps it was a masterful passage of description. Maybe it was a humorous line of dialogue. Always begin by pointing out something you liked and be specific (not just “I liked it”).
- Make it about the words, not the author. Be careful with your language. Don’t say “You did this or that” or “I don’t understand why you choose to do this.” Say “I’m wondering why the character did this” or “This passage here doesn’t seem to be accomplishing that.” If you treat the prose as an independent part of the conversation, you can help cushion the blow to the writer.
- Focus on where your experience was disrupted. Nothing is more valuable to a writer than hearing where the reader became hung up while reading. It could be an odd word choice, the introduction of a plot point that seems contrived or contradictory, or a character acting, well, out of character. Whatever it is, we don’t want our readers to stop reading out of confusion.
- Don’t try to fix it. You’re a reader, not a repair person. Bestselling author Neil Gaiman says that you should listen to every reader when they say they had a problem yet ignore every piece of advice they offer on how to fix it. If you feel strongly you have a solution and are meeting in person, ask if the writer wants to hear it. When sharing it, make it clear it is just one possible approach.
- Note what you think is missing. Did a scene start to grab you but leave you hanging? Did you enjoy a character and wish you had spent more time with him or her? This is a way to focus on a positive (something you liked) while indicating a possible path for improvement (giving you more of what you liked).
- Be encouraging. All prose can be improved if the writer is willing to put in the work. This is even true of literary classics. Congratulate the writer on producing what he or she has so far and let them know that you’re sure the next draft will be even better.
- Have fun! This is a good lesson for any activity in life.
If you follow these guidelines when providing another writer your feedback, you’ll give them a great gift: Reader input they can make use of in improving their work. A word of warning: As this will likely be a positive experience for them, they may come back for more!