A recent discussion on Facebook reminded me that I’ve written about how to deal with feedback from reviewers, but I haven’t written about how to give feedback to peers and colleagues. There is an art to this which I have learned, paradoxically, from receiving feedback, which taught me what helps and what does not help.
Feedback is a fairly neutral word but what we’re actually dealing with is criticism. Some people call it ‘critique’ to make it sound better but it’s still criticism. Criticism is not neutral and so it has lots of emotion attached.
In the last decade I joined a closed online short story writing group of around a dozen fiction writers. We all knew each other online through blogging and wanted to improve our writing. The idea was that we would each write and share a story once a fortnight. The stories were posted anonymously by one of the group – we took turns – and the others would give feedback. To begin with we only gave positive feedback until one of us pointed out that we weren’t going to get very far that way. We were a bit scared about being more critical, but gradually our feedback became more robust, with honesty about the elements of each story that didn’t work for us and why, as well as praise for the parts that did and suggestions for how to overcome weaknesses. We built up a lot of trust in that group and it helped us to give better feedback and so become better writers.
This experience taught me that trust is important to effective feedback. In the group we built trust over time. If you’re writing an anonymous peer review, you need to create trust all at once.
Another thing that is important is blending praise where possible, or at least advice, with your criticism. I had a review for the typescript of my last book which was entirely critical. Essentially, it said the book was rubbish and should never be published. The reviewer is entitled to their opinion, and I have been a writer for far too long to be upset by critical feedback, but the problem was that the review gave me no help at all. There was nothing in it which I could use to improve my writing. (Luckily I had two other reviewers at that stage who took a more balanced approach and did give me constructive criticism, advice, and some praise.)
So, from all my years of experience of receiving and giving feedback on writing in several genres, here are my twelve top tips for giving good quality feedback that others will trust.
- Be honest in all the feedback you give.
- Read the piece you’re giving feedback on carefully, thoroughly, at least twice.
- While you read, make notes of thoughts that occur to you. As a minimum, these should include: aspects of the work you think are good; where you think there is room for improvement; anything you don’t understand; references the author might find helpful.
- Be sure to praise the good points in the author’s work. This helps to build trust and also lets the author know what they can relax about.
- Be open about anything you don’t understand. Doing this worries some people because they think they may look stupid, particularly if they’re giving feedback to a peer or colleague rather than writing an anonymous review. But it’s really helpful feedback for writers because it may be that they haven’t written clearly enough.
- Give a straightforward assessment of areas where you think there is room for improvement.
- Tell the author how you think they can improve their work. This is crucial. If you’re only saying where improvement is needed, you’re only doing half the job.
- Where relevant, suggest references the author has missed.
- If you think extra references would be helpful but nothing specific springs to mind, have a quick look on a website such as Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals and see if you can find something to point the author towards.
- Don’t worry if you can only offer a certain amount of help because of the limits to your own knowledge. It’s fine to say, for example, that a quick online search suggests there is more relevant literature in the area of X; you’re not certain because X lies outside your own areas of interest but you think it would be worth the author taking a look.
- Acknowledge the author’s emotions. For example, after giving quite critical feedback, you might say something like, “I realise that implementing my suggestions will involve a fair amount of extra work and this may seem discouraging. I hope you won’t be put off because I do think you have a solid basis here and you are evidently capable of producing an excellent piece of writing.” (Though remember #1 above and don’t say this if it’s not true.)
- Be polite throughout, even if your review is anonymous. Anonymity is not an excuse for rudeness.
If there’s anything I’ve missed, please add it in the comments.
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