Guest Post: 5 Tips for Giving Constructive Criticism on a Fellow Writer’s Manuscript by Desiree Vill
Many thanks to Desiree Villena for putting together this helpful post! Desiree is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world's best self-publishing resources. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary fiction, writing short stories, and giving feedback on other people’s work (only when asked, of course).
There's nothing scarier than receiving feedback on your manuscript—even when you’re the one inviting criticism. But there’s also nothing more enlightening than getting a candid perspective from someone you trust on how your WIP is progressing. It’s an extremely important part of the process to continuously improve your work and craft.
Of course, when a fellow writer asks you to provide constructive criticism on their manuscript, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position and placing an immense amount of trust in you and your expertise. So how can you make sure that your fellow writers can depend on you to provide an incisive and insightful critique, without making it sound like you’re simply filling out a boilerplate feedback form? Here I outline my five top tips on what to keep in mind when giving constructive criticism, so that your comments are helpful to the writer and leave them feeling encouraged about their manuscript.
1. Read carefully with a critical eye
Before you worry about how to share your feedback on a manuscript, first you need to read it—and ensure your reading effectively prepares you to formulate your critique. Reading with the intention of providing feedback is different from reading for pleasure. While the writer is asking for your opinion, you should also try to be as objective as possible in your assessment; even if the manuscript might not be in your favorite genre, try to envision future readers and think about how it might resonate with its intended target audience.
As a critic, your aim is not only to identify which parts of the story are working vs. not working—you have to deeply examine what grabs you and why you feel how you do about the text. If you can, try to read the manuscript more than once so you can share first impressions as well as more in-depth notes. Track changes on the manuscript or write comments as you go, marking specific areas you want to draw attention to in your criticism. Make sure you read thoroughly and give the manuscript the time and attention it deserves—extending it the care you would want other writers to show your own work.
2. Make your feedback specific
The most useful feedback will be specific about the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. This is where your close attention as a reader and your detailed notes become extremely important. If you really liked something, point it out so the writer knows what’s successfully resonating. If you think something does not work, be ready to explain why.
Vague feedback can leave the writer unsure of how to respond to your comments—so you want to try to make all of your comments focused. Rather than saying the character’s actions feel unmotivated, can you draw attention to a particular instance where a character did something you did not understand? If you think the story could improve its pacing, can you pinpoint the chapters or passages where you felt things starting to drag? Give the writer details and action points for how to play to their strengths and how to potentially address problem areas.
3. Keep your comments aimed at inspiration
Regardless of your overall assessment of the work, having a positive attitude in your feedback is important. Praise the things you like—it’s important for the writer to know what’s working really well, what compels you as a reader and hits you emotionally. This does not mean you need to heap praise on the manuscript! Rather, it means that even your comments addressing things that aren’t working are framed in a diplomatic manner that encourages the writer.
Bluntly stating all the things wrong with a manuscript often does little to help a writer, and can demoralize or demotivate them further. So be candid and honest in your criticism, but in such a way that leaves the writer inspired to revise rather than feeling like there are a million things wrong with their draft. When you talk about areas that might need fixing or further attention, give them resources or help them brainstorm strategies for improvement, like proposing alternatives to ineffective plot details or offering exercises to develop their characters.
4. Understand where they are in the process
Be sure you understand what type of feedback your fellow writer is looking for. Are there particular areas they want you to focus on in your critique? Maybe they have concerns about whether specific themes are coming through, or want feedback on the clarity of the world-building. Asking the writer to describe their book and their intended audience can give you further direction.
Tailor your critique to what the writer hopes to get out of your comments, as well as where they are in the development process. For a manuscript that is still in its early stages, they might prefer more thoughts on big-picture things like character arcs and plot development, and you will not want to overwhelm them with copious comments on low-order line edits or tweaks to the prose. On the other hand, these smaller notes might be welcome on a more polished draft, while suggesting major structural changes there is likely to be less helpful.
5. Resist the urge to rewrite
While you might have been asked to provide criticism because of your writing talent and expertise, now is not the time to show off those skills by entirely rewriting passages. You want to respect the writer’s vision and voice and help bring them to fruition, not make the manuscript sound like it was written by you! You might offer suggestions like rewording lines or clarifying the tone, but avoid dictating how areas “should” be written.
Instead of imagining how you would have said something or crafted a character’s plot arc, you might leave the writer with questions to think about: Could using the active voice in this section strengthen its pace and intensity? What is the character’s driving motivation, and how do you see it developing over the story? Give suggestions rather than definitive revisions, sharing new avenues the writer might consider.
With these tips in mind, you can practice proper critique partner etiquette and provide feedback geared toward encouragement and inspiration, articulating your comments in a way that is most elucidating and valuable. Constructive criticism is all about helping build someone up, and your feedback provides scaffolding on their climb to achieve the best version of their manuscript. Receiving criticism will not be scary when you have an empathetic critic to support you.