I’ve been a manager, a college instructor, and an editor at my day gigs for a lot of years, and feedback seems to be an hourly thing in those worlds. There’s an art and a science to reviewing and critiquing another writer’s work.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
Their manuscript is their baby. They have spent hours, days, weeks, and years on this, and no one wants to hear you call their baby ugly. Feedback often triggers emotional responses. I try to do the “sandwich” method. Mention something positive or something you like. Then discuss the problem areas, and then sandwich it in with another something positive.
I try to add comments throughout the work when I think word choice is good, when something is funny, or when there’s good tension. This way not all the red marks are of the “you did this wrong” variety.
If it’s a spelling or grammatical error, I mark it. If it’s a subjective thing, I try to state how it made me feel or what I interpreted. That way, it’s one reader’s opinion, and not a pronouncement on the person’s abilities or character. It’s the reader’s opinion of the work.
At work, I use different colored pens if I’m editing on paper. Nobody likes getting a document back that looks like a bloodbath of red ink. Sometimes, that can’t be helped with electronic editing. One of my critique group members uses the highlighter feature in Word instead of track changes. She picks colors for different things like yellow is a problem, pink is something funny, and blue is something she really likes. That way, my page looks like a rainbow instead of thousands of little comments in the right margin.
As an author, if you want all warm and fuzzy comments, let a family member read your work. That is always good for the ego, but you need to build a network of other writers and super readers who know your genre and who will be brutally honest. They can find plotholes, story issues, and redundancies. They will tell you when it’s boring or when you’ve gone down a rabbit hole. I appreciate it when my critique partners and beta readers point out things.
I try not to give feedback when I’m tired or stressed out. I don’t want my mood to jade my comments.
If someone has a reoccurring problem, I’ll make a note the first time. Then I will highlight it if I see it again (and again and again). Examples of this are misspellings and overused words.
When I finish a critique of someone’s work, I always send a note along with my notes and suggested changes. (At critique group, we do this face to face.) I do a little summary of what I like, what works for the story, and the highlights.
Your time is valuable, and you should be writing your next book. I always like to help authors where and when I can. But time is limited. Occasionally, I have to say no or not right now because of other commitments. Sometimes, there’s a compromise like critiquing a few chapters or the first fifty pages.
And what do you do if you read something that you think is just terrible? I have stopped reading before. And I tell them why. Usually, it’s because they’re not sure what their story is … it’s a romantic science fiction piece set in the American West with aliens and a touch of dystopia, vampires, and time travel with cats, suspense, and a main character with amnesia. I prefer to read mysteries and thrillers. I tell people up front that I don’t know other genres as well, and I probably wouldn’t be able to give them the critique they need on the conventions of their genre. And other times it’s because the work really isn’t ready. My friend, Mary Burton, calls your first draft the sloppy copy. That’s the one you need to work on and polish before you get to the editing and critiquing stages.