Give and take — a post about feedback

Yesterday Sarah informed me that this week is WriteOnCon 2011, a free online writing conference featuring chats with authors, Q&As with literary agents, and workshops with writers at all levels. It’s not too late to check it out, so hop on over! There are some great resources and opportunities.

Taking my own advice, I spent a good part of my morning at the YA query critique forum, handing out opinions and watching for Ninja Agents. I haven’t yet decided whether to post my query for feedback and potential consideration, but I did work on it just in case.

Either way, this all got me thinking about feedback — how to give it, and how to receive it.

As a Critique Giver, your goal is not to rewrite someone else’s work, but rather to point out what wasn’t successful for you and hopefully explain why. This allows the writer to figure out their own solution, and that is how they become a better writer.

With some people (like critique partners) you might feel more comfortable giving specific suggestions, because you know them and their writing style/voice so well that you can imitate it in your edits. That’s fine. But you still can’t expect them to use your exact wording, because bottom line: as a Critique Giver, it should never be about you.

Side note: Comments based on your singular experiences are particularly unhelpful. (And annoying.) Example: “Oh, that house would never be violet! I had a house once, and it was brown.” However, comments based on your knowledge or facts are just fine. Example: “Um, that character would never have violet eyes. Humans don’t have violet eyes.”

(Unless they are albino.)

As a Critique Receiver, you must listen to all feedback. Agreement is not required, and not really the point. The point is to get perspectives besides your own. Yes, some will be more useful than others, but even the worst or weirdest can teach you something. (Namely: to have a thick skin.)

Something I’ve been trying recently is to “just say yes.” To any and all feedback. Don’t get defensive, don’t disagree. Just go with it and see where it takes you. Accept All Changes (in Word or wherever) and then make them your own. Surprisingly, I’ve found this to be fairly successful. Hard as hell, given my stubborn personality, but successful nonetheless. Just goes to show, once again, it’s not about you. So check your pride at the door.

Of course, most of this post has been about attitude (because that’s the most important part!). In terms of the actual how, I have just a few quick tips:

  • Start macro. (Plot, characters, pacing.) Giving micro-level feedback (grammar, diction, phrasing) too early is pointless and will take focus away from more important issues.
  • Serve a feedback sandwich. Good stuff is your bread; stuff that needs improvement is your meat and/or veggies. Starting and ending with positive observations makes the less-positive comments easier to swallow.
  • Pick your battles. Figure out which 3-4 things need the most work or will have the most impact. Don’t try to fix everything at once. It will just overwhelm the writer.

All right, I’ve used up my annual quota of italics in this post, so it’s probably time to call it quits. Hopefully I’ve said something of value. If not, just give me feedback on it.

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I think I'm addicted…


In the round


  1. What fantastic advice! It is harder to receive than to give, contrary to popular advice. You nailed it!

  2. Ah, the inner workings of the Kristan Hoffman critical mind. Having received your criticism, I can attest that you’re very good at it. It’s so easy, when asked to critique something, to focus on the things that need to be fixed, but as you point out, pointing out the things that are working is just as important. I will study this model very seriously–particularly the sandwich aspect–the next time I have to critique something. SO NO ONE SHOULD BE AFRAID, RIGHT? ;)

  3. Thank you thank you thank you! This post is so helpful! I agree that starting with macro is better; you could spend all day trying to fix the grammar/spelling mistakes in my writing! One problem I have with getting feedback is that I’m always afraid someone will ask a question that I don’t know how to answer. Do I just need to get to know my characters better?

  4. Great post. Can I print this out so I can add it to the info I’m giving out at my critique group? Seriously, I like the way you stated it. :)

  5. Ooh WriteOnCon! I saw it around the blogosphere before but didn’t really know what it was until a couple days ago, when I immediately got sucked in, haha. Great post on giving and receiving feedback. I like to focus on the macro stuff first, too, but need to work on the sandwich method. It’s so easy for me to just point out what needs to be improved, but I think I should be better about giving reassurance and encouragement. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. Orson Scott Card once said that he always acted on every single critique item he got from his wife, no matter what. He said that even if he didn’t agree with the criticism, the extra attention usually improved the story. Sounds a lot like your “Just Say Yes” approach.

  7. It’s nice that you wrote all of this out, Kristan. I’ve always found your critiques to be very insightful. Thank you!

  8. Les

    Good advice, it’s hard to not get your back up about a critique, but if you’re asking for it, be prepared for the responses.

  9. Jon

    Good post. I think you’re right about receiving criticism: Don’t be defensive and and don’t take it personally. Words to live by. Thanks Kristan.

  10. Sonje-

    I think the questions are the best part, because they get you thinking about areas you missed. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just have to be willing to figure them out. :)


  11. Great post! I have some good alpha readers in a workshop I’m in, but because of its nature (2,500 word submission each week) it lends itself to micro-critique rather than macro (hard to get a handle on plot and pacing when you’re reading a rough draft one small blob at a time).

    What I need now is someone willing to read the whole shebang and help with the macro stuff…and that’s not always that easy to find. It’s one thing to share a scene with some random person on “shecritiques” but I’d feel weird emailing an entire book to some total stranger…yet I live in a desert when it comes to writers. I may end up trying to convince some non-writer “reader” type to read it, but I don’t know if they’re going to be able to give good feed back re: pacing and/or plot.
    Ah well…I’ll figure something out.

  12. It’s definitely hard to make macro comments when you’re working with small chunks of a story at a time… but if you’re reading the same story (just in little bits each week or whatever) over time you should be able to see whether the story is working or not.

    Are there any members of your workshop that you really admire, or whose comments are particularly insightful or helpful? Maybe someone you really click with? If so, you might ask them if they’d be interested in a closer critique relationship (mutual, of course!) so that you both can send each other bigger chunks or the whole ms. I know Kiersten White and Natalie Whipple (two prominent blogging YA writers) found each other that way, basically.

  13. This is great. It sounds like you’ve been a critique partner for a long time. I would also add that it’s important to not overcommit yourself to reading people’s stuff and to be honest about when they’ll receive it back. (I’m sometimes overambitious with this).

  14. That is SUCH a good point! (Can you tell that sometimes I’m overambitious about that too? :P)

  15. I agree with all of this, but I’d like to add something for the Critique Receiver, which is to make it clear what you’re looking for (macro, micro, typos, etc.) and if the Critique Receiver doesn’t make that clear, then you should ask in advance.

    I think about this specifically because I’m a pretty good proofreader, and I’m happy to point out typos if the person wants them, but if the work isn’t at that stage it will be annoying to the recipient (and a waste of my time) to note them.

    And “pick your battles” definitely. My job involves giving feedback on people’s work, and I apply that rule every day.

  16. Yes, that’s a really good one too. I often spend more time than I probably should on feedback because I don’t get a good read ahead of time on what the Receiver actually wants, so I do my default full-out editing. :/

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