4 Ways to Give Feedback on Works in Progress

I sit, staring at the page, trying to come up with something, anything, vaguely intelligent.

And I’ve got nothing.

No, I’m not trying to write a new scene for my novel, or even a blog post. I’m trying to come up with some helpful comments for one of the people in my writing group.

I want to be able to help them, as so many of them have helped me. And by looking deeper into each other’s work, we all improve as writers.

So I wrestle with my commenter’s block.

Sometimes I have trouble because of the content. One woman wrote a heart-felt poem about her husband’s death. Certainly not something I wanted to play wordsmith to.

At other times, the writing just feels bland. Or clumsy. I can’t quite put my finger on the problem, not matter how much I want to. What I don’t want to do is make a comment like, “you need to write better dialogue,” even though that’s what I’m thinking. Feedback needs to be specific and give the person something to work with.

So today I thought I’d review some comments I got on a short story I wrote, to look at what were actually helpful. Maybe this will help me give better feedback to others. After thinking about the comments, I came up with x ways to offer suggestions for improvement:

1. Correct awkward phrasing or offer alternative words

Several of my beta readers corrected an awkward sentence, giving their own variations. This kind of feedback is helpful, because it shows me an alternative way of phrasing. Sometimes they suggest turning narration into dialogue.

Or they suggest a few word changes, or the elimination of repeated or unnecessary statements. Although one stated he liked my word choice (ebullient) he commented it sent him to the dictionary. No one else had a problem with it, so I guess I’ll let it stand.

2. When complimenting, be specific

Always welcome are the compliments, if they are targeted and not the “nice story” variety.

Great description of the uncle—I feel like I know him.

3. Ask questions.

Are both characters in the hospital? How is the first person related to the second?

These kind of questions make me think. Have I not given enough clues that most readers will figure things out easily? (Or alternatively, is this particular reader just slower than most?)

Some of the questions tell me I need to clarify more.

So she meant she found the reason for the fire?

That’s not what she meant. So I need to make it clear she’s trying to assess the damage.

Sometimes the questions point out plot holes and how to fix them.

How did she know what to look for? Maybe the cousin could send her a text.

Other kinds of questions touch on the characters’ motives. Why did they shrug? That seems like a strange reaction.

4. Explain your thinking behind the comments

The description feels like you suddenly remembered to add a detail. Make it work for you, like trigger a memory in the character’s mind or show some result of the prior action on the setting.

While the first sentence of that comment is helpful, the second tells me how to improve.

Which I think is the key to good feedback. Identify the problem, and propose a solution.

Maybe next month, I’ll be able to offer some better feedback to my writing buddies.

Now I need to figure out what to do with the comments I received. At least I know the story has enough promise it doesn’t need to meet its demise in the shredder.

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