As an editor, sometimes I can be a bit harsh.
When you have high standards and a bit (maybe more than a bit) of an ego, your feedback can be blunt—brutal, even. It seems justified when you’re the one giving the criticism. But as we all know, receiving feedback can be a gutting experience.
Here are a few tips on how to give constructive feedback that won’t drive your friends to tears.
(I’ve also written about how to accept feedback. Read that post here.)
1. Don’t be flippant
Let’s be real. While editors tend to be reserved and quiet, they also tend to have the biggest egos when it comes to writing. (I’m definitely speaking from experience.)
When you critique a piece of writing that’s not particularly stellar, it’s easy to look down your nose at the writer. It’s easy to mark up the page with red pen and laugh at poorly worded sentences.
But it’s not very useful.
As an editor, your job is not to mock writers; it’s to assist and encourage them to produce the best piece possible. And when you don’t take your role seriously, you’re letting that writer down.
Regardless of how terrible the piece is, you should always recognize and reward effort. Someone put time and energy into creating and crafting something unique—doesn’t that deserve its own applause?
Everyone starts somewhere. And without constructive criticism, none of us would improve.
2. Context is key
Basically, don’t be rude. Recognize the correct context for feedback.
If you’re at a party, a family get-together, at dinner with a friend—ask yourself: is this really the best time and place to be shredding their writing to pieces?
As a rule of thumb, feedback should be given in a private setting and only to the writer involved. Don’t brew bad feelings by bringing up five things the writer should fix while at brunch.
Be professional, keep it classy, and be aware of context.
3. Tread lightly with loved ones
If you’re like me, then you have friends and family members who love to write and who ask you to edit their work. If you’re not careful, things can get real messy, real fast.
As much as possible, keep your relationships separate from your criticism. Otherwise, resentment, despair, and other sticky emotions can bleed over into your friendships. You don’t want to create a wedge between you and your loved ones, so always err on the side of compassion.
Of course, you shouldn’t pull your punches. Be honest—but be kind. Kindness doesn’t cost anything, and a writer is more likely to respond to constructive feedback than blunt criticism.
4. Avoid an accusatory voice
Although it may feel counterintuitive, try to avoid using “you” when giving feedback.
I.e., statements like “you messed this up” or “you used the wrong word” or “you can’t suddenly switch genres” can obviously rankle writers. Your observations may be completely true, but if you alienate the writer, then they’re unlikely to take any of your advice to heart.
Instead, focus on your own perspective. I.e., “I was pulled out of the narrative here” or “this word felt jarring to me” or “I was confused when the gritty crime novel suddenly included a fire-breathing dragon.”
Tell the reader how you feel—note where you’re confused, surprised, or lost. (And don’t forget to highlight the parts you love!)
Offering up your own emotions, reactions, and perspectives can help the writer understand exactly where they went wrong without feeling attacked or belittled. Your I-focused feedback gives writers a roadmap to how their work was received and how they can improve.
5. Deliver a hot, tasty, compliment sandwich
This technique is pretty well-known, but it’s worth mentioning.
If you find yourself giving feedback in the form of a report or a summary (as opposed to line-by-line edits), then a compliment sandwich is often the best way to go.
Basically, you begin your feedback by praising the writer for their work. Then, you dive into the areas that need improvement. Finally, you close with another compliment or additional praise.
The compliment sandwich is designed to deliver nasty truth to writers in an easily digestible package. By starting and ending with positives, the compliment sandwich helps writers swallow the negatives.
6. Be specific
If your job as an editor is to help writers craft the best piece possible, then vague generalizations are not in your job description.
There’s nothing more annoying as a writer than receiving two words of feedback: “It’s good!”
If a piece is good, explain why it’s good. Underline hilarious dialogue; circle juicy verbs; highlight masterful sentences. Tell the writer what you loved.
On the flip side, be very specific in your negative criticism. Highlight the relevant paragraphs, sentences, or words. Give detailed commentary for why something doesn’t work. Back up everything you say with clear evidence.
We all know it’s not easy to receive feedback, but we often forget just how hard it is to deliver constructive criticism.
If you want to improve the quality of your feedback, put yourself in the writer’s shoes. What questions would you have? How would you receive it emotionally?
An editor’s work is unseen, invisible in the final product. But if you give excellent feedback, then you know that you’ve helped to elevate a piece to its best state.