What Can I Say? How to Give Writing Feedback to Someone You Love
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
So, you love a writer. Congratulations! Writers can be thoughtful, insightful people capable of clear thinking and precise self-expression. But let's be honest, writers can also be defensive and needy and obtuse, especially when it comes to their drafts. And oh, no! This writer that you love has just asked you (or maybe commanded you) to read something they've written . . . and they want feedback. What should you do?
On the one hand, saying nothing is not an option. Your writer will spiral into self-doubt, reading your silence as boredom or disdain. On the other hand, a pull-no-punches critique of the work will just land you in an argument about the use of the word "however" that is starting to get weirdly personal. On the other-other hand, your tepid "I liked it" will be interrogated like James Bond strapped to a dissection table. So what's a supportive FOW (friend of writer) to do? Try this:
1. Have a snack with your writer. First of all, hangry isn't a good look for anyone. But secondly, remember that this isn't a professional relationship. This is the person who splits a bag of cheese puffs with you.
2. Ask your writer to be specific about what kind of feedback they want. Do they need a proofreader? Are they looking for affirmation? Are they worried about whether the shift in verb tenses is working? If they can't answer this right away, give them a second.
But DO NOT let them get away with saying, "Just tell me what you think." This is a cop-out, and it's not fair to you, FOW. It's really, truly okay if all they want right now is a cheerleader, but they need to tell you that so that you don't accidentally start tearing the piece apart thinking that is what they meant by "feedback."
Can't think of anything? Here are some example categories of feedback they find helpful. Try to stick to just one or two per reading:
memorable/moving phrases, images, or ideas
consistency (in tone, argument, character, etc.)
transitions (between paragraphs and/or major sections)
grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors
effective use of particular poetic, literary, and/or rhetorical devices
points of confusion (What does X mean?)
points of curiosity (What could X mean?)
Ask for clarification if you need it. If you're unable to give the kind of feedback they need, then reaffirm your commitment to your relationship and direct them to someone else (like me, but I charge).
3. Believe your writer. If they tell you they aren't ready for criticism, believe them. If they tell you they want you to mark up the page like it's your job to point out their inadequacies with a red pen, believe them.
4. Be specific. There's nothing a writer likes more than talking about their writing in detail. It's exhausting, I know. But vague feedback is about as useful as a rubber fork. Identify a section that caught your attention, tripped you up, or seemed to need more information and then read it back to them. Whether you're playing cheerleader or critic, attach your observations to a specific word, line, line break, comma, etc.
5. Be creative. You can find your way into even the dullest, densest pieces of writing. I believe in you. Ask questions. Make connections to shared experiences. If you're being asked for uncritical support but you didn't actually like the piece, then try pointing out a section where they took a risk or did something you've never seen them do before. Maybe you didn't like the character at all, but they were awfully believable. Say that. Remember, this is someone you love. Dig deep.
If you happen to love a very stubborn writer who refuses to tell you what they want from you and just forces you to read what they've written with no context whatsoever, then keep it simple and sweet: "Thank you for sharing that with me. I like getting to read your work before anyone else does."
Well, FOW, I hope this helps you feel more comfortable giving feedback to someone you love. Remember, you don't need to adore everything they write to be supportive. And you can (and should) tell them if you feel like you are ill-equipped to give them meaningful feedback in a way that doesn't damage your relationship. Now, go take your writer for a walk. Or give them another snack. It's probably time.