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I want to give feedback but I have no idea what I'm doing

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Mar 29, 2014.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Some of us here on the forums are just starting out (okay, I'm using “we”, but I'm really talking about myself). We've dabbled a bit in writing and we're having a good time with it and we're enjoying ourselves. We've posted a piece or two on the forums and we've received some feedback on it — or maybe we haven't, it doesn't matter.
    The thing is: we want to help out. We want to give back to the community and give some feedback too, but unfortunately, we're not really sure we're good enough. All this talk about tension and active voice and deep PoV is a bit confusing and we're not entirely sure we've got it down well enough to advice anyone else on it.

    This is how I feel now and then. I shouldn't be advising people on how to do things when I'm barely able to do them myself.
    However, just because I don't know what's right doesn't mean I can't have an opinion. Opinions can be good too, even if they're not solid advice for how to improve your technical skills. I've tried a few different things when giving feedback and I found something that works for me and which it seems is appreciated by those I've read for.
    What I've done is I made a list of different categories that I can have an opinion about. I pick the ones I feel fit the story I've read and then I write a few lines for each category. I don't always pick all the categories and I sometimes add other ones if I feel like it. The important thing isn't really the list or the categories; it's that you take the most valuable resource you have — your time — and use it to try to help someone else.
    It's an easy way to get started though, especially if you've not tried giving feedback before and you're not quite sure where to begin.

    This is the list I'm currently using, feel free to suggest other categories that can be useful or interesting for someone wanting feedback on something they've written.

    1. Most favorite thing.
    2. Most room for improvement.
    3. Something I would like to see more.
    4. Something that's a bit unclear to me.
    5. Character I got closest to.
    6. Character that feels most distant.
    7. Best idea.
    8. Strangest idea (something I'm unclear on).
    9. Other notable points.
    10. Overall impression.
    11. Something I want to learn more about.

    If this doesn't fit in the Showcase forum, please move it. I figured I'd try posting it here first as this is where the feedback happens.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  2. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    This is a good topic, but it is in the wrong forum. I'll move this before replying
  3. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    The important thing to note is that every opinion is valuable. Whether you're able to explain the why of something, or able to only identify the what, it's all important.

    Raw opinions are sometimes more important than surgical analysis. In the end, all a writer really wants to know is "did this story work."

    So in the end, just share with the author your opinion about the story. If you want to really help an author, give your feedback to each paragraph. Did you find this paragraph interesting, or dull? Why? That's it. That is the most important feedback you can give a writer.
  4. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    For me, there are several ways to crit.

    What you're doing sounds perfect for either a rough draft crit (where you're overlooking most technical things because you're helping someone hammer out the details before editing) or for a beta reader 9where you're helping put the final touches on something that should be mostly cleaned up already.

    I think those are really good points of reference to use for most crits.

    When I look at critiquing for other people, I try to establish where the manuscript is. Truly, I want the author to know where it is, too. I want them to be able to say, "here's my rough draft of a 100k novel. I'm hoping to get your feedback on plot, pacing, characters, and foreshadowing."

    When someone tells me what they want, it's easier for me to crit. For example, if it's a rough draft as in the example above... it is a waste of my time to point out every weak sentence or grammatical issue. In fact, if I were reading such a manuscript without any author instruction, about the twentieth time I pointed out POV inconsistency or whatever, I'd write in a note like this: "I'm not going to comment on POV inconsistency any more because I'm not sure whether this is a stylistic choice. If you have concerns about POV inconsistency, try searching for every place you (EXAMPLE) and try to zap them out. If it's a stylistic choice, disregard my notes."

    I think the more technical advice I give is for people who feel their writing is "about there" and are getting ready to edit. Or maybe it's already edited and they want to improve upon what's there. I tend to give more technical advice at that point, trusting that the characters are already well-developed, the plot already makes sense, and the majority of the text will remain in the editing pass.

    When a new-ish writer asks for a deep crit on a small section, I usually give them the whole package: POV inconsistencies, weak descriptions, great visual imagery, kudos for great characterization, positive or negative comments on pace, impressions of the story and its emotional impact upon me, EVERYTHING. But that's only if I'm reading say, a few chapters. I won't do that for a whole book unless it's a trade or for a very dear friend. As you said...it takes time. LOTS of time. And while most people are appreciative, some aren't and it just turns into a waste of hours or days. Usually days.

    I think if you're concerned about giving sound advice, play to your strengths. Find a few people who have a style you really like, ask them a couple questions to clarify things (such as deep POV. That's a good one to discuss here) make sure you have a good handle on the subject, and then simply share your experiences. That's what I did. I learned a few things, posted my findings and asked people what they thought, and learned from their experience and my own. This is absolutely one of those things where practice makes perfect.

    Before I knew the technical words for all the writing concepts I employed, I knew how to describe stuff. Rather than "use deep POV here", I'd have said, "this character feels like it's being narrated to me through a filter". My poor crit partners of two years ago... they had to slog through long descriptions of what I thought.

    The more you trade with people, the easier your words will come and the easier it will be to see weakness in your own writing. It's a pretty cool process and one I've learned so much from. I'm so indebted to my crit partners because they pushed me, taught me, and put up with me. :) Thanks guys. Now I do whatever I can to sort of pass on that good will.

    Hope this helps you as you gain the confidence to give more advice. I guess my point is merely to be as honest and kind as possible. Build relationships with people you respect and find a polite way to ditch people who are negative influences on either your experience or drains on your time. I hope that doesn't sound terrible. I certainly don't mean to break off contact because of a negative crit, but working with people who can pick your manuscript apart but leave a positive stream of advice is awesome. Those people are keepers. In fact, I'd rather have that sort of crit than an all positive one like, "I love everything"... that doesn't really tell me anything and I begin to wonder whether it was even read.

    Positive people with good experience who can communicate clearly are the best crit partners. Strive for those things and you'll have no shortage of trades. Best wishes.
  5. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    I do a fair bit of crit work in Showcase and elsewhere.

    I am a long ways from being a grammar expert.

    But I am good (or so I think) at spotting logic and sequence problems, along with overused words. Those are the sorts of things I tend to comment on.
    Svrtnsse likes this.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I think that list is a nice starting point for organizing your thoughts.

    As for confidence about what you're doing with comments, it usually boils down to your gut feelings and initial impressions anyway. As I read sometimes a piece of text will just pop out at me not working. I'll think about it, and sometimes the answer will come. Other times, it doesn't. If it doesn't, I'll just mark the text with the comment like "Something didn't work for me here, but I'm not sure why. Could be just me." So at the very least, you get the author to take a closer look at the section, and sometimes that's enough.

    You don't need to have all the answers. When I get comments for my writing like I described, the issue may not be obvious to the critiquer, but it's obvious to me as soon as I look at it. Other times, when I send out a piece for critique, I already suspect there are certain things that need to be fixed, and I just need a confirmation that something isn't working at point X because I'm too close to the work to be objective.

    So you don't need the technical mumbo jumbo to help. A simple honest report on your impressions and feelings about something is plenty, and sometimes more helpful. I find that sometimes that technical mumbo jumbo gets tossed around a lot and not always in a correct or helpful way, so it can just end up confusing matters.

    We all can't review and break down a story like a professional critic, but most of us know when a story sucks. We all have instincts that tell us. The technical wording is just a way of articulating what our instincts say. But there's nothing to prevent you from articulating what your instincts say in your own way.
    KC Trae Becker and Svrtnsse like this.
  7. I've got to say, I'm pretty bad at critiquing, when reading a piece on the forum, and looking at the comments with all the clever people writing mini-essays on how the word choice evokes a deeper sense of emotion makes me want to hide under my computer desk and cry. :)

    I review as a reader; simply does it grip me, and if not, and if I understand why it doesn't, I'll say.

    I'm bad at spelling; I spelt writing wrong on a job application form a few days ago *blushes furiously*

    But as other people have commented on, I think you need a whole range of peoples views to give you the best feedback, you need people like me, to tell you the overview, and you need the clever people to break down your work for you, to show you its bones, as it were.

  8. Michael J. Tobias

    Michael J. Tobias Scribe

    If you can read, you can offer critical feedback. Some folks here are more experienced with writing, some more widely-read, some have more worldly experience, et. al. The great thing about any community is that one person can avail themselves of a wide variety of perspectives. And regardless of any level of any type of experience, we can all learn from anyone.
    T.Allen.Smith and KC Trae Becker like this.
  9. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I think, if I had to boil it down to a single principle, it would have to be:

    "Did this deliver?"

    A character is planning to sneak up and kill another character. Did it deliver? Did the writing make me feel scared, and tense, and sad, or did I just chug through bored, or did I feel that the emotion was just missing?

    Maybe you can pinpoint why it did or did not deliver, and maybe you can't. But the key metric that matters isn't the style or the verbiage or whatever else. Either you felt the story being told or you didn't. Everything else supports that.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  10. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

    A while back I used one of those online crit sites. They had a system set up where you would score out of five in eight categories.

    Characters, Story, Pace/Structure, Language, Dialogue, Narrative, Settings, and Themes and Ideas. (A bit vague on their own).

    Characters - Fleshed out or flat. Believable? Charismatic? Emotions? react as you expect them to?
    Story - How the plot affects the characters.
    Pace/Structure - Logical chronology of events? Consistency of events?
    Language - Grammar, Passivity, Too many words?
    Dialogue - Does it flow? Is it flat? Stilted? Boring?
    Narrative Voice - How does it sound to you? What's the tone of the piece?
    Settings - Is it consistent? Realistic? Are there any anachronisms?
    Themes and Ideas

    I'm sure there are a lot more elements that can be added to these.

    The idea was to get us thinking about each of these areas to help each other out, but really, the more you critique other writers work, the more you learn for yourself while you are doing it. It gets you thinking on how to improve these areas in your own work by helping someone else.

    You can review however you want. A critique is only another's observations, and opinions after all.
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  11. KC Trae Becker

    KC Trae Becker Troubadour

    How can you figure out where a manuscript is if the author doesn't tell you, or doesn't even know themselves? Where do you start?
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    If the author doesn't tell you, ask. If then don't know, ask how many drafts they've done or how long they've been working on it. That's a starting point.

    The labels I generally use for my personal work is as follows.

    1st Draft - Everything is raw. Some elements may be developed, others not. More elements need to be added. Spelling and grammar may be an issue. And there may be some huge plot holes. The fundamental framework for the story may be shaky, but it's basic shape is there.

    2nd Draft - Most big plot holes should be plugged. Most elements are in place, but all still need developing. Spelling and grammar may still be a problem, but not so big as to hinder readability or understanding. The fundamental framework for the story is in place.

    3rd Draft - All big plot holes should be plugged. All elements should be in place and are being refined. Spelling and grammar problems still around.

    4th Draft - Everything is 90% there. It's all about polishing now. This is where spelling and grammar problems get picked off as sentence structure and word choice get refined.

    Final Draft - There may still be problems, but they should only be minor. The story is as good as one can make it with your present skill set.

    Within each draft, there may be many-many editing passes. In some cases as many as a couple of dozen. And sometimes I have to drop down a draft because I missed something big or decided to add something big. This is all pretty inexact, but it's generally how I work, so when I tell someone this is my 4th draft, they have permission to kick me in the butt hard for big plot holes and big grammar faux pas.
  13. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    Your opinions count. You may be new to critiquing, but I don't think you're new to reading and having opinions about what you read. And a lot of what you've got in your list is what authors want feedback on. And strangest of all the things you don't understand in a book may be the most important of all. If you as a reader don't understand a character or a plot point, then clearly the author has failed to make it clear enough for everyone. It may be that they need to work on that.

    The most important thing is that you do give feedback and are honest. More than that no author can ask for. And speaking as an author who literally just got a review today that's leaving him scratching his head a little, thanks. I may not understand or agree with what the reviewer said, but I'm glad he said it as it gives me a chance to consider the issue.

    Cheers, Greg.
  14. Gurkhal

    Gurkhal Auror

    I take the easy way and offer critical remarks on what I know about, like plot and how I feel about the characters. I let more experienced minds deal with the technicality of it.
    buster13h likes this.
  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    You have more to offer than you think. You lend your opinion as a reader, and as many have said, that alone is valuable. It's an often overlooked aspect of the critique process. This can be a strength others reviewers take longer to adopt.

    That being said, giving detailed critique is one of the surest & most effective ways of improving your own knowledge of craft, and in turn, your writing. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.

    I have several people from Mythic Scribes, and live communities, with whom I trade crit work. They're invaluable to me and I know they value my input. But all of us, every one, had to learn how to offer critique. The Showcase Forum is a wonderful tool for doing just that.

    If you're concerned your critiquing skills are lacking, tell the writer that in your post. Be up front with them. They'll appreciate the honesty & transparency. Give them your impression on craft aspects & your opinion as a reader. Learn together. Figure out the reasons something doesn't work. It's a partnership, after all. Both parties should benefit.

    I've been wrong many times on critiques, still am really. Early on I was wrong because I didn't understand craft concepts fully, or only partially grasped the practice of a technique. Later, after I gained an better understanding of basic principles, I was wrong because I thought there was a correct way to write and then there was everything else. After more experience, I learned there are many right ways in the creation of art, and the approach of every artist may be unique to them.

    That doesn't mean I don't still hold onto certain tenants of craft, but I've grown to understand that is my approach, specific to me alone. Still, with a loose grip on "my rules" I can offer opinion to critique partners they may not be aware of, or point out details they may not see within their own work. I'm still learning as much being a crit partner as I am a writer. The two activities reinforce one another. Presently, I've noticed a greater ability to read as a reader, without application of writerly instincts.... This is still a work in progress but I feel it's making me a more valued partner. We all should be learning constantly.

    You want to be a better writer? Learn to be a great partner. I promise you, it'll help. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. It's no different than posting your work or giving it to another to read. That takes bravery. You have to be willing to show your mistakes, your inexperience. It's one of the ways we learn. Offering critique takes the same sort of courage.

    Remember, the author doesn't have to take all of your suggestions (and they shouldn't). So, what harm does it do to offer your opinion and knowledge as you grow together?

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