Can we get real for a second? I know. I know. Honesty isn’t always fun. In fact, it stands a real chance at legitimately hurting your feelings, but it’s also very, very necessary. And I have the tea, as the kids would say, on this whole feedback thing.
Feedback is crucial for any writer. Period. Full stop. It’s how we get better. But the problem is getting good feedback. And by that I mean helpful. The thing we use to actually fix the problems in our manuscripts. Why is it hard to come by these days? Well, it seems to be that we’ve created a culture that equates constructive criticism and helpful feedback with negativity. As you can imagine, this makes people naturally hesitant to give anything but glowing, positive notes. They don’t want to discourage the writer, after all. And it’s especially the case when we’re talking about getting feedback from friends or family.
The issue arises eventually, though, when a publisher or agent is folded into the mix. If an author has never been given the chance to graciously accept and implement good, constructive feedback they’re more likely to be combative and defensive. If all you’ve received from anyone who has read your work is confirmation that you are amazing and nothing needs to change, you’re going to push back hard against someone who contradicts that firmly held belief. And it’s not that I blame you. It’s just not particularly a good idea for your career. So how do we change this? And how do you learn to give the type of feedback an author needs while making the blow of necessary changes as gentle as possible? Don’t worry! Here are a few guidelines to follow to make sure you’re not being a jerk and are helping your critique partners and author friends on their path to success.
First and foremost, there is a major difference between constructive and negative. Constructive feedback, for example, lists what isn’t actually working for you as you read, why it might need to be fixed, and then offers possible solutions. Negative feedback is just telling an author that their writing sucks. No matter how you dress it up, if that’s all you have to say with no real examples on why you feel that way, you’re not helping. You’re just a jerk.
As mentioned above, the first step to giving good feedback is identifying the problem. Nothing is more frustrating than getting notes back that say something like, “It just feels wrong” or “I don’t like it”. Those are both so vague they could literally mean anything. Also, they don’t tell the author where to go or what to fix. Be specific. Did a character’s actions feel like they didn’t match up with what you know of them so far? Is there a plot hole? Does the dialogue feel too old or too young for the age of the characters? Being able to nail down where the story lost your attention is extraordinarily helpful. They still may not like to hear it, depending on how much experience they have in this type of setting, but after the initial freak out, they’ll be able to build a new draft on a solid foundation.
Another key component in this good feedback game is being able to tell the writer why something may need to be fixed. If you tell someone that character A being erratic out of nowhere really lost you, be able to back that up. Is it because they no longer seem realistic to you? Or maybe it’s because they seem pretty flat? I mean, we’ve all been there. A hole in the plot makes you feel as if you missed a step going down the stairs, but if you can’t tell them why it’s important we know the dirty secret character B is hiding in chapters 4, 5, and 6, it doesn’t mean a whole lot in rewrites. If you commit to offering feedback on a story, be prepared to nail down your emotions as you read and articulate them back to the author.
Finally, while this isn’t technically mandatory, offering solutions is a glorious and invaluable tool when an author sits back down at the computer to rip apart their book baby. And yes, they may not use your solution, but it could be a jumping off point that makes that plot twist so intense it leaves you breathless when you make it through the next draft.
Remember that accepting good feedback is essential to being an author, but you have to be able to give it too. Be honest, be constructive, and be specific. We’ll all have much better books to read if you do.