How to Give Your Honest Opinion About Another Writer's Writing
Giving Your Honest Opinion -- Diplomatically
When you have been asked for feedback on a fellow writer’s work-in-progress, honesty is not just the best policy: It is the only policy. It has two simple rules:
- It is always wrong to tell a fellow writer that his work is good when it isn’t.
- It is always wrong to tell a fellow writer that you like what he has written, when you don’t.
Here are some diplomatic ways to say difficult things to fellow writers whose work could definitely be improved. Focus on the work, not the writer, and have specific suggestions for improvement. That's the constructive criticism all writers want.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This part of the manuscript makes no sense.
SAY: This particular passage on page ____ isn’t clear to me. I got lost at the point where _____________________.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This work is so personal and intimate that I’m embarrassed for the writer.
SAY: At about page ___ I began to think there might be too much information about___________________ in this piece.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: That character in the story is a stereotype.
SAY: You might consider adding some more personality traits to that character ________, to keep him from seeming like a stereotype. For example, you could try_____________.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This writer ought to learn grammar and spelling.
SAY: While I was reading, I kept getting distracted by the typos in this manuscript.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This piece of writing just goes on and on about the same thing.
SAY: I think you get your point across fairly early in the piece, and after about page ___or so, it begins to feel repetitive.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: How can I possibly give useful feedback when the author gave me a story or essay with no ending?
SAY: It’ll be really hard for me to give you any useful feedback until this piece has an ending on it.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: I’ve tried to understand it, but this piece is so bizarre, I have no clue as to what response I can give.
SAY: Based on what I understand, this is what I think this piece is saying.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This writer thinks he’s a genius, when he’s just arrogant and doesn’t know what he’s doing.
SAY: If you’re open to suggestions, I have a few.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This piece of writing offends me.
Remember, your priority is to assess the quality of the work, not anybody's morals or values. But if you are so offended that you can barely pay attention to the quality of the work:
IF IT IS FICTION: Keep your comment specific and short. And remember that fictional characters and narrators aren’t obliged to be polite or politically correct. They may curse, neglect their children, use birth control, hunt endangered species, or burn flags. You might not care to meet them if they were real, but they aren’t. Don’t assume that the writer holds the same opinions that her characters do. Don’t respond as if the work is a personal attack on your values. It’s fiction. You might venture to say, “It would be easier for me to accept _____ as a character if he was shown to have a side that was more ____________,” but the writer is not obliged to bring her character's beliefs or behaviors into line with yours.
IF IT IS NONFICTION, SAY: This piece seems to come down really hard on (women, sex education, your employer, the Catholic Church, etc.). I wondered if that was what you intended.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: Ugh, this piece is nothing but a bitter rant!
SAY: This piece has mostly an angry tone. I was wondering what other feelings besides anger this subject stirs up in you.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: Obviously, this piece isn’t fiction. It’s something that really happened to the author, and he or she should stop trying to disguise it as fiction, because it isn’t working, and try writing it as nonfiction.
SAY: You know, if something like this has ever happened to you, I’d really like to see it rewritten as a memoir.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This reads like imitation Edgar Allan Poe! (or Bukowski, or David Foster Wallace, or whoever)
SAY: This reminds me of something I once read by Edgar Allan Poe. I kept looking for the special twist that you would give it.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This writer is usually pretty good, but this time she’s written a stinker.
SAY: Of the pieces of yours I’ve seen so far, this is my least favorite.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: It’s supposed to be funny (or scary, or sexy, or…), but I don’t find it to be so.
SAY: Here are my suggestions.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: Oh, no! She wrote more sordid confessions and melodramatic tales of victimization! Does she think I'm a therapist?
SAY: This must have been really tough to write. In some places it was even really tough to read.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: I’d cut this whole section out.
SAY: I don’t think the piece really needs this section, because _____________________.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: This was probably scribbled 15 minutes ago.
SAY: This piece seems to me to be in a very early stage of development, so I’m approaching it as if that’s the case.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: It’s a well-written memoir, but who cares about her old Uncle Charlie (or her birthing experience, or her rebirthing experience, or the day her family got a new water heater, or how she’s always hated coconut…)?
SAY: I have some ideas for revising this so that your subject will appeal to readers besides your family and friends.
IF YOU’RE THINKING: I’d better be really careful about what I say to Mister Sensitive; he will explode at me (or burst into tears, or flame me, etc.).
SAY: I really like ___________ and ________________ about this piece. I’d make a few changes. First, I’d _____________________. . .
IF YOU’RE THINKING: When we last met, this author really tore my work apart. Now that it’s my turn to criticize her work, what can I say that will sting her just as much?
SAY: How wonderful it is that we can help each other be better writers!
Sylvia Sky has taught creative-writing workshops at universities since 1989. Copyright 2013 by Sylvia Sky.