How to give feedback on someone else’s writing

Helpful criticism is one of the best ways of improving someone’s writing, but how to be critical without offending? The answer for some is not to give feedback at all, which is a lost opportunity for the writer.

We all tend to feel that our writing represents us and are easily wounded by someone taking issue with what we’ve written. We are likely to react defensively and then we don’t listen. However, there are ways of giving feedback that are not merely accepted but welcomed.

You can be critical of someone’s writing as long as you are seen to be on their side – wanting to help them get their point across, rather than simply finding fault. Any criticism should be balanced by an equal amount of support.

The key is to be factual, not judgmental. So if you say “I had to read that sentence three times before I knew what you meant” or “I found those long paragraphs a bit daunting”, you are stating facts. Instead of “That’s the wrong word”, you can say “I was confused by that word”. Again you’re stating a fact and you can go on to ask the writer how they might put it differently. They will often come up with something much better.

As writers, we should welcome criticism. Writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant has a useful article on how to handle it.

To write well, play to your strengths

Do you think of yourself as a bad writer? When I was at school I certainly thought I would never earn my living by writing. But here’s some encouragement from a writing coach whose newsletters I enjoy, Daphne Gray-Grant.

In a recent blog post, Daphne points out that writing involves many skills, not just one. But instead of making this an obstacle to success, she spurs us on.

“Surely”, she says, “you can find some part of the job that you enjoy.” You may be good at explaining technical things in simple language or describing things vividly. You may have an ear for quotes. You may be able to find something funny in almost any situation.

Daphne goes on: “There are many different skills that go into writing. Focus on the one(s) you’re good at and fake the rest. With more practice, you will get better. We all have different gifts… If we focus on what we can do, it’s easier to become better at everything else.”

I agree. Writing isn’t one skill that you’re either born with or you’re not. It’s a craft that can be learned with practice, reading and training. Do more of what you’re good at and you’ll get better at the rest.