Giving constructive criticism can be a scary thing, especially when it’s a friend asking for your feedback. This happened to me recently when a friend asked me to “be brutal”.
As scary as it is, when a friend trusts you with their precious work, you owe it to them to be honest. Sugar-coating the truth doesn’t help them become a better writer.
However, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of harsh criticism, you already know there is a big difference between having someone enthusiastically point out your blind spots as a writer and having them tear you to pieces.
So here’s my guide to constructive criticism, based around eighties pop songs, because why not?
Do you really want to hurt me?
Before you begin, find out what kind of feedback they’re seeking. Ask them, “What if I hate it?”, “Do you want full-blown honesty or just an overall feel of whether I enjoyed it?” Lay down some ground rules so you don’t go charging in with pages of things they need to fix when all they want is some reassurance and help with tightening it up a bit.
The power of love
Approach the work with love. Enjoy the process of digging out the gold in the manuscript. After all, that’s what editing is all about – getting rid of the stuff that’s getting in the way of the story. If you’re doing it with love for the work and for your friend, that will come across when you share your feedback, too.
Never gonna give you up
Part of finding out what’s not working is seeing what is, so take note of what you want them to keep. Is there a character you love? Is their scene setting vivid and poetic or their dialogue just right? Is the structure working really well? Do they have a strong sense of place or manage just the right balance of show and tell? Is the plot riveting? Every writer needs to know what they’re doing right and what their readers enjoy. Not only does it make it easier to take criticism, it also helps them build on their strengths and gain deeper insight to the things that aren’t working.
I want to break free
While reading, you might find your thoughts breaking out all over the place, so taking a structured approach helps you organise your thoughts and give clear feedback. It also makes it easier to see where the strengths and weaknesses are. For each aspect – setting, characters, pace, plot, structure etc – write down their strengths and expand into the problems to give a rounded perspective.
When you see a problem, it’s human nature to offer a solution. But don’t do that. You don’t have to have the answers – in fact, it’s better if you don’t. It’s not your book, after all. So if a character arc isn’t working, for example, don’t tell them what the arc should be – tell them what you want from it and let them figure out how they’ll deliver it.
Should I stay or should I go?
While reading it, ask yourself what the point is of each scene/sentence/character/word. Some people write themselves into and out of scenes but they really only need the middle of it. Sometimes the whole point of a scene is in one piece of dialogue that could be mentioned elsewhere. Make every single aspect of the work earn its place on the page.
Take on me
If there’s problems with the writing technique rather than the story – eg, over-telling, expositional dialogue, fluffy descriptions, repetition etc – mark up some pages with edits and ask your friend to try this experiment: put the scene into a new document and then change it exactly as you’ve done it. This lets them take on your suggestions without judgement to see whether it works for them or not. (I’ve often tried this and many times it has created those liberating lightbulb moments that have improved my writing.)
And after “being brutal” with my friend? I’m pleased to report that she took my feedback and ran with it. It was exciting to see her embrace the points I raised and use them to fire her rewriting process.
She also returned the favour, helping me see how I could further tighten my manuscript and finally get it to a publishable length.
And remember, make sure you receive it with the same grace and enthusiasm that you give it. The end result is better books, and that’s good for everybody.