5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to Writers

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5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to Writers

If you continue your writing journey long enough, someone is going to ask you to read their writing and ask what you think. It can happen in a critique group. It can happen at workshops. It’s even happened to me when we had a yard sale and my darling daughter told a potential customer I was a writer. As a result, learning to give good feedback is well worth your time.

5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to WritersNot only does giving feedback help the person who receives the feedback, it helps you as well. You learn how to think more deeply about writing so that you can explain the problems you’re seeing. And seeing mistakes in other writers’ work often helps you spot them in your own work. Let’s think about what makes good feedback and how to give it.

1. Feedback isn’t just Praise.

Often, people who aren’t comfortable giving feedback will simply offer praise. Usually something vague. “This is really good.” “I liked this a lot.” By being nonspecific, they don’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing and making the writer unhappy. But good feedback is all about helping. It isn’t that praise isn’t helpful.

Praise has value, especially if given honestly and specifically. It helps writers pinpoint what they are doing right. A bright writer often notices the areas avoided in praise feedback, which can suggest those unmentioned areas need work. Praise can also be uplifting when writers are going through hard times or periods of self-doubt. But as helpful as praise is, it doesn’t tend to spur improvement. It’s only half of the feedback opportunity.

2. Ask Questions When You Can

When a writer asks for feedback, I also ask what they’re hoping to get back. This helps me understand the places where the person is unsure. It can also alert me to whether the issue I spot is a blind spot for the writer, and that shapes how I approach trying to offer suggestions for improvement in areas the author may not have known were problems.

5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to Writers CANVA ask questionsSometimes I discover the person just wanted me to read it and tell them what I thought. In that kind of case, they aren’t seeking feedback designed to spur a revision. They’re looking for generalities (and sometimes, they’re not looking for feedback so much as hoping I’ll reveal the secret password to get this oft-rejected piece published).

In a situation where I sense the person doesn’t really want feedback, I will seek out something positive to say about the piece and one thing to draw the person’s attention to. And I’ll stop there. People who weren’t expecting to need to revise can get very overwhelmed by a lot of improvement-oriented feedback, so I tread lightly. In these cases, even one suggestion for improvement can get pushback. When pushback comes, I don’t defend my feedback. I simply wish the person well and move on.

3. Feedback isn’t Cloning Yourself

One important element of feedback is that it cannot be based on how you would write the story, article, or essay. Generally, I would approach most pieces I’ve critiqued differently than the writer did. But my feedback isn’t based on trying to turn the writer into me. Yes, I’ve had some success (in that I make a living at writing), but I’m far from the world’s best writer. Trying to turn other writers into me will be doing them a disservice.

5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to Writers CANVA help someone elseInstead, I want to help them become the best version of themselves. I look for the strongest things about their voice, their characterization, their plotting, etc. and then I think of how to make it stronger while not disrupting what is there. I’ve given feedback to people with HUGELY different writing styles from me. In that case, telling them how *I* would write a sentence of structure and exchange of dialogue isn’t helpful. Instead, I look for places where it’s hard to read or the pace didn’t seem to match what they were trying to do. In other words, I begin by figuring out what they were trying to do, then helping them to continue to do it their way, but better. It would be much easier to simply tell them to write it my way. I’ve seen a lot of feedback that amounted to that. But to help these writers become the best they can be, I must figure out what that would look like and push them toward it.

One of the best ways to hear the voice of the person you’re helping is to read the work aloud. Then make note of places where you stumbled, where you had to reread to get the words right, or where you were confused. Reading aloud is one of the best possible ways to spot problems (in your own writing or the writing of others). It’s also one of the best possible ways to get used to the voice of the writer you are helping. That will make it easier to be helpful without disrupting that voice.

4. Feedback Pinches

Never forget that being corrected isn’t the most comfortable process. Feedback pinches, even when it’s done well and even when it’s exactly what the person needs to hear. For feedback to have any value, it needs to be honest. But for feedback to be received, it needs to be kind. Almost all of us have heard of the “critique sandwich,” where you start with something positive, then point out a flaw, and then end on a positive note. It’s so recognizable that people often recognize it when you’re doing it, but a critique sandwich is still worth serving as long as all of the ingredients are honest.

5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to Writers CANVA woman with headacheHere is an example of a critique sandwich technique in action—but keep in mind that this is useless unless the positive remarks are every bit as true as the negative remarks:

“I loved this character. He’s so real and fresh. But I couldn’t always understand his dialogue. The use of dialect was interesting. But it could be hard to figure out without repeat readings. I think it would have been easier to read and understand if you kept the unique word choices and word order, but not the dialect spellings of words. He had some of the best, funniest lines in the story. I wanted to understand them more easily, so I didn’t have to work so hard to get the joke.”

Now if you didn’t like the character and thought he was boorish and annoying, this feedback loses a great deal of its worth. Don’t praise the things that fell flat for you.

5. Appetizers, Not Meals

If you’re not being hired professionally for your feedback, no one expects you to catch every single problem in a story, article, picture book manuscript, etc. This is especially true if you’re part of a critique group. Since you aren’t the only person who is going to give feedback, there is no reason to try to catch every single thing.

I learned this lesson when I joined a critique group. I had been a writing teacher (in a community college and for the ICL’s writing courses). I was used to needing to catch everything. But in a critique group, that was way too much to load on someone. Friendly critique doesn’t need to be so extensive. The best critique group or casual critique will focus on a few key spots (both good and problematic) that jumped out at you as you read. Be sure to mix praise and correction, but don’t feel like you need to do everything.

5 Tips for Giving Useful Feedback to Writers CANVA writing groupThat doesn’t mean I won’t ever point out a minor flaw in this kind of situation. If I see the writer regularly misusing a word, I’ll point it out since it’s something the person will need to watch for. If I see the writer doesn’t know how to punctuate dialogue, I’ll explain the process because that may seem picky, but it will affect everything they write. I won’t dig for things to say. I’ll focus on the things that I can’t walk away from.

You Can Do It!

Giving feedback can be scary. You can’t always be sure how the other person will react. Personally, I hate conflict, so I struggled with that when I was first giving feedback. But as I learned to both reinforce what was good and point out what is a problem (usually with why it might be a problem), I found the writers I worked with grew so much and were better able to find their own success.

Seeing a fellow writer succeed, knowing you played a small part, is one of the best feelings in the world. I highly recommend it. The next time you’re in a position to give feedback, step up. Be brave. And remember that we’re all in this together.


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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.


  1. This was great! So many writers are afraid to give or receive critique. It’s hard to be on the receiving end, no matter how long you’ve been there. However, I’ve learned to see most things pointed out as someone caring enough to help me do better. With that view, I’m able to accept most feedback as coming from a place of support, not attack. And when I can see what they are saying makes sense, it makes me happy. One piece of advice I give anyone who joins our critique group is to come with nothing to read for the first few meetings, so they can see how we work and begin helping others with feedback. That way, they can realize firsthand that we are supporting each other with our finds, not tearing each other down. Also, it seems to soften some of the initial sting when their own work is finally critiqued. Being part of a very supportive group is so rewarding!

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