The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Giving Better Feedback

Hitchhiking

Helping you – to help me.

If the golden rule of real-estate is location, location, location – then the undoubted golden rule of writing would be feedback, feedback, feedback.

By now I’m sure you know every writer depends on feedback. It helps us better understand how to improve characters, fine-tune plots, shave down redundancies, and raise stories to their full potential, all in the shared fever-dream of publication.

But (believe it or not) there is a difference between HELPFUL feedback and UNHELPFUL feedback. So how can we make sure we’re providing GOOD feedback? Let’s flip through a couple of easy tips to help you better support your fellow writers.

Read The Story

The first (and easiest) tip is to read the story! Does that sound sarcastic? It isn’t meant to be. What I mean is to read it like a reader, not an editor. Don’t sift over it with a fine-tooth comb on a first read. Just enjoy it. Let yourself get sucked in. See what resonates. How did it make you feel? What was believable or not? Was it boring or exciting? Do you want more, or was that enough? These gut reactions are some of the most important footholds you can concentrate on because they will become the foundation for how you approach the rest of your critique.

Search for conflict

Alright, you’ve given the story a once over and have a general sense of how you feel about it. So now let’s go a little deeper and consider the plot and characters. These are two seriously important elements of storytelling and deserve your fully-undivided-critique-fueled attention. And the first question you need to ask yourself is: was there conflict?

Conflict is the backbone to all storytelling. I mean, four years of Hogwarts would have been pretty boring without Voldemort feuding with Harry. ‘The Old Man and The Sea’ wouldn’t have been more than a leisurely fishing trip without the epic battle of the ocean. And Frodo’s walk to Mordor? Let’s be honest, it would have been a real cake-walk without Sauran spitting out armies of orcs. Are you starting to see a pattern? All functional stories have conflict, even in very short fiction.

When critiquing, search for conflict, and if there isn’t any, you know the story has a major problem. From here you can also individually consider how the plot and characters are presented within that conflict. Did they feel unique and interesting, or boring and chock-full of clichés? Were you surprised by events and actions, or did you see it all coming a mile away? It’s all vital feedback for your target writer to know.

What else helps the text come to life?

From here on out, things get a bit more flexible, and you can decide how to approach the remaining text. Maybe you want to focus on sentence structure and rhythm. Were the line-by-line beats fun to read? Or did it get repetitive and boring? Perhaps you want to think about word choice. Did the writer use powerful verbs to bring it all to life? Was there a wide pallet of adjectives that made everything ooze with realism? There’s an infinite number of ways to approach the nitty-gritty – but ultimately, you’re deciding if the text felt alive.

The most important word when giving feedback...

Finally, let’s start to wrap things up with a simple rule of critiquing: use the word BECAUSE.

It’s not enough to say, “This didn’t work,” or “I really liked that”. You need to explain the reason why. Critiquing is a bit like healthy debate. You can’t expect to win by blindly spit-firing opinions – you need to back them up with real evidence. Critiquing is the same. And the easiest way to stay on point is to use BECAUSE. How about an example?

❌ I thought the dialogue in your story was boring.

That doesn’t give your writer much to work with. How can they repair the boring dialogue without knowing what was boring about it? Let’s try using our new favorite word.

✅ I thought the dialogue in your story was boring BECAUSE all the characters sounded the same.

See how much more that gives the writer to work with? Not only can they target repetitive dialogue, but they also might start considering the personalities of all their characters. Two birds with one stone.

Phew. I know that was a lot of information. Give yourself a pat on the back for making it to the end. But after all that, we’re still left with the big question: what’s the point? Why put all this time and effort into someone else’s writing? The honest truth is that IT WILL IMPROVE YOUR OWN WRITING. You will learn from others’ mistakes, and in turn, write your own stories with clearer hindsight. Trust me, a strong critique is a sure-sign of a studious writer. Why do you think I chose that subtitle?

Discover more expert writing tips on:

  • Plot development in short fiction
  • How to hook readers
  • The art of “show, don’t tell”
  • And many more

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