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How Editors Can Give Feedback That's Actually Helpful

It's fascinating to me as both a professional editor and a writer what some people believe appropriate feedback is for writing. I've met people who genuinely believe that pointing out exactly what's wrong with my work down to small grammar typos and minor logical missteps in the bluntest ways possible is "toughening me up" to make me "stronger" as a writer.


It never did; instead, that kind of commentary makes me want to drop my pen and change professions entirely. That never occurs to them - that their words are hurtful rather than helpful, and that they might have the exact opposite effect than what they wanted.


There are major differences between critique, feedback, and cruelty - as an editor, I believe it is our job to make sure our writers are getting useful critique and appropriate feedback, and that they aren't exposed to the kind of cruelty that could ruin their passion completely. Let me point out the differences and give you some advice on how editors can give feedback that's actually helpful.


The Difference Between Critique, Feedback, and Cruelty

So many bad editing experiences come from folks who don't know the difference between critique, feedback, and just being plain rude.


Let's start general: feedback is any kind of conversation you have with the writer about the work they have. Feedback can be positive, negative, or neutral. It doesn't have to be constructive or have a point - some of the best feedback I've ever gotten was a simple message reading "Well that made me cry." Generally, the purpose of getting feedback from readers is to let the writer know the emotional or thoughtful impact of their work. This can give them a better sense of how it's being perceived so that they can judge whether they're getting the message they want across.


Critique is a little bit more nuanced and structured than feedback is. Critique is a critical analysis of the piece on a narrative or informative and structural level. When a writer asks for critique, they're asking for information that's going to help them improve the piece when they go in to revise it. Critique might look like, "I loved the tone of this section but the wording was confusing," or "This section had inaccurate information that could be corrected in this way." Usually, critique is specific, targeted at a problem, and offers direct information about what the problem was and/or a potential solution to the problem.


Now, let's explore the difference between critique and being plain rude. Telling a writer that "this sucks" or "this is really badly written" doesn't point to a specific problem, give any details, or offer any solutions. In fact, those statements are opinions. They're feedback, in the loosest sense of the term, and extremely negative, pointless feedback at that. All it tells the writer is that you hate their work and maybe even them personally.


While it's fine not to like a piece of work and to express that to the writer, directly insulting the piece is never okay. This is something the writer worked hard on and presented to you with the confidence that you would help them improve; to spit on that confidence is just plain rude and meanspirited.


How to Offer Constructive Critique

So, how do you offer critique that's actually going to help an author improve? How can you tell if what you're saying comes across as mean-spirited? There are a couple of different methods you can use.


One popular communication evaluation method is called THINK, encouraging you to think before you speak by asking yourself questions:


  • Is what I'm about to say true?

  • Is it helpful?

  • Is it inspiring or insightful?

  • Is it necessary?

  • Is it kind?


If the answer to any of these questions is "no," it's time to rethink what you were planning to say. Consider phrasing it differently for a kinder approach, offering a solution to a problem to be more helpful or insightful, or simply saying nothing at all if it isn't necessary or true.


You might also use the technique I like to call the critique sandwich. The basic premise here is that you sandwich a piece of negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. I like to do this by noting something I liked, something that didn't work, and a way to change what didn't work. For example, "I love the characterization of A in this scene, but B's dialogue doesn't acknowledge that characterization. Maybe B could say something like this instead: [suggestion]." This lets the writer know that you don't hate their work and you genuinely want to help them get better.


Conclusion

Feedback can be intimidating but it doesn't need to be, especially if you're the one in charge of giving it. Done correctly, critique and feedback can make a writer better at their craft and improve every piece they write from that point forward. Done wrong, however, it becomes a painful insult that might discourage someone from writing at all. If you're going to give feedback, I hope for your sake and the sake of your writers that you slow down, think about your words, and respond with kindness.

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