A Guide to Offering Feedback to Writers

A Guide to Offering Feedback to Writers

Postby Denina » Mon Apr 15, 2013 3:48 am

I wrote this guide a long time ago but I still think it's relevant. Feel free to offer your own advice and tips as well. - Denina

Some writings are good...others aren't so good. You want to tell the author what you think, but you don't want to be gushing and you don't want to be rude (as the case may be). How do I offer constructive feedback that a writer would appreciate getting for their hard work?

This guide is written with the intent to help you do that.

When something you read is abysmally bad:

Obviously, saying “This sucks” isn't constructive. Saying that could dash an aspiring writer's dreams, and you definitely don't want to be responsible for that. Unfortunately, writing is one of those talents that take years in order to get really good at it. And no matter how good are you, there's always room for improvement. No one writes their best every day, but some writers have not yet learned that no matter how well they think they've written something, that it should be left to rest until such a time that they can read it objectively. This can sometimes take a while.

So someone has written something really bad and you want to let the author know that it isn't very good, but you don't want to dash their dreams, and you don't want to be a jerk. “What do I say?”

First ask yourself, is the author intending this to be a serious story? And I don't mean that the content of the story is serious, after all, the story could be a comedy, but serious about the story means that they take the time to use good sentence structure, grammar and punctuation, no “leet” speak, etc. Don't underestimate good grammar. Those who are serious about being better writers take the time to make sure that their stories are written in a professional manner, even if they know they probably will never “be” professional writers.

I look for basic grammar, spelling and sentence structure first. If it's not there, I don't bother to read further, because my immediate impression is that the person posting is not looking for advice to get better, or to find out if they have any talent and should pursue it, and/or doesn't really intend to take writing seriously. I'd rather offer feedback to those who do care. Grammar, spelling and punctuation are necessary. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn't a serious writer. Don't waste your time. And if they post something poorly written and they claim to be serious about writing, tell them they need to spend more time on grammar and spelling before they can hope to be taken seriously. If they're unwilling to do that, they'll never get far in their writing. There is no such thing as a lazy writer. Along with this, if you find any typos, especially those that a spell checking program wouldn't catch, please bring it to the attention of the writer. They are the worst of the petty annoyances to any writer. (For example, the author wrote “too” when they obviously meant “to,” or vice versa. Those types of typos are the hardest to catch.

Okay, next thing, what about story development itself: is there a plot or what could be the makings for one? I've found that in most stories that are serious, but the writing isn't very good, that plot is underdeveloped or the characters are all over the place and it's just not “fitting together” well. This is the opening for constructive feedback. Some writers simply don't yet know how to take ideas and fit them together. This may or may not be because of poor plotting, but because they just haven't thought it through. The characters and plot have to work together. The characters make the plot work, not the other way around. If it's not fitting together, perhaps the characters are not right for the plot. Characters must have charisma to be memorable and they must have the presence to move a plot. Characters must be able to conflict and work within the plot. If it's not happening, the story is going to tread water and not go anywhere.

In others, the characters themselves might be uninteresting for whatever reason, and/or under developed. The story might move at a sluggish pace, or so fast you don't know what happened or why it's happening. One problem beginning writers have is that they know what's going on with the story in their head and they write it, forgetting that the readers have no idea what's going on. You could look for this as well.

“The story has potential. There are decent characters, and an interesting (or potentially interesting) plot, but it's just not going anywhere.” Pacing matters a lot in writing. You want to keep up, and the writer to keep it moving, but if you find your mind wandering, or that you're reading back to find out how you got to here again, the author needs advice on pacing.

Then you can look at how the story is being told. Is the author telling you what the characters did or are you “seeing” the characters doing what they're doing as you read? Telling the reader what's happening, but not showing it so we, as readers, can get in the character's head is the #1 problem of most writers. Even experienced writers get this problem now and then and it takes work to overcome it and work it out. For a reader, reading that a character did this or that or the other is a yawn-fest. Showing us how they went about doing the things they did (when it moves the story) keeps us drooling for more.

And finally, there's logic. Logic must be present. If there is no way in hell that something could've happened as the author wrote it, readers aren't going to buy it and it's going to spoil the story because no one will believe it could happen. Perhaps you've heard the expression “The truth is stranger than fiction.” Not only is it true, but it's essential to good writing. Things in real life don't have to be believable to be true, but in fiction, it damn well better be believable. You cannot have illogical events or 'supernatural' resolutions, unless your whole story is based on it. A writer has to set everything up so that a reader can say, “Yeah, I can see how that could happen.” If you're not saying that, it needs to be brought to the writer's attention.

“This story I'm reading is pretty good. The author has written a lot and seems to mostly understand how to put a story together. What kind of feedback can I possibly offer? Who am I to give this person writing advice?”

This might be the worst part of offering feedback. It's much harder to offer a good writer feedback than it is a poor writer. You've run out of ways to say that the story was good, and you want to be able to offer that writer something more substantial than that. What do you say now?

It is much harder to offer a good writer feedback because their flaws are much less obvious, and that's the way it should be. If you're not a writer yourself you probably feel that you have no business offering constructive feedback.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You're a reader. That's why you're reading. Obviously, you like the type of story that you wish to offer feedback on or else you wouldn't read it at all. So, in that type of story, what do you like about them? Is the author writing the types of things you like to read about? If not, what would you like to see? Did you get an idea of something that could happen or might happen while reading? By all means, tell the writer(s)! Inspiration comes from odd places. You may spark another idea for them. It does happen.

As I mentioned earlier, pacing is an issue for writers of all levels. Is the story moving at a good pace to keep you interested or do you find yourself wishing they'd get on with it when you read a certain part. Please please please bring that to their attention. Sometimes writers don't realize when they're being sluggish. If you find yourself skipping over parts to get on with the story, make a quick note where you felt that way and tell the writer. The more specific you are about where you find these things, the better the author can see what you're seeing and re-write it to make it more interesting.

Another flaw of experienced writers, especially on forums where fan fictions are king, is that their characters are too powerful (very easy to do in Morrowind) or that they get out of their situations too easily, making for a yawn fest. I have struggled with this issue in my own fan fictions. Don't be afraid to say, 'your protagonist is too powerful.' Also don't be afraid to say, 'This is too complicated.' As long as you're prepared to go into detail about why you think the way you do, telling writers what you don't like as well as what you do like helps a lot.

And that's another thing...even if you read something you don't like, but still wish to offer feedback, try to find something to mention that you DID like about it. Writers need to know what they do right as well as what they do wrong. They need to know what's not broken as well as what is so they know what to fix and what they're doing well. Even if you can find no flaw in what they wrote, there isn't a writer alive that doesn't want to see, “That was really well written. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. More, please!” Don't be afraid to leave that kind of feedback if you really mean it. If you know there's a flaw in the writing, but just can't put your finger on what it was, take a day or two or longer and think about it and then come back if you figure it out. There is no dateline on writer's feedback. It could be 10 years later and you could offer feedback on a story, though hopefully by then, the writer will have improved enough that when they look back on the story, they think, 'Oh my god, I wrote that?!'

The key to feedback is balance. You want to tell the writer what's not working and what is working. It's not easy to pull a story apart to find these elements, but when you do, you're doing the writer a favor. And if you offer feedback and the writer doesn't like it, either because s/he thinks what they wrote is Pulitzer Prize worthy or because they're not interested in putting in the time and effort to improve, leave them alone. Just move on and ignore them. Don't waste your time. And if a writer is rude after you offer feedback because you said something they didn't want to hear, then they're probably only interested in hearing how great they are.

A writer that cares about their work is going to read the feedback they get, and take it under advisement whether it's positive or negative. Obviously, if they're smart, they're going to disregard feedback that says nothing more than “This sucks.” They're also only going to allow themselves one moment of ego gratification when they read, “This is awesome!” Then, they're going to buckle down and work harder to improve their work.

The better a writer is, the more they need constructive feedback because those are the ones who have the endurance and willpower to do the work to improve. Writing is one of the hardest “arts” in which to be considered “good”. And one thing you always want to remind new writers, even if you are not a writer, is that writing is re-writing and more re-writing. And when they're done re-writing, it needs to go to an objective other party who will read it with their inner grammar Nazi clamoring for attention so it can be re-written again. And no, I'm not joking about that.

I do hope this helps those of you who wish to help aspiring writers improve and be able to say something more than, “This is good” or “This isn't so good.”

And feel free to add to this thread if you think of other ways of offering feedback. Writers, please add here what types of things you would like to see people comment on. This is by no means a definitive guide. As in all writing, there is room for improvement in this. All advice and suggestions for writers and readers is welcome here. Thanks for taking the time to read our work as authors, and for reading this guide. Readers who care are a writer's best friends.
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