Updated: Jan 9, 2020
(The TL/DR version: skip ahead to the PSQ heading in the second half of this post).
Imagine this scenario: you’re minding your business—gulping an iced coffee, shopping online for cheap leggings, something—and someone interrupts to ask you a question. A small favor, really.
I heard you were good at writing, they say. Could you help me edit my work?
Or depending on the person, the question is, “Can you read this and tell me what you think?”
The thing could be an email, a memo, a novel, a poem. That part doesn’t matter. You have been tasked with this seemingly simple job of giving a critique. And if you’re anything like me, you always agree (and then maybe resent it later). It’s hard to say no, friends! (I know I’m not alone on this one).
Giving a critique is rarely an easy or simple task. Any number of the following scenarios could play out (which I see ALL THE TIME when I ask students to peer review each other’s work):
The writing is already really good and you can’t think of any feedback to give.
The writing is a mess and you know what to say, but you don’t know how to say it without breaking some hearts.
The writing is complex or long. Critiquing it is going to take a very long time.
I have tricks and tips to give you, whether you’re a teacher looking to streamline your writing feedback (or help students give guided feedback in writing workshops) or a writer asked to beta read for a friend and/or interested in sharing your work with others.
Open the Lines of Communication
Before you get started, ask the writer what they want you to focus on. Do not skip this step. And if the writer says something vague like “Look at everything” or “Just give me your opinion,” press them for more. Are they concerned about grammar and spelling? Organization and formatting? Maybe there is one particular aspect of the writing that has been tripping them up?
You can also ask for more clarity: what is the purpose of this piece of writing? Who is the audience? How is it going to be shared (email, printed and distributed as stapled copies, etc.).
The more you know about the project, the more focused the feedback will be. For example, if the writer says they don’t want to worry about grammar right now, don’t waste your time line editing.
(It is worth noting here, as well: line editing and extensive proofreading, especially for longer projects, is an expensive service. If you aren’t ready to give up that kind of time for free, have a conversation early on with the writer).
Read (without making comments)
Reading is, of course, the first step. Depending on the length of the project, reading may be the shortest part. (If it is a longer piece of writing, divide it into parts to avoid getting overwhelmed). The reason I suggest not writing anything yet is because you need to see the whole picture first. You could write a lot of feedback about character development on the first page only to realize that by the end, those issues are resolved and your first page comments no longer apply.
If you signed on to provide critical feedback, give the reader the courtesy of reading it first.
Okay, if you must make comments, make them on a separate sheet of paper or in a separate document. I do this sometimes when I have an idea and I don’t want to forget it.
Let the Commenting Begin
Everyone works differently, as you know. The variations of length, audience, purpose, and genre, make it impossible to have a one-size-fits-all template for giving feedback. If you were asked to line edit the writing, comma by comma, your feedback would be different from someone who is giving more general, big picture kind of comments about plot and setting.
Some people use Track Changes to add comments throughout an electronic document (my preference) and some like to write all the comments at the end.
No matter what kind of comments you plan to give, the method I use (and teach) can be adapted. This is the PSQ Process: Praise, Suggest, Question.
Praise: Include positive feedback to balance your more critical comments. If I think of my comments as a sandwich (because I’m always thinking about food), the praise is like the bread. I begin and end with praise so all of the suggestions and critical feedback are sandwiched between the praise.
Suggest: This is the most important part of your feedback. You must give suggestions. Spend the majority of your time trying to help. Saying, “I don’t know, looks good to me,” isn’t helpful. Unless the writer wanted an ego boost and didn’t want to actually hear your thoughts (which does happen), they are hoping you will help them see this piece of writing from another perspective. They have been staring at it for so long that they can’t see straight anymore.
It doesn’t help anyone to ignore an error. You aren’t being mean; you are being honest. It is mean to not tell the writer they spelled a word wrong. You would want to know, right?
The more specific your suggestions, the better. You can tell them that the title isn’t effective, for example, but that may not give them much to work with. If you tell them why you think the title isn’t working or, suggest alternate titles, you are giving the kind of valuable feedback that many writers are thankful for.
Remember: no one has to take your feedback. You often won’t know if they took your suggestions. We all just shake hands and move on to the next thing. Don’t be shy about giving your input (you know, in a tactful way).
Question: Framing my thoughts as questions is one of my favorite ways to offer feedback when I know my opinion is purely subjective:
Maybe the character could think this instead of say it?
Have you thought about starting the story on page 3 to make the tension more immediate?
Who is speaking here? I had trouble following this section of dialogue.
I also tell my students to ask questions when they aren’t sure about something. If they aren’t sure where the comma goes, frame it as a question: Do you need a comma here?
Questions can help to soften feedback and continue a larger conversation with the writer (keeping those lines of communication open, yet again).
This is the process I use when editing query letters and first chapters because it works. I let writers know what to expect before I jump in so that we are all on the same page (figuratively and literally.)
The most important thing I tell anyone who is about to beta-read, peer review, or give any kind of feedback is to trust your gut as a reader. If something sounds awkward (or wordy or choppy) to you, it probably will sound that way to others. And if you aren’t sure how to fix it, but you know something is off, you can tell say that in your feedback, as well.
I also like to provide resources (read this book, go to this website) because I always want to offer help as much as possible. It can be daunting and intimidating to ask for feedback. I strive for kindness. As one of my teachers once told the class before peer review: we’re kind to writers but tough on the writing.
If I can help you with other strategies for beta reading and giving feedback, please send me a message. And if you want to see my PSQ Process in action, I would love to turn my teacher lens on your work. I’ll be kind and critical, I promise
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