Critiques: Giving and Receiving Feedback

September 21, 2011 | By | 30 Replies More
Short Story Writer Nettie Thomson

Nettie Thomson is a Glaswegian living in exile in rural Aberdeenshire with her husband, daughter and two toy poodles.

You know the old adage, ‘practise makes perfect’?

Well take it from me, it’s a load of codswallop.

I could practise hitting a tennis ball over the net from now until Christmas but without someone giving me pointers on how to improve my hold and demonstrating how better to follow through with each stroke, it’s very unlikely I’d make any considerable improvements.

And writers are just the same.

How are we to improve our craft without feedback? This is why I believe so strongly in giving and receiving feedback and what follows are the Nettie Thomson Guidelines on Critiques.

First, let’s look at asking someone to critique for you.

Always make sure you ask someone you trust. Make sure it’s someone you like and who you believe likes you too. The last thing you want is to give someone who has a grudge the excuse to tear you to shreds and damage your confidence as a writer.

Be sure to say what kind of critique you are asking for.

I love it when someone I trust points out all my typos, continuity mistakes and plot holes. You may not, so be sure you make clear exactly what sort of feedback you are after: do you want proofing for typos and grammar only or would you rather the reader explores the strengths and weaknesses of your characters and story line?

Nettie Thomson's Writing Desk

If your reader has agreed to look at your 100,000 word novel, please don’t ask them what they think about it after a day or even a week. Reading a piece of writing at the level required for proper feedback can take time and your colleague may have other boring commitments like a job, family and writing or their own to consider too.

When you receive comments on your work, take a deep breath and remember to take them in the spirit they were given. You asked for feedback and it’s better someone you trust tells you now if there are problems with your novel than you send out something substandard to agents and publishers.

Choose which ‘improvements’ to take on board. If several people tell you the same thing, it’s probably safe to accept they are right. Otherwise, these comments are only one person’s opinion. Think about what they have said and decide yourself whether you agree.

And now, let’s look at critiquing the work of others.

Don’t agree to give feedback to someone if you don’t think you have the time to do it. It’s always hard to say no but any trust you have built up will be chipped away if you let the writer down.

Ask what kind of feedback the writer wants. They may want you to concentrate on character development only or give a detailed page-by-page response.

Don’t think that you can’t give feedback just because you are unpublished. You are a reader and have a good idea about what makes characters believable and plots work. These are the kinds of things your colleague needs your response to.
Don’t just say, ‘I don’t like the main character.’ Tell the writer why. Is he too one-dimensional, is he inconsistent? Always be sure to give a reason for you criticism.

Tell the writer what was good about his work. There is nothing more dispiriting than a list of all the things you have done wrong. Sugar the pill with as much honest praise as you can.

So there you have it.

How do you feel about critiques? I’d love to hear your opinions.


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Category: British Women Writers, Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (30)

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  1. Ann Patey says:

    I took the last two weekends to write and rewrite feedback for a young friends novel that has done the rounds of agents and come back to him. Even though the story is good it does need some work and it was really difficult to give constructive feedback and get the right supportive tone. I finally pressed the Send button last night and I hope it will be useful and encourage him to do the necessary to iron out the (relatively small), problems.

    Giving written feedback is really hard work!

  2. Wendy Lyth says:

    Thank you Nettie. As a new writer with zero credentials it is an essential part of developing your writing. I found, quite rightly I suppose, that the writer’s group I attended did not give any feedback (didn’t want to deal with a bunch of teary souls no doubt), therefore I am lucky that the friend I asked was delighted to help. We went through her points together – most of which were spot on – and resulted in a much improved m/s. It was a huge learning curve for me. People generally don’t wish to suggest revisions but I keep saying – go on, give it to me straight. I have certainly toughened up and come a long way since my first criticism, which I took personally. I am a sensitive artist : )

    • Nettie says:

      Hi Wendy, Ah, it is difficult to remember it’s not personal. There have been times I’ve had to wait a few days in order to see straight, but once I calmed down I realised that most points were spot on. Thanks for sharing your experiences

  3. Nettie, this is a thought-provoking post! Feedback can be useful or not. Being open to it either way is, it seems to me, key. Take what works and leave the rest. For me, having a workshop or critique group that’s professionally facilitated works beautifully; feedback on a WIP is invaluable in catching issues along the way. In the end, you can’t please everyone, though, so filtering feedback is important.

  4. This is brilliant, Nettie.

    I would also add that it’s important not to think you have to take every single piece of feedback you get as gospel. It’s only one person’s opinion. That doesn’t mean you have to respond to them and tell them why you think they’re wrong, though, just that you need to take each point, consider it carefully, and decide how right you think it is.

    If, of course, you send it to other people, and they all say the same thing, then however much you disbelieve it, it’s likely they’re probably right…

    I really enjoy critiquing others’ work, and also enjoy getting thorough ‘pick it to pieces’ critique of my own work. Actually, scratch that – I don’t enjoy it as such. Ideally I’d like to be told my writing is perfect…but I probably wouldn’t trust someone who said that to me anyway 😀

    Like you, I want to know what’s wrong so I can put it right, and it’s as simple as that! Thank you for writing this – going to tweet it right now!

    • Nettie says:

      Good point, Clare. We all have our ‘preferences’ which don’t make us right or wrong. But if more than one person picks up on something,it’s probably worth thinking about. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Martha says:

    Interesting post; I’ve been part of a few online groups and seen people shot down in flames for being in any way critical. I believe all critique should be conducted on a private basis.

    In my day job, we write as teams and edit/critique our work purely in terms of ‘need’ rather than ‘flaw’ or personal ‘fault’. Do the words do the job? Are we saying what we want? Within that remit, there are no holds barred — and no-one is expected to balk at the most blunt and brutal examination of the dossier in hand.

    Fiction is more personal. We write from within and usually the work stems from a single author. This I learned when I first critiqued a friend’s work (on request); I immediately read the work and produced a list of things that needed to change. OOPS. My backtracking email was possibly the most urgent, demanding and delicate piece I’d ever written (and, in retrospect, the funniest). Seriously, I so SO wanted to help, but oh, did I overdo it…

    On receiving critique in return, my friend passed me some brief and saccharin piece of uselessness, and I thought she was utterly idle and uncaring. Clearly, we had a mismatch of expectations. Your recommendation to talk through needs and expectations before working together is Very Good Advice.

    These days, I rely on my agent to critique my work… and if I’m commenting on someone else’s, I really do make sure I put my fiction hat on before I start.

    • Nettie says:

      What an excellent point, Martha. Something negative said in public is much harder to take than in private andI’ll certainly be stealing that to add to my Critiquing Rules! What? The post isn’t on plagiarism… ~;0)
      Seriously, thank you for taking the time to comment.

  6. roz morris says:

    All good points, Nettie. Writers can often be unprepared for the kinds of things a critiquer might say. I do this professionally and I always sound out the client first with a preliminary discussion about the areas my criticism might cover. Partly it reassures them that their novel will be treated thoroughly and with respect, but it also primes them for what might be quite deep discussions. Also, I don’t take clients on if I don’t read their kind of fiction or chime with what they are aiming to do. It’s important that I feel I can genuinely be of help. (But writers don’t necessarily have to pay to get good criticism; there are many alternatives to professional editors!)

    • Nettie says:

      It’s interesting to hear this from a professional critiquer. Personally, I would consider a professional editor after I’d used my own critique group in the hope that I’d have less to work on than had I not had feedback. Being prepared for the negative as well as the positive is important and thank you for reminding us of that. Great comment, Roz, thank you.

  7. This is a great post, Nettie. I’m always very wary of giving feedback, because I don’t think I’m ‘qualified’, but you’re absolutely right: if you read, there is nothing to stop you giving feedback as a reader!

  8. Marisa Birns says:

    So very true, Nettie. It’s best to allow for honest critiques of one’s work, otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s time. I have someone, a prolific reader, who doesn’t pull any punches with her critiques. I gulp and nod my head, knowing she means the best for me and my writing. And when she likes something? Happiness.

    What a lovely writing area you have. 🙂

    • Nettie says:

      You are right, Marisa: we should remember all the good things about our work as well as the more questionable parts and I’m glad you have a reader who reminds you of both. And thank you – I write in our converted garage 🙂

  9. Emma Pass says:

    Great post, Nettie. “How are we to improve our craft without feedback?” – so true. Although it can be uncomfortable having someone point out the flaws in your work, it’s the only way you’re going to get better. I’m very lucky in that my husband will always give me honest but positive feedback; he’s an artist, and I do the same for him with his work. It ahs helped us both. My agent also critiques and edits my work, which I really appreciate, as I know her input has made me a far better writer than I ever would’ve been without it.

    As for doing a critique – I’ve only done one, and it was for a friend who I knew wouldn’t react badly. I’m not sure how I’d feel about doing it for a stranger; I think I’d rather not!

  10. Tracy Tidswell says:

    This is good advice Nettie. I think you’re right when you say you have to choose carefully when looking for someone to critique your work, it needs to be someone who you know will be honest and wants the best for you, not everybody does. People have their own issues and sometimes, critiquing someone elses work gives them a chance to prove how much they know.
    Someone told me that you have to choose someone who likes to read the kind of thing you’ve written but I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes it’s easier to proofread something when you’re not so involved in the story.
    You also have to examine the reasons you’re asking for critique. I’ve had people send me things to critique only for them to get very defensive, basically they thought they were sending me a masterpiece, something they were really proud of and had been waiting for me to tell them how fantastic they were.
    Some people seem to need someone to critique right from the beginning, others wait until they’ve got it as polished as possible, we’re all different.

    • Nettie says:

      Oh yes, there are many people who only want to hear the positives and sometimes, no matter how much you say you like some aspects of a story, as soon as you say the slightest critical thing they get quite huffy! And you’re right too when you say some people only want to brag about their superior knowledge. It all comes down to trust. Thanks for commenting, Tracy.

  11. Becca says:

    Nettie, such a useful guide to critiquing, and how good to have BOTH sides of the desk as it were. Funnily enough it’s something we were discussing in my real life writing group last night and I count myself so lucky to have a selection of very trustworthy people to critique my work.

    • Nettie says:

      Snap! In our on-line writing group we were discussing feedback last night too. And I too am grateful for my trusted friends who I know will give me honest feedback. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Becca.

  12. Jo Carroll says:

    So agree, Nettie. How can we learn if people don’t tell us!

    I’m so lucky – I have a daughter who loves me enough to be brutally honest about my work, and is still there to proof read and encourage (and share the successes, of course.) When she points out mistakes, she’s not saying I’m a rubbish person, just that this piece of writing is rubbish. It’s never personal – which makes it possible to be objective about the writing and still love her.

    And I’ve paid for a copyedit for my book (I blogged about this – the mixed feeling of needing her to be professional and point out the tiniest mistakes, and at the same time hoping she likes it!).

    But it is difficult to critique others. I’ve been on websites where people ask for feedback, and then explode in a hissy fit if anyone dares to make a suggestion (I steer clear of them now). So I try to make sure people really want feedback and not simply praise before agreeing to critique anyone. And make sure I point out all the bits I loved as well as those that need work.

    • Nettie says:

      Jo, I have had the same nasty experiences as you and been called all sorts of names because I didn’t just say “it’s great, you’re great.” It’s so good to have someone you love and who loves you give honest feedback. I’ve learned so much from critiques and I’m glad you feel the same way. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Dklwriter says:

    Hi Nettie

    Feedback is the most important and the most terrifying part of writing.

    It is essential in helping improve the WIP but also to help the writer let go of their piece of work and begin to see it as the reader will. That is a very hard process. I still find it very hard to assimilate negative feedback, but I want it and need it .. it just takes me a while to let the disappointment in, deal with it, work with it, see the improvement and smile again!

    The other point I would make is to remember the critique is always about the piece of writing and never about the Author.

    A really good subject :).

  14. Great post – feedback is such a tricky thing to get right, isn’t it? Sooo important to give positive feedback as well as negative. A new writer’s confidence can be terribly fragile, and I’ve often found that, even after class feedback on a student’s work has been overwhelmingly positive, the negative comments (even when sensitively and constructively given) can really knock them back. Yet if a writer wants to develop, constructive feedback is essential. As you say, it’s a really good idea to ask the writer what sort of feedback they’re looking for. That way, you can judge whether to just mention a couple of things for improvement, or, if it’s someone like me, who’s developed a skin so thick it would make a lizard jealous,give them a complete, no-holds barred critique.

    • Nettie says:

      Susan, I’m with you. I would so rather know I have written rubbish *before* I make a fool of myself by submitting to a publisher. Here’s to Lizard skin!

  15. Nettie, thanks for writing on this subject. I’ve remembered a few times when I got fire hosed by people, and I wasn’t prepared for it. The feeling was like getting put down in public. Awful.

    We’re all different in how thick a skin we have, in how well we distinguish the credibility of the person giving feedback, and how well we are able to pull the gems out of the feedback, and discard the sludge.

    Thanks for reminding us not to say yes to something we don’t have time for – everyone loses.

    • Nettie says:

      Too true, Anora. I have been bad in the past for agreeing to read a long piece and not having the time for it. I let my friend down AND myself. I’m trying not to make that mistake again.

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