Part 2: The 5 Rules of Giving Great Feedback
What distinguishes good feedback from bad? WEbook is all about community, and that means
reading and critiquing each other's work. But how can we be sure that the comments we leave for
our fellow WEbookers' poems, stories, articles, and novels are worth the (metaphorical) paper
they're printed on?
Follow these guidelines and you'll be well on your way.
Rule #1: Identify the writer's goals.
The fundamental point of giving feedback is to improve a piece of writing - and that means helping the writer get closer to achieving what he or she set out to do. You can assume that Mr. Generic Writer wants his work to be enjoyable. He wants to draw his readers in, and make them care about what he has to say. He wants his writing to be understood.
Beyond that, different writers might want to achieve different things. Mr. Generic Writer might want to make you cry, whereas Ms. Universal Writer wants to make you laugh. If you can't tell what a writer is trying to do, that's a problem, and your feedback should focus on that. ("I can't tell if I'm supposed to laugh or cry when Jimmy's dog drowns in the kiddie pool. It would help if I knew what Jimmy's reaction is - maybe you could show him burying the dog afterwards.")
Once you think you know what Ms. Universal Writer is trying to achieve with her work, your feedback should be designed to help her achieve that goal. If you don't care about what Ms. Universal Writer is trying to do, don't leave feedback. This rule is as much for your protection as Ms. Universal Writer's - with so much writing out there to care about, why spend your time and effort on anything you don't believe in?
Rule #2: It's not about what you like. It's about what works.
If I had my druthers, the words "I like" and "I don't like" would be eliminated from all writing feedback. (Unlike the word druthers.) Good feedbackers look for things that work and things that don't work. Once you've identified a writer's goals, find elements of the writing that work towards those goals, and elements that keep the writing from being all that it can be. Maybe the dialogue effectively creates suspense, but the setting isn't fully realized enough to add atmosphere. Maybe Jimmy is intriguing, compelling, and realistic, but Jane could use more development. Remember: If you care enough about the writing to spend your time getting feedback, you should be able to find at least a few things that work, even if there's a lot that doesn't work so well.
(Note: There's a difference between feedback and praise. Writers need and deserve both. If you want to praise a writer's work by telling him or her how much you liked it, by all means go ahead! But keep in mind that, if praise is silver, feedback is gold. If you do have insights about what works in a piece and why, as well as how to improve the parts that don't work so well, don't keep them to yourself!)
Rule #3: Be specific. Be specific. Be specific.
When you tell a writer what works and what doesn't work, give specific examples from the text. Instead of saying, "The dialogue creates suspense," say, "The dialogue is suspenseful because Jimmy doesn't know that his dog drowned in the kiddie pool yet, but Jane does. Every time Jimmy says the dog's name, my heart leaps into my throat because I wonder if Jane's going to tell him, or if she's going to wait for him to go around the back of the house."
Instead of saying, "Jane isn't believable," say, "Jane doesn't ring true. She's supposed to be a teenage rebel, but in this chapter she's shopping at Nordstrom while holding a Starbucks latte, which makes her seem more like a yuppie."
Rule #4: Give suggestions for improvement.
In an ideal feedback world, every time you identify something that doesn't work, you'll give the writer one or more absolutely brilliant suggestions for how to improve it. In the real world, sometimes we can tell that something's wrong, but we don't know how to fix it. That's fine - maybe the writer, or another person giving feedback, will find an ingenious way to address the problem once you've been kind enough to point it out. But to take your feedback from good to amazing, give the writer some ideas about how to strengthen the weak parts of his or her work.
"Jane doesn't ring true. Maybe, instead of shopping at Nordstrom while holding a Starbucks latte, you could have her crash her mom's car through the window of Nordstrom's while drinking Windex. Then I'd get a sense of how angry and out of control she is, and it will be more believable when she drowns Jimmy's dog in the kiddie pool."
Rule #5: Know the elements of the craft.
Rules 1-4 are pretty great rules, but it's awfully hard to identify what works and what doesn't, and give specific examples and suggestions for improvement, if you're not sure what elements make up a story, poem, or piece of non-fiction article.
The list of elements you might look at when critiquing a piece of writing is far too long to cover exhaustively here. Luckily, there are a few universal starting points for prose, both fiction and non-fiction. (Critiquing poetry is a different animal. Rules 1-4 will serve you well with poetry, but the specific elements of craft that go into a poem are outside my area of expertise, so this will have to be covered another time.)
Language and word choice. Does the writing make sense? Is it grammatically sound? Is it pleasant to read, or awkward and difficult? Leaving the subject matter or storyline aside, is the writing interesting or boring? Believe it or not, good feedbackers can identify exactly what makes writing "boring" - often, the writer uses the same sentence structure over and over, or sticks to very plain, literal language.
Characters. Whether the writing is fiction or non-fiction, if it has people in it, it has characters. Characters should "come to life" on the page. They should be people we want to read about, people we can see and hear in our heads. This is accomplished through the judicious use of dialogue, interior monologue (the character's thoughts), physical actions, and description. When critiquing writing that has characters, take a look at how the elements of characterization work together.
Setting. Setting includes all the physical details of place included in a story - the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile feelings. Some settings may be too detailed, so that the story gets bogged down in what color the walls are, or how many steps it takes to get from the front porch to the car. Other settings might not have enough detail, robbing the reader of the chance to fully experience the world of the story.
Story or plot. This is, quite simply, what happens in a piece of writing. It may seem like the easiest thing to critique, but it can be difficult to separate from other elements of craft, especially structure. (See below.) Story or plot includes that all-important aspect of writing good prose (especially fiction and creative non-fiction) - conflict. When giving feedback about story or plot, consider whether the events that take place in the piece of writing are compelling, believable, and interesting.
Structure. Whereas story or plot is what happens in a piece of writing, structure is how the writer presents those events. The structure of a story (even a true story) is one of the most important things to consider when giving feedback. When you read a story, consider how it's told. Does it start at the beginning, move to the middle, and end at the end? Or does it start at the end, jump back to the beginning, and segue into the middle before circling back around to the end? There are many valid ways to structure a story - as a feedbacker, you are concerned with whether the structural choices the author has made work or don't work. Structure also includes things like pacing - does the author reveal events just as they happen in real life - one after the other, after the other? (Real-life pacing can be surprisingly boring.) Or does he or she slow things down or speed them up at appropriate moments?
As you consider all this, a final question you may have is: How much feedback do I give? Like how much to tip in a restaurant, there is no set answer. But WEbook's nifty "progress" bar will help you. As you type your feedback, watch in awe as the orange bar tracks the word count of your review. If you want to give someone a quick, gut reaction to their work, leave a “comment”—anything between one word (“Groovalicious!”) and 149 words. When you reach 150 words, the bar glows green like a light saber. Congratulations! You have officially left a piece of WEbook-sanctioned, honest-to-goodness “feedback.” Sure, you could make the bar turn green by typing, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” 16.6666667 times, but most honest WEbookers won’t get there without offering at least a few good, concrete observations or suggestions. Want to really go the distance? Keep typing. When you get into 250+ word territory, you have entered the hallowed realm of the “critique.” Critiques are like diamonds: multi-faceted, crystal-clear, harder-than-nails, rare, and valuable. Your reviewee will appreciate your effort; WEbook will notice it as well.
As you practice giving feedback, you'll get better and better at identifying how different elements of craft contribute to the reading experience. You'll be able to help a writer improve his or her work by focusing on specific parts of the writing that can be improved to meet the writer's goals.
And the absolute number one coolest thing about learning how to give good feedback?
If you can do all this for another writer, you can do it for yourself. You'll learn how to edit and revise your own work, and your skills as a writer will improve exponentially.