Feedback is a significant part of the writing process. Giving and receiving feedback is also one of the most overlooked aspects of writing. It wasn’t until I taught English to high school students that I realized why.
Every day, I started class by writing a short list of things we would cover during the lesson on the board. You’d think the words “Feedback Day” were code for an announcement that Beyonce left the music industry to devote her time to protecting endangered butterflies or something. It was around that time that I learned that there are actually twelve stages of grief. My students would go through all the stages every time I said that it a peer review day. Except acceptance. That was the stage of grief we struggled with.
Anyway, I tried every trick I knew to make peer editing essays exciting and fun. Finally, I came to the realization that the problem wasn’t that giving and receiving feedback bored my students, per se, it was that my students didn’t know how.
Today, we’ll go over the what to look for when you give feedback to your writing buddy.
The struggle of giving and receiving feedback
There are three major reasons why writers have a hard time giving and receiving feedback:
- They don’t know what to look for in another’s writing and doubt their ability to provide useful feedback.
- Reviewers feel anxious about providing honest feedback because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
- They fear criticism when receiving feedback on their writing.
What to look for when giving feedback on writing
Not knowing where to start looking when giving feedback is a common problem that many writers face. It’s an issue I saw constantly in the writing classes I taught. I’ve fallen prey to this issue before too. There’s a certain feeling of responsibility when someone trusts you enough to approach you for your feedback on their writing. You don’t want to screw up. So, you fret and scramble to find something-anything to comment on about in the draft they gave you.
Then you get stuck providing basic feedback that’s like, “I think a comma should be here, but don’t take my word for it? I’m not sure.” Someone told me that once on something I wrote. That was it. They gave me nothing else. One super, non-comitial comma mistake on a six-page essay. I wanted to scream.
Does this sound like you? If yes, then—
When someone comes to you with their writing and they ask for feedback, BEFORE ANYTHING, ask them these questions:
What do you want me to pay close attention to in this piece of writing?
Describe what you feel most confident about in this writing/What are you most proud of?
What gave you the most trouble when you wrote this?
Warning: Don’t set these questions up for a “yes” or “no” answer. Stay away from “Was” or “Did” questions. For example:
THEM: Can you look over this essay I wrote?
ME: Sure, was there anything you wanted me to pay close attention to?
ME: Did you have a hard time with anything?
THEM: No. Bye.
If they don’t provide you with details or you want to be thorough, I’ve got a free cheatsheet you can use. It covers all the foundational things to look for when giving and receiving feedback. Just click the button below to get it.
Something to remember if you worry about hurt feelings
The nature of giving and receiving feedback is that you review is a draft of writing. Unless the person asking for feedback says, “Check this out! This novel is my life’s work—I’ve spent 84 years working on it. I’m finally finished. Now my body can crumble to dust and my soul can pass on in peace,” then it’s not a draft. Proceed with extreme caution. However, chances are that what you get is a draft, and they want honest feedback.
The Feedback Sandwich:
The most useful (and kind) method of providing feedback on someone’s writing. Reviewers make a Feedback Sandwich with two slices of compliment bread and a filling of constructive criticism. It comes with a side of suggestions.
Basically, at the end of every piece of writing you review, write a short note saying what the writer did well, what they could work on, and suggestions on how to start fixing any of the issues you found. Important: You should always be able to find at least one good thing about someone’s writing. If finding one good thing is hard for you, instead of falling into the feedback-trap-mindset of looking for mistakes, spend time actively looking for things they did right. Go into it as a positive force.
Start the feedback with what they did well or what you liked best. Then, mention something you noticed in the writing that needs work. ALWAYS suggest one way they could approach the issue you found. Finally, end with another compliment or another thing you enjoyed. The image below is an example of feedback that uses the Feedback Sandwich method.
The most important thing to remember when you read over the feedback someone provided is that writing is a process. It’s not something that you do and then finish and it’s perfect. It’s a series of phases you move backwards and forwards and sideways through.
What you start with is almost never what you finish with. Take comfort in that.
Some other practical tips for receiving feedback:
- It’s okay to share a small portion of your writing if you feel self-conscious about it. No one will judge you if what you wrote is only a few paragraphs.
- Talk to your writing buddy—tell them what you struggled with. Review the terms and guidelines you set up for positive interaction and feedback.
- Listen and respect the feedback you receive. Be gracious. Look for a second opinion if you don’t agree with what your writing buddy said.
- Don’t be afraid to drop a writing buddy if they act like a Dementor. If you feel drained, depressed, or embarrassed after every interaction with your writing buddy, you may want to find someone more supportive. I created a Facebook group for the purpose of connecting with other supportive and helpful writers.
As readers, it’s easy to forget that giving and receiving feedback is part of the process. When we read books from the bestseller’s list, we see the finished product. We don’t get to see all the work that went into that novel or article. What we read and what critics praise represents a small portion of the writing process. We don’t see all the planning, drafting, editing, sharing, rejection and revisions that went into the piece.
That’s what’s comforting about feedback. You realize that there are parts of writing that transcend us and link all writers together. Like a shared lineage. Or like a drunk uncle at family parties. Giving and receiving feedback is something every writer can relate to. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling—every famous author you’ve ever read—has received feedback on their writing. No one is exempt or above it.
What’s your best advice for giving and receiving feedback?