How to Give Feedback on Fiction: A Guide for Readers
Have you been asked to critique someone’s story? Been given a short story, screenplay or novel to discuss and have no idea where to start? Fear not. This is a guide to giving good feedback on creative writing. It explains how to deliver your critique and the key questions you should answer. As a reader, it will make you very popular with your writer friends. As a writer, the crib-sheet for reader questions will help you edit your own work.
It may also improve your love life. I’m not even joking. Ready?
Part A: How to give feedback
1. The shit sandwich
The shit sandwich[i] is the most important tool you need to know when giving criticism. Praise – Critique – Praise. This works anywhere: office reviews, school reports, conversations with your lover, anywhere.
First, start by saying something positive. Anything positive. You can’t make something up (that would be cheating). But no matter how bad the story you must find something good to say. They are going to be nervous. If you don’t encourage them they won’t hear your feedback. They will only hear “oh my God I’m the worst writer ever and must destroy all I have ever written.”[ii]
Only once you’ve reassured them they don’t need to burn their computer and break all their fingers can you start talking about issues in the manuscript. In part B of this article you will find the key questions a story writer needs answered. Don’t be afraid to add a pickle – something you liked and why is always useful feedback[iii]. But try not to give more than two or three concise points. Any more than that will be ignored and forgotten, largely because by point three the writer will be in a desperate state of emotional shock.
Finally, finish the sandwich with more bread. The last thing you say should be something encouraging about a part you liked. “I could really see the street as you described it,” or “Jo-Bob is a really funny character,” or (in desperation) “this has really improved, you’re really growing as a writer.” Really, really. Then stop talking. Don’t say the “but” that is burning the back of your throat. Sit down, shut up, and let them cry for a bit. Possibly give them a hug.
The shit sandwich means that you always start and finish with praise. It is the single best way to ensure that someone takes your feedback on board. If all you do is give someone shit then you aren’t helping, you’re picking a fight.[iv]
2. Identify problems not solutions.
It is the writer’s job to fix the problems in the story. Your idea that the secretary could secretly be a super-agent? I’m sorry, but it’s shit. It might work in your story, but this isn’t your story. You think she should turn around at the end and say “But seriously, Dr Jones, it was the butler what done it?” Keep the thought to yourself. It doesn’t help.
Any story is a vastly complicated web of threads that are locked up tight in the writer’s head. Even if you are a writer yourself, you can’t see the whole picture. Worse yet, if they do use your idea, they aren’t writing their own story any more. They will lose impetus, emotion and truth.
Keep your solutions to yourself, no matter how tempting. Writer’s solve problems. Your job is to help them see the problems they have missed.
3. Address specific questions.
This may sound obvious, but if the writer has asked you to look at a specific part, then make sure you answer their question. I generally plan notes in writing when I’m giving feedback, and I like to write out any questions they asked as the first bullet points.
It is deeply frustrating when you ask a reader if they understand what is happening in the fight scene on page two and they reply that the medieval castle on page one wouldn’t really look like that. That might be useful to know, and if you have time to mention that at the end I’ll probably appreciate it, but for the moment can we please check you know who stabbed who?
4. You are not a copy-editor.
Unless they have asked you to analyse for spelling and grammar, don’t waste time on spelling and grammar. If you feel so compelled, then do note mistakes on the transcript. But that sentence you spent half-an-hour trying to fix for mismatching pronouns? It’ll only end up getting cut and replaced with another error-laden sentence. You are wasting time and one of your precious two or three points. A developmental edit is all about story. Leave the copy-editing for the final draft (and a copy-editor[v]).
Part B: The Shit in the Sandwich: What questions does a fiction writer really need answering?
This part is a crib sheet for the most important questions that a writer needs answering. You should note answers to these questions on the manuscript, and pick the most important two or three to talk about.
These are not the only questions a writer may have. I’ve done readings for jokes, or for dialogue rhythm, hell, I’ve done readings for name consistency. See rule 3 above: if the writer wants to know if the assonance in the protagonist’s big speech is working, that’s what you should talk about.
But for general feedback on a story, try answering some of these questions. If it looks like too many questions, then the questions at the top of the crib sheet are the most important.
There are three things I want to highlight from this list:
First: The most important thing in any story is that you can tell what is happening. Nothing else will work if you can’t make sense of the words on the page. The story is obvious to the writer, so sometimes they can’t see when it is confusing for a reader. You must tell them. Sometimes it is good to be confused, but as a reader you can usually tell the difference between an intriguing mystery and just having no bloody idea what is going on[vi].
Second: There is no feedback point for “this is bad.” Try as much as possible to stick with “this didn’t work for me” and similar. You are, on occasion, going to read some catastrophically bad writing. If you start soft you can go hard later, but if you start off with “this is bad” then you have nowhere to go when they start ripping the manuscript to shreds and cutting their wrists on the sharp edges.
Third: The list is probably too long for a reader to take all of it in. Concentrate on “I don’t understand this, I like this, I’m not sure about this.” If the other points crop up, that’s great, but don’t panic!
Part C: Why are we giving feedback?
Writing a story is a big deal, and sharing a story is an act of trust. You have a responsibility as a reader to think about what you want to achieve with your feedback. Is this a first-time writer that needs to be encouraged? A screenwriter who is blocked on their first novel draft? An experienced author who is experimenting with a genre shift?
Don’t give feedback that is destructive to your objective. I don’t care how right you are. Don’t give feedback that is destructive to your objective!
A young first-timer doesn’t need to know their protagonist is a great big cliché – they need to write another thousand stories before they get good anyway, so give them feedback that keeps them writing. Someone who is blocked doesn’t need to be told to redraft their opening paragraph – they need inspiring past that blank page and reminding what was exciting about the story in the first place.
You should always ask the writer what sort of feedback they want, and why. With a bit of luck this will lead to some specific questions. Most of the time it will result in embarrassed muttering. Hopefully you will get an idea of where they are (1st draft, later edits, just about to be submitted) and what they want to achieve (fun, personal development, competition, publication).
If you become the sort of reader who talks about what they do and don’t understand, highlights the bits that they enjoyed and those they found uncomfortable, and wraps it all up in kind comments, writers everywhere love you, buy you drinks, and harass you to read their work[vii]. But always remember that you aren’t writing their story. You are helping them write their story. Say things that help.
[i] Credit for this term is due to the Royal Navy. The wonderful things one learns in officer training!
[ii] It is worth noting that some writers are not desperately anxious about their writing and will not respond like this. In my experience this means one of two things. Either, a) they are bad writers who don’t think enough about their writing. In which case you should stick with the shit sandwich because it is still the best chance of getting them to listen. Or, b) they don’t respect you enough to care about your feedback. There is a high level of correlation between b) and a). Funny that.
If this is a case of b) they don’t respect you enough to be anxious, well, frankly, fuck them. Give them the shit direct and maybe you can shock them into caring. Or don’t bother, as if they don’t respect you they aren’t worth the effort. There are far too many want-to-be writers out there who have no interest in actual feedback. Why waste your time on them?
[iii] Why does the writer need to know about the good stuff? The obvious answer is that it stops them from cutting themselves, which is nice. More importantly (because those stupid writers love the pain anyway), by the time you get to your four-hundredth draft you can’t tell what is good and what is not. Telling me you really enjoyed the fart joke on page 4 stops me from cutting it and encourages me to write more fart jokes. Comments about Toby Frost’s epic books of dick innuendo would be entirely appropriate here.
[iv] You are trying to help, aren’t you? No? Ok, if you want to fuck with a writer, try one of these: 1) “You know, this is just like [insert other recently published book here.]” 2) “You know, what would really help is [insert utterly random plot twist, possibly involving aliens, that you talk about for an hour and would involve totally re-writing the story]”
[v]What’s that you say? You are a copy-editor? Nope, not today you aren’t. Besides, isn’t it nice just to think about story for a change?
Of course, this doesn’t count if they’ve given you a manuscript and said “can you check this for spelling and grammar.” Congratulations! You are now a copy-editor! Good luck with that…
[vi] One makes you go “mmmmm….” and the other makes you go “ga dah bah?!”
[vii] Which is a good thing, right?