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Asking for the right feedback

February 2, 2011

Over the past few years on this site, the topic of given and receiving constructive criticism has been addressed a number of times.

Our writers have offered strategies on how to give or handle rejection letters and critique, ways to managing the inner critic and opportunities to learn from the criticism received. However, taking it a step backwards, no-one has highlighted the types of feedback you may be asking for and how to ask for it.

Asking for a specific kind of feedback can be the best way to get advice that you can use, but for a myriad of reasons, writers shy away from requesting the specific information they need.

No doubt, the person you have handed your work to is someone you admire or trust. Very often, in the case of a fellow writer or a friend, they may not know what you are asking them to do. Without a clear context or reason for the feedback, your critic may struggle on what to say.

In its broadest sense, feedback is gaining a response to a process or activity. Feedback does not involved editing – thats a different kettle of fish all together!

Feedback that does not help anything but the ego include:

  • Parental glowing  over your latest “masterpiece.”
  • Your friend giving your story a quick glance and saying “Looks fine to me”
  • Comments (from friends, family, strangers, bosses, ) such as “Good” or “I like it.”

MORE helpful feedback includes:

  • Any comment explaining why someone did or did not like your work.
  • Any comment pointing out what mechanics within your writing worked or did not.
  • Specific examples, passages or images that the critic enjoyed or did not understand with a question or comment beside it.

Ask for the feedback you need, the topics you want to discuss and what kinds of questions you want answered.

Inform your reader of the guidelines you are working under –

  • the name of the competition/ submission
  • if word count is an issue
  • The intended audience
  • when you need the feedback by.

Be specific on what you want the reader to comment on:

  • You may want your reader to tell you if the entire premise is believable – so an overall ‘feeling of the story, rather than a micro analysis.
  • You may want feedback on a specific event or character within the story – in order for you to fine tune it.
  • Your feedback may focus on a readers comprehension of the theme you are presenting – if you need to highlight or downplay anything.
  • You may be asking your reader to check factual content and suggestions on where look for more information.
  • The feedback you are asking for may look at your interpretation of a specific scene, whether it makes sense of if its logical and consistent.
  • You may ask the reader to look at the “Flow” (good/ clear transitions? Does the introduction prepare or hint to the reader events which come later? Can the reader follow the story easily?)
  • You may be asking the reader to comment on your style – particularly if the piece is for a competition with a specific theme or genre.
  • You may be asking your reader to correct grammar.
  • Wordcount may be an issue and you need assistance in identifying passages which can be cut. Its not up to your reader to do this – but to give you their opinion as to what areas can afford to be trimmed down
  • You may askyour reader to proofread – picking up the small errors – spelling, typos.

Don’t just send your text off to a reader and ask for ‘feedback.’ Give them some guidelines and points to consider when they are reading it. When you do receive feedback, think of it as a way to help develop better writing strategies, rather than a personal attack; after all, you asked for it.

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Annie Evett oh – and don’t forget to thank your reader for their time. Its always nice to offer to do the same for them – and to let them know how you went inthe competition or submission process..Follow Annie here on Twitter and catch her growing amount of websites and blogs here
  1. jesswords10 permalink
    February 2, 2011 6:22 am

    Thanks for the post! This will be helpful as I’m trying to gather friends of mine into a writing group, and one of my concerns was we’d all be too nice and not give constructive feedback. I plan to print this so I can share it with the group…if I can actually assemble them in the same room!

  2. February 2, 2011 9:27 am

    Yes, I’ve been in a few writers group situations where a writer isn’t clear on the kind of feedback they need, and the result is either (a) bland encouragement or (b) repetitive comments on a particular issue i.e. whatever the other person is comfortable. Neither of these help improving the piece of writing or the writer’s skill.

    I think it’s essential to be specific if you’re sharing a draft for feedback, we all need help in different areas. I don’t ask for help with grammar unless I’m in the very final stages of a piece of writing, but I will often ask if the dialogue sounds believable; if it’s ‘culturally-correct’ e.g. as a UK writer drafting a USA scene; if they can picture the characters (or if they *like* the characters – I’m often afraid of writing someone so objectionable that the reader just can’t bear to read on…). But yes, if a writer actually wants to improve their writing, they’ll be specific when asking for feedback.

  3. February 2, 2011 10:14 am

    Asking for specific feedback is so much better than asking for general impressions. But maybe we shouldn’t always trust those who say, “I loved the book. Couldn’t be better.” The essayist Norman Podhoretz said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged in the literary world that the only way to remain on good terms with a writer whose work one does not admire is to pretend to admire it.” So maybe our friends might be pretending. I think we should meet all criticisms–both positive and negative (i.e. constructive)–with some skepticism.

  4. February 2, 2011 7:55 pm

    I’m just now getting to the point of showing sections of my draft to family and friends, so this is really helpful. I’ve heard some useful comments from a few folks already, but the most interesting feedback I’ve gotten so far is “I was kind of surprised at how much it seems like a real book.”

  5. February 7, 2011 5:28 pm

    When I was enrolled in a Professional Writing program in college, we had to seek out test readers. I suppose that in the working world, we refer to such people as beta readers. The focus was never on the criticism received (although most often it was extremely helpful) but instead on the request for specific feedback. It wasn’t about what we needed to hear; it was about getting answers to our questions. If we were concerned about a certain aspect of our writing, that’s what we needed to explore. The questions we drafted for our test readers had to be designed to benefit our writing in the best ways possible. Our writing, not our egos.

    So, in summary, I completely agree with everything you discussed here and appreciate that you’ve shared it with your readers. Great post.

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