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The Challenge of Finding -- and Giving -- Honest Feedback

It's harder than you think

Don't be a screaming baby about feedback

Finding feedback is hard

Millions of us write every day and publish often. Thousands of writers are pitching work every minute. Hundreds of us have completed a book manuscript and are looking for publication. Writers generate BILLIONS of words every single day.

All those words need to be reviewed. It’s a perpetual problem: You’re the creator, the mother of your stories, the progenitor of your prose, and sometimes you’re blinded by love. You can’t see the fault in your work, dazzled as you are by the fact that it sprang from your literary loins. Emotion winds around the phrases and heartstrings attach to paragraphs. Cutting your words or killing your articles feels like committing infanticide.

How do you gain enough perspective and emotional balance to determine whether your words are worth saving?


No big deal. Right?

Wrong. Finding honest feedback is hard. You have to find readers who possess three qualities: They’re willing to read. They’re capable of language skills. They’re honest.

Who should give feedback

Where do you find people who are willing, able, and honest enough to give you worthwhile guidance?

Your relatives may be WILLING, but they may not be objective. Your sister probably won’t tell you your manuscript sucks. Your aunt won’t tell you that your family narrative is boring. Your mother may only be able to see your writing through the glow of parental pride.

So you’ve got a friend who you trust. Is that friend ABLE? Yes, he can probably read, but is an avid reader? Is he used to consuming the written word and making judgments about it? Is someone who doesn’t love language able to give you valuable feedback? Probably not.

You need someone who can consume, digest, and evaluate the written word, a skill that comes from the love of reading.

Ever heard of Diogenes? He lit a lantern in search of a human, but the line somehow got translated, “I’m searching for an honest man.”

Writers search for HONEST humans who can help them improve their work by telling the truth. Nothing short of the truth will help.

Our words are the offspring of our brains and our hearts, tied to both ideas and emotions, so it’s painful when someone disses them. But criticism is necessary. Winston Churchhill believed that finding honest feedback was as necessary as visiting the doctor when you’re sick.

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

Where to find feedback

Book clubs

You wouldn’t ask someone who doesn’t count to do an audit. You wouldn’t expect a person who thinks art is a waste of time to judge a painting. Writers shouldn’t ask people who don’t love reading to provide feedback.

Book clubs are filled with people who love to read, making them good candidates for providing honest feedback. They probably read avidly, appreciate both fiction and nonfiction, and over years have developed criteria for “good” writing. Be aware that you can’t just show up one month at a meeting and say, “I need a volunteer to read my manuscript.” You, have to be a long-term member and on cordial terms with fellow groupies. Be aware, however, that YOUR priority is not necessarily theirs. Life gets in the way, their response is delayed, and your eager volunteer may take three months to read a short manuscript.

Writers’ groups

If you already participate in a writer’s group, you have a qualified, willing audience. Like membership in a Book Club, the cultivation of writer friends requires attending meetings, participating in readings and workshops, and reciprocating the feedback-favor if asked.

If a fellow writer gives feedback on your work, you must do the same for theirs. Both of you are committing big blocks to time to helping each other. Take their work as seriously as you want them to take yours.

Even writer friends may have difficulty giving you “criticism” because they like you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, but hopefully, they have been writing long enough — and have been “criticized” enough — to know how to do it well.

Online forums

In the age of COVID-19, in-person meetings may have gone by the wayside, but you can find like-minded writers in online forums. Like Book Clubs and Writer’s Groups, you have to participate frequently in online forums to get to know other commentators.

Once you’ve found a couple of people whose posts or comments you appreciate and you’ve responded to them, you’ll get to know them, forming cyber-connections. You can broach the subject of collaborating by critiquing each other’s work.

Paid editors

If you’re a true introvert — and many writers are — joining groups and openly seeking feedback is hard, if not impossible.

If you’re lucky enough to have financial resources, you might consider professional editing services. Most companies or individuals (and there are hundreds of them) can provide everything from developmental editing to proofreading.

A developmental edit is a thorough and in-depth edit of your entire manuscript. It is an examination of all the elements of your writing, from single words and the phrasing of individual sentences, to overall structure and style. It can address plot holes or gaps, problematic characterization and all other existing material. — Google definition

Developmental edits usually range from $45-$55 per hour. Proofreading is less, but no hard rules exist for the cost of these services.

What is good, honest feedback?

The other day I read a quip about feedback explaining that not only is feedback necessary for communication, but it’s also the only word in the English language that contains the letters a-b-c-d-e-f.

Honest feedback includes comments on any element of the writing that the reader responds to. It may include marking noticeable errors or creating marginalia with ideas or comments ranging from, “I don’t understand this,” to “I LOVE this description!”

Components of helpful criticism

Improvement, not judgment

Helpful criticism is motivated by the desire to help the author. Good feedback is not about liking or disliking the material. It’s not about approving or condemning the writing. It’s about helping the writer improve it for the next reader.

Suggestions, not fixes

Honest feedback may include grammar corrections, or it may not. The author will let you know what kind of reading she wants. Even if conventions of grammar aren’t marked, the test reader’s job is to identify unclear concepts or ambiguous language and offer suggestions on how to improve a passage. Critiquers do not “fix” the writing. After looking at the feedback, the writer alone decides how to modify the work.

Big picture, not nit-picks

The best criticism addresses the “big picture of the work.” It is not just about commenting on one line in the opening chapter or making a note on a frequent apostrophe error. Valuable feedback comes from examining the impact of the whole, not the tiny linguistic pieces that make up the whole.

Big picture issues include looking at the pacing and speed of the action, indicating places where it drags or where it moves too fast. It considers style, tone, and how the language fits with the targeted audience. The sequence of material, the development of characters, the effectiveness of the opening, and the power of the closing are all issues that helpful criticism will analyze.

Improve the quality of feedback

If you’re a writer asking for feedback, it helps the reviewer to know that it’s okay to be brutally honest. Create a sheet of questions to guide them, and start it off with a personal statement:

“I want to make this BETTER, and I’m depending on your help. Please, don’t hold back your ideas or thoughts. Give it to me with both barrels so that I can make this story bullet-proof in the future. I can take it!”

Give the reader whatever background material may explain your mental state. Include a list of specific, open-ended questions to guide them. Here are some examples, but your questions will vary depending on the kind of work you’re doing:

  • How did my opening line make you feel?

  • I am struggling with the order of these chapters. Can you make suggestions or comments about the progression of the story?

  • If I ask you to describe my writing in a couple of words, what terms would you use?

  • In this article, I’m persuading people to buy this product. Are you convinced and ready to purchase? If not, why not?

  • Is there any point where you were ready to stop reading? Why?

  • Which character seemed the most realistic? Which one the least? Why?

4 Ways to give feedback

Remember that the work is the brainchild of the writer. Be honest, but be kind.

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” — Frank A. Clark

1. Avoid using negatives as in, “Don’t do this”

No writer wants to be told what they can or can’t do as if you are the almighty God with a list of commandments. Instead, phrase comments as options or questions: “Have you considered this?” “You might try …,” “Think about …,” Or “What about…” and add an alternative suggestion.

2. Be specific, not general

Instead of saying, “Chapter Two needs improvement,” list exactly what element of the writing needs improvement: dialogue? pacing? language? Offer alternatives if you have them.

3. Practice “big picture” feedback

Don’t just pick at the minutiae. Consider the overall meaning, theme, and impact of the entire work, and comment on those.

4. Understand the difference between critiquing and rating

You are not a movie critic judging the work by bestowing a number of stars. You are offering constructive criticism and insightful comments, not giving it a grade.

Brain food for writers

Ken Blanchard once said,

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

Successful writers are not afraid to take suggestions to elevate their work. Whether feedback comes from a friend, a colleague, or an editor, it is an essential part of improvement. Consume feedback as a form of nourishment. Come hungry. Wolf it down. Digest it. Absorb it. Make it part of your writer’s corpus, and then decide how to exercise the energy you receive from it. As the creator of the work, the decision on how to use honest feedback is always YOUR choice.

It is not better to give feedback than to receive it. Both elements are essential elements of a writer’s life. Both are art forms.


Read more about how to be a writer in "A Writer's Life"

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