Author and creative writing tutor, Beth loves helping her students improve their technique.
How to Give Positive and Negative Feedback on Creative Writing
- Make your comments specific.
- Use the STAR method to comment.
- Be prepared to accept criticism yourself.
- Be fair and balanced in your comments.
- Keep emotion out of the equation.
- Be generous with compliments.
1. Make Your Feedback Specific
It’s easy to waffle and fudge around an issue. You see something wrong with your friend’s creative writing but you don’t want to crush her confidence. You “um” and “err” and then give some very general comments that are of no practical use at all. This is where a good facilitator at a writer’s group can really show their value.
Facilitating a writing group is not an easy role. Not everyone has the required skill set. You need to be relaxed and friendly and able to get to the specifics of the criticism. You should be able to tease out the nub of the issue raised in a non-threatening manner. Specific is good; generalizations are bad!
2. Use the STAR Method
STAR is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, Result. It’s a useful way to describe what has happened and what you would like to happen when giving feedback. In the context of giving constructive criticism to other writers, here’s an example of how you could use it.
Situation: “I found the first chapter very difficult to follow as there were so many new characters being introduced every few lines.”
Task: “The action in the opening chapter needs to be made more focused and easier to follow.”
Action: “Perhaps you could concentrate on the action of a few key characters and introduce others in the next chapter?”
Result: “This would result in a much clearer narrative and I would be more engaged in the story.”
3. Be Prepared to Accept Criticism Yourself
If you’re unwilling to take feedback on your own writing, then you shouldn’t be willing to censure others. As the saying goes “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”. I recommend The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback. It's an excellent book by Becky Levine with lots of hints and tips on how to make a writer's group critique session go well.
A writing group can be a helpful supportive way to learn from others. Both giving and receiving constructive criticism will help improve your writing skills. A good writer is not only a wordsmith, but also a good listener and avid reader. These are the skills you will use to good effect in a writer’s group discussion.
4. Be Fair and Balanced in Your Comments
OK, so none of us are saints. Remember that comments you make may be taken to heart by your fellow writer. Don’t make wild accusations such as “you always do such and such in your stories”. Focus on the one chapter or page you’ve been asked to comment on. Balance a negative comment with a positive one. Try and make the positive comments outnumber the negatives, whilst trying not to over-sugar the pill.
What is Constructive Feedback?
Constructive feedback is specific, focused, and based on objective observation. It is different from comments that give praise and/or criticize.
Praise and criticism are personal subjective judgments. They are comments about a performance effort or outcome. Praise is a favorable judgment. Criticism is a negative or unfavorable comment.
5. Keep Emotion Out of the Equation
If you feel your heart start to race or the pitch of your voice go higher you are becoming too emotional. Constructive criticism should take place when both parties, giver and receiver, are calm and receptive. A facilitator can intervene if they see an interaction has become too personal.
It’s amazing how tempers can flare under the influence of alcohol and old rivalries. To maintain a calm and open conversation between all group members, many writing groups decide that “what is said within the group, stays within the group”.
6. Be Generous with Compliments
The rules for giving compliments are virtually the same as those for voicing critical comments. Be specific and be constructive. It’s more meaningful to give a compliment such as “your description of the hero was so vivid I can picture him standing in front of me”, rather than a more general “I love the way you write”.
Advice From Wordsmith and Author Vicki Hudson
"In a writing workshop or critique group, the reader has an important partnership with the writer. The writer hands over pages that represent his or her heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams to the reader. The reader’s part is to provide feedback and constructive criticism that will support the writer in improving the final product of his/her hard work.
What if you don’t like the work? What if you hate the story? What if you can’t find anything redeeming in the main character that you can relate to in your own life? None of that matters. Because it is not about you or about the writer, it is about the words on the page, the movement of the story, the flow of events, the development of the characters, and more."
The Secret to Giving Great Feedback
Improve Your Writing Skills and Make New Friends
It’s difficult to be self-critical, and reading your script aloud to other writers can help. Constructive feedback from a supportive group of authors can help you improve your writing technique. Choose a group where you feel comfortable. If there is not one nearby then start one of your own. It’s a great way to network with other likeminded people.
Each writer takes a turn in reading a page out loud from their work in progress. The rest of the group then discusses the passage they have heard. The discussion should focus on what made the story interesting and memorable. You will be amazed at the issues others notice. Treat it as a learning experience and be willing to explain why you wrote the scene the way you did. If you are able to accept constructive criticism, your novel writing skills will improve.
How to Find a Writing Group
Some places have a glut of writer’s groups, while others have none. Here are some suggestions on how to find about writers and happenings in your area.
- Check out the local library for a list of groups in your area.
- Free newspapers often have advertising for local writing events and new writer’s groups starting up.
- Universities and colleges nearby may have writing courses or study days that would put you in touch with other authors.
- You could start your own writing group with friends or advertise for new members.