As a facilitator of a writing group, I have found that giving feedback to any writer can be a tricky process. Many members of my writing group are reluctant to give criticism to others because they feel that they are not expert enough at writing themselves to be able to help others. I tell them the same thing I tell my students: you may not feel like an expert at writing, but you are an expert at what you can understand and what appeals to you.
That’s what most writers need and want—to gain insight into how others see their work. A reader’s feedback is helpful in guiding the writer in making revisions, and it can affect the writer’s self-assessment, but it’s not the final word. I’ve even had the experience where two different readers have marked the same passage, one saying, “This is fantastic,” and the other saying, “This is difficult to understand.” Ultimately, writers will take the feedback and decide for themselves what they will follow and what they will ignore.
Along with giving a writer insight into his or her work, giving feedback can help you as a writer. You will learn how to take a step back from a written text and evaluate it on a set of criteria. These criteria will probably start off as unstated and unexplored, but the more you give feedback, the more you will see a pattern.
Ideally, you will be able to transfer the skill of giving feedback to others into evaluating your own writing as a reader would. Of course, it is more difficult to step away from the personal involvement you have with your writing to view it as an outsider, but it is possible.
The starting point for good feedback is to understand the writer’s goals and purpose for the work. You can compare this to what you took as the main purpose of the text and see if there is a match: “You seem to be trying to do______________. What I got from the text was _____________________.”
Next, you should find what the writer does right and comment on it—these are strategies you want to encourage the writer to use and enhance: “I really liked the way you used humor to get your point across.” “You offer a lot of good support here.”
When you move to making suggestions for improvement, you can critique at a number of levels:
- Point out a problem: “This doesn’t seem to work. I’m not sure why.”
- Define the problem, “The character seems too flat.” “This contradicts previous ideas in the text.” “You seem to be telling rather than showing what is happening.” “I find this difficult to follow.”
- Suggest alternatives: “Maybe you could show the character doing…” “You could support this by…”
Pay attention to your gut reactions—what you like and what you don’t like (at a minimum, you can write a smiley face or a question mark in the margins to indicate your feelings, but you will want to work toward doing more). Responses that focus on your own reaction can give the writer insight (for example, “I found this confusing because…” or “This didn’t seem real to me because…” or “I really could relate to this…” or “This seems too obvious because…”).
You don’t want to give too much feedback, which will just overwhelm and frustrate the writer, so you will want to focus on some core writing skills:
- Effective introductions and conclusions,
- Clarity of purpose or thesis,
- Structure or organization,
- Use of concrete language and description to engage a reader
- Ability to create interest for intended reader
- Development of ideas or use of support and specific detail,
- Style and clarity of expression, (word choice and use of clichés),
- Grammar and mechanics.
A summary statement at the end of the feedback might also be helpful to the writer. You can target two areas the writer did well and three that might still need to work. This will give you more insight into the passages you consider strong and weak writing, allowing you to view your own work critically.
When I make comments, I like to think of the writing as a conversation. Each paragraph is a statement the writer is making to me, and in the margin, I give my reply. Often that reply is in the form of a question: “What other details can you provide to make this more lively?” “Do you have any specific support for this?” “Do you think this idea belongs after the same topic on page 1?” Questions allow the writer to feel that I am exploring the text with him or her instead of attacking it from the outside. They also allow the writer freedom to respond.
Open any book and turn to the “Acknowledgements” page. On it you will find many of the people who provided the valuable service of giving the writer feedback. In the process of writing, those readers gained skills to become better writers themselves. As a writer and a teacher critiquing to others is one of the challenges of the job—but it’s much less challenging than the skill you are working toward: critiquing your own work.