How to Give Writing Feedback — Thoughtfully and Effectively

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Whether you’re part of a writer’s group or manage a department of creatives, you may be called upon to give feedback about someone else’s work. It can be doubly difficult to critique someone’s work, especially if you like and respect that person. You don’t want to upset them or discourage them from writing more. On the contrary, you want to provide feedback that will challenge them to produce better work.

Most experts agree that it’s important to provide some positive comments along with negative feedback. Critiques without positive comments can be devastating to creative types, who are naturally sensitive about work that they’ve poured their heart and soul into. Negative critiques can make writers feel their work has no redeeming value, and they may be tempted to give up writing altogether. There is always something positive to find about someone’s work. A good editor will see it and won’t hesitate to share it.

So what’s the best way to handle critiques? How can you provide meaningful feedback that supports and encourages other people to produce better work without crushing their soul? Here are a few tips for giving effective feedback.

1. Read the piece thoroughly. If it’s a shorter piece, like an essay or news article, read it several times. Here’s how I like to assess a written work: The first time through, I read to get the gist of the story. During the second reading, I make notes about technical issues, like grammar, punctuation and run-on sentences. The third time through, I make notes about content issues. Are there confusing plot points? Does the story flow seamlessly, or are there sticking points where nothing appears to be happening? It’s usually during that third reading that the biggest issues pop out like a neon sign. If possible, avoid reading the piece right before meeting with the writer. It simply does not allow enough time to mull over the writing.

2. Find the story’s good qualities. Don’t just focus on mistakes and confusing content. Start with sharing the positive qualities of the story. Some managers and editors have used the sandwich method for critiquing a person’s work — couching negative feedback between two positive statements. According to the Grammarly blog, some editorial experts claim that this method isn’t effective in providing constructive criticism. I see nothing wrong with this approach, however. I suspect that its lack of effectiveness has more to do with not properly communicating constructive feedback.

Here’s how the sandwich method works:

“I love your story idea. I think it’s sharp and witty, and a lot of people will appreciate the humor. However, I noticed a tendency for run-on sentences. Perhaps you were thinking faster than you could write? Sometimes it helps to read aloud your story so you notice those run-on sentences. Once you fix those run-on sentences, I think you’ll have a stronger story..

You notice that I not only pointed out the weakness of the story, I offered a suggestion for fixing it.

3. Choose your words carefully. According to the Balance Careers blog, it might be helpful to begin statements with “I” rather than “You.” The “you” focus can be perceived as a personal attack, which you want to avoid. Focus on your own response to the story. Instead of saying, “Your story is boring,” say “I found the story boring in some sections.”

Be honest with your critique, but approach it with the intent of helping the writer improve their work. Always offer suggestion or tips, but refrain from directing the writer how to fix things. Respect them enough to give them space for resolving their own writing issues.

4. Provide detail… Don’t just mention the issue, but provide some detail. Don’t just say, “I thought your story was boring.” Explain why you thought it was boring. Was the entire piece boring to you, or just one or two paragraphs? Was there too much narrative when you were looking for more dialogue? Did the story need more conflict? Did the story move off on a tangent that was difficult to follow and had nothing to do with the story? The more feedback you provide can help the writer analyze their story with an eye on improving it.

5. …But don’t nitpick. You might notice a lot of things wrong with the story. In that case, for the sake of your working relationship, focus on only one or two things that the writer can easily fix. Remember, your role is to provide helpful, practical suggestions.

6. Call out recurring mistakes right away. If you have read several pieces by the same writer over time and notice that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, you need to call them out right away, suggests the marketing experts at Hubspot. Don’t just fix the problems for them without mentioning it. If necessary, make the correction and show it to them so they see how to fix it. The only way they will learn not to make the same mistakes again is to make them aware of them in the first place. The sooner you mention those errors, the sooner they can learn to correct them on their own.

7. Ask questions to guide the writer. According to Grammarly, when you ask the writer questions about their work, it gets them to thinking about how to solve their own writing issues. It guides them to resolve the issues on their own rather than you telling them how to do it. For example, you might suggest, “Is there a way to simplify this paragraph, perhaps edit it for shorter sentences? It might make the story easier to read.”

8. Don’t make it personal. Critique the work, not the writer. Set aside whatever personal feelings you have toward the writer and focus on the work in front of you.

Remember these are works-in-progress, not finished pieces. Your job is to provide feedback to help the writer improve their work and sharpen their skills. Think about those times when you’ve had your own work critiqued. How did you feel when you received feedback? Did you feel deflated and discouraged, or were you energized and excited about moving forward with your story? Be the editor you’d like others to be with your own work.

Can People Watching Make You a Better Writer?

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“A good writer is always a people watcher.” – Judy Blume, author

Ever find yourself in a public place watching other people go about their business? Chances are you are probably a good writer. Why? My guess is that the act of carefully observing other people can create a store of knowledge that you can tap into later during the process of writing. That’s something to think about as you create characters for your novels, develop dialogue or re-create scenes.

Judy Blume makes an interesting point. If you want to become a better writer, it makes sense to pay close attention to the details of your surroundings, especially the people near you.

You can watch people anywhere – the public park, a library, a coffee shop, a music festival. Anywhere where there is a group of people gathered is ripe for people watching.  To make the most of the opportunity, however, you need to set aside your laptop, smart phone or other electronic device, and watch. True, people might find it strange that you are staring at them, but they don’t need to know that you are building your base of characters or that you are preparing to write your next novel.

Here’s how becoming an avid people watcher can help improve your writing.

* It helps you focus on details. When you observe the people around you, note how they dress, from the shoes they wear to the color of their shirt. Pay attention to their physical attributes, facial expressions and mannerisms. Listen to how they speak. Do they blink too much? Do they have crooked teeth? Do they wear a hearing aid?  Do they enunciate their words properly, or do they use a lot of slang language? These little details may normally go unnoticed, but can add color and depth to your character’s description.

* It helps you create dialogue between characters. Listen in on their conversations, whether they are on the phone or in conversation with one or more people. Pay attention to not only the content of the conversation, but also the mannerisms as they speak. Do they get excited and talk with their hands, for example? Do the individuals talk over one another, not allowing others to speak? Do they raise their voices when they get excited, or do they cover their mouths when they speak? These little details can help create context for dialogue beyond just a simple exchange of words.

* It helps you create characters with unique characteristics. Is there anything unusual about their appearance, for example, such as a scar or a tattoo, or do they walk with a noticeable limp?

* It helps you build a story about them. Since you probably don’t know these individuals personally, you can create a story about them. Where do they come from, and where are they going? What are their dreams, their motivations? What are their fears? What kind of work do they do? Are they married or single? What kind of personality do they have – shy and withdrawn, or outgoing and friendly? Give them a name, a home, a life, and you have the ideal set up for your character.

If you want to improve your writing, start with developing good people watching skills.

How Creative People Can Survive in Non-Creative Jobs

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When you think of a creative person, what images comes to mind? An improvisational comedian? A ballet dancer, an artist or songwriter?  Do you ever stop to consider that maybe business owners and company CEOs have a creative spirit too? It’s not always obvious to the rest of us. But I believe they could not have reached their level of success without having some creative juice coursing through their veins. The rest of us don’t always get to see it.

I believe we are all born with creative gifts. It doesn’t matter if you are the company CEO, the sales manager or the guy in the mailroom. We all have a creative source within us that begs to be exercised. It is no wonder I see so many people leave the rat race to write a novel, pursue a singing career or become a curator at an art museum.

Working in a dull 9-to-5 job can sometimes stifle that creativity – but it doesn’t have to. I worked for 10 years as an administrative assistant, which required little, if any creativity. Between making travel arrangements for VIPs, organizing files, updating monthly spreadsheets and making sure the supply room was well stocked, there wasn’t a lot of room for more imaginative endeavors. But I was also blessed to work with managers who understood my need to indulge my creative talents, even if it was only to design a flyer or write a customer service letter.

If you believe the corporate world has robbed you of your creative edge, don’t lose hope. Your creative spirit is alive and well. It just needs an environment in which to thrive.

But don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. Be proactive. Look around the office for opportunities to express your creativity. Here are a few ideas:

* Be a problem solver. Solving problems is a valuable skill in the workplace, often requiring thinking outside the box. To solve problems, you have to tap into that creative reservoir within yourself. Whether it’s coming up with a complex solution to a long-standing customer relations issue or developing a new product that can change the way people work, creativity is at the heart of these innovations. And innovation is what drives businesses to grow and prosper.

* Learn new software programs. Teach yourself to do desktop publishing using Adobe InDesign or create Power Point presentations. As you gain more experience doing design work, you can add samples to your portfolio and become a valuable go-to design resource for your friends and colleagues, who may not have the design skills you just acquired.

* Plan events and parties. In a small office especially, you may have to wear many hats. Event planning may be one of them. Maybe you are assigned the task of planning a co-worker’s work anniversary celebration, a meeting of the board of directors, or the annual Christmas party for the office staff. Surprise parties are even better, because they challenge you to come up with creative ways to keep the party a secret. And decorating the office party room naturally lends itself to creative expression.

If meeting planning is not in your job description and it’s something you want to break into, ask your boss or the person in charge of planning meetings if you can help. You not only show your creative side and your initiative.

* Display your artwork. Are you an artist, painter or photographer? Ask your boss or manager if they are willing to display your artwork in your office. At a nearby yoga studio I regularly attend, one of the instructors recently displayed her artwork around the studio. It was a great opportunity to showcase her talents and sell her work to studio clients.

* Display your writing skills. Writing skills are highly valued and often overlooked in the workplace. If you like to write and have a talent for telling amusing stories, there may be opportunities for writing that can be an outlet for your creative genius. Offer to write customer service letters for your boss or the sales department. Ask the marketing director if you can contribute to the company blog or write articles for their newsletter.

I once worked as a temp at a Japanese-owned property management company that managed multiple hotels around the world. One day, the president of the company, who spoke very little English, asked me to write a thank-you letter to a friend who had taken he and his wife out to dinner. I quickly drafted a letter – only three sentences – and showed it to the president. From his wide smile and enthusiastic nod of his head, I knew I had hit the mark. No matter what type of company you work at, good writing skills will always be valued by higher-ups.

* Get a side gig. It seems many workers are doing side gigs these days. For many, it helps them bring in more money. For others, the side gig does what the day job cannot do – feed the creative soul.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking about other ways to add a creative edge to your non-creative job. Brainstorm with co-workers and your boss, and see what you come up with. That alone is a creative challenge.

You can’t always change the circumstances of your job (unless you change jobs), but you can change the way you think about your job. Sometimes, by simply accepting the fact that you work in an unimaginative office environment allows you to see opportunities for contributing your creative skills that you may not have noticed before. And that can make the day job all the more tolerable.