Critique Etiquette: Giving Tough Feedback

This is part one of a two-part blog series on critique swaps. Keep an eye out next week for part two: Receiving Tough Feedback!

So, after you’ve finished a draft, you’ve looked around in writer’s groups, social media, or forums, and found a potential critique swap partner. Hooray!

First off, swap sample pages to see if you’re a good fit for each other. Check out each other’s critique and writing styles to see if they blend well. They may not, and it’s better to find out after a few pages than after committing to critique a full manuscript.

But what happens if you got overenthusiastic and skipped that sample-pages step? Only to read their work and–oh no–you really don’t like it.

That’s okay. Deep breaths. There are a few things you can do.

Overall, it’s important to remember this is your first in-depth interaction with the person. It’s usually better to err on the side of courtesy, while remaining truthful.

Option A. Hand it back and let them know it’s not for you.

Be kind but honest.

If it really just isn’t your genre, avoid making qualitative judgment. “I’m not a great reader for grimdark fantasy” is a perfectly valid reason to bow out. There’s no point in giving critique for a genre (or subgenre) for which you’re not also a reader.

If the writing itself just isn’t up to snuff, you can hand it back and gently let them know the prose wasn’t working for you and may need some work before you could really focus on bigger-picture things.

But let’s say you’re determined to see this through. It’s entirely possible to give tough feedback in a way that is still constructive and thoughtful.

Option B: Things to keep in mind if you do need to give negative critique:

1. Learn to be courteous.

Maybe you’re just a “tell it like it is” person. Too bad. Unless your swap partner has asked for tough love or you’ve already built up a rapport where you’re comfortable being blunt with one another, you’re gonna have to learn some diplomacy. It’s a crucial skill in giving constructive feedback.

2. The Compliment Sandwich. Use it.

The Compliment Sandwich goes as follows:

“I really loved Thing X — you’re great at *insert details about X*. However, Thing Y may need some work. *Explanation about Thing Y*. Thing Z, however, worked beautifully.”

Positive, Negative, Positive. You can even list multiple negatives in the middle, but starting and ending on a high note softens the blow and makes your recipient more willing to listen to the negative feedback with an open mind.

Every writer has something they do well. Voice? Evoking character emotion? Pretty descriptions? Intriguing world-building? Find that thing, and point it out. Preferably at least two of them. Knowing where to lean into your strengths as a writer can be just as important as identifying and working on weaknesses.

3. Avoid vague negative words.

“Wrong”, “bad”, “lazy”, “stupid”. These aren’t helpful, and are downright insulting. The point of critique is to point out what isn’t working for you as a reader, not to be nasty. But most importantly, these words are unspecific.

Be specific about what isn’t working for you as a reader, instead of questioning the writer’s skill with accusatory language. Rather than calling the author lazy, point out that a particular plot point felt like it hadn’t been foreshadowed as much as it could have.

4. Take a cue from therapists and use “I” phrases instead of “you” phrases.

When handling potentially confrontational situations in counseling, one technique is to lead with “I” phrases rather than “you” ones. For example, the phrase “you don’t listen” sounds accusatory and immediately puts the other party on the defensive. However, “I feel like I’m not being heard” can open conversation in a less confrontational way.

Try this method with your critique. Instead of “your book is in the wrong tense because it’s slow”, try “I had trouble reconciling the slower pacing and the more immediate tense choice”. By phrasing things through the framework of how they worked (or didn’t work) for you as a reader, you’re explaining your reaction to the book rather than pointing fingers at the author.

5. Don’t be condescending.

If you want to offer a suggestion for a possible solution regarding an element that wasn’t working for you, by all means, please do. But frame it as such. Maybe combine it with those “I” phrases from the last section.

“I feel like the twist might have had more impact if this character had more screen time earlier” is helpful.

“I’ve seen twists done well, but yours fell flat” is both condescending and not constructive.

Part of this issue concerns your overall tone. You’re a writer. You know what voice is and how to use it, so be kind in your word choice and phrasing. Courtesy goes a long way toward making bitter pills easier to swallow, and the recipient is more likely to utilize the feedback if it’s given in a way that isn’t also hurtful.

Conclusion

In the end, the most important thing to keep in mind is empathy. Be honest, but thoughtful toward your swap partner.

The end goal is to give feedback in the way that’s most likely to help improve the story. This means making it easiest to swallow, clear and specific, and delivered in a way that feels helpful and optimistic for the future of the story.

Next week: Receiving Tough Feedback!

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