The Art of Giving Feedback

A few of my books, waiting to be read...

A few of my books, waiting to be read…

It’s half term this week (*and breathe….*), so, with no class to teach and things ‘quiet’ in other areas of work, I’m having a bit of ‘me time’. (Please note pile of books to be read, some from last week’s birthday and not including stuff on the Kindle).

On Monday I hosted a ‘writers’ day’ at my house. Five of us (including an academic, a Booker-shortlisted novelist and my very first creative writing tutor!) gathered to critique each other’s writing.

This little group (which has a fluctuating membership), gathers about once a quarter in someone’s home and we all bring a contribution of food and lock ourselves away from the world for about 8 hours.

I always dread it and get totally stressed by it but I usually end up enjoying it and I know it’s good for me (not least because I have to write something ‘non-womag-gy’ for it!). My story ‘The Taste of Love’, that was shortlisted in the Sophie King competition last year and now appears in this anthology, ‘Love Is All You Need’, started life in this writing group.

It’s tricky, giving feedback on other people’s writing. It’s something I’ve got better at, over the years, not least because I have to do it for my class, my writing buddy and my work as a poetry tutor for the Writers Bureau, but it’s still not easy and if you’re not careful, you can really crush someone’s confidence.

One way of approaching it, is the ‘Feedback Sandwich’: start by saying something positive about the piece of writing. (‘I really liked the start – we were straight into the action’, or ‘That description of the sunset was perfect: I could really envisage it.’).

Then, in the middle of your ‘sandwich’, mention something that didn’t work quite so well for you (‘I was confused by the various characters. I think perhaps you’ve got too many’ or ‘It seems to end rather abruptly, without much of a conclusion.’).

And then, for your final slice of the sandwich, end on another positive note. (‘It’s a great start. I’d definitely want to read on.’)


In my class, a couple of times a term, we do something that I read about in teacher Susan Lee Kerr’s excellent book ‘Creative Writing: The Matrix’.

It’s a controlled feedback session: ‘workshopping’.

A volunteer from the class pre-circulates a piece of work (a complete short story or part of a novel, of about 2000 words), giving everyone at least a week to read it. Then, in the nominated class, they read the piece aloud (which takes 10 – 15 mins) and we all give some feedback. The writer is not allowed to speak! But they are allowed to make notes and they can come back on any issues or questions raised at the end.

I can’t remember where these critiquing guidelines came from but I encourage the class to use these, to steer our comments:

– ‘things I liked’
– ‘feelings it gave me’
– ‘things that distracted me’,
– ‘questions it left me with’

And I also remind them, that we are trying to be helpful. We are helping the writer to improve their work, by giving them our take on it, as a reader/listener. The aim is not to tear holes in the writing, to nit-pick or to try to change it into the sort of story or piece that we would write but to tell the writer if it works for us and how – or why not.

Gently. And considerately.

One long-standing member of the group I talked about at the start of this post, left last year, ostensibly to ‘do other things’ but I found out recently that it was actually because he felt so despondent about some of the comments that had been made about his novel-in-progress.

That made me feel rather sad. And a bit guilty. I hope none of my comments contributed to that.

Writing is hard and putting your work ‘out there’ for others to judge is perhaps even harder. Of course, if you want to be a published writer, that’s what you have to do (and remember, you’ll never please everyone) but if you’re giving feedback to anyone, on their work, although you might want to be honest, just remember the power of words to sting and hurt.

And try to be gentle.

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8 Responses to The Art of Giving Feedback

  1. juliathorley says:

    Ah yes: Star; Wish; Star. I did the Future Learn creative writing course earlier this year and constructive criticism was one of the areas we covered. We posted stuff online and it was submitted to three people at random for their feedback. One suggestion was to be specific, so rather than saying, for instance, ‘I didn’t like the ending’ it’s better to say, ‘The ending left a few loose ends I’d have liked to have seen tied up.’ or somesuch.

  2. Jan Baynham says:

    Such a great post, Helen. Thank you. I used the ‘Feedback Sandwich’ approach when I was teaching along with ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ for younger pupils. I like the ‘workshopping’ idea. I’m going to my first meeting with a new critique group on Monday and have been asked to take along some writing.#nervous!!

  3. I run a online writers group for womag writers, Fiction Addiction, and I love the idea of a feedback sandwich. Many thanks for posting and sharing this. Sharon from Kishboo e-mag and RDP.

  4. kathmcgurl says:

    Great post. It really is an art, but can be learned, and you improve with practice.

  5. Keith Havers says:

    Thanks for explaining the feedback sandwich, Helen. I’m gettng asked to do more and more adjudication but no-one has ever given me any guidelines on how to approach it. This is a big help.

  6. KH says:

    Lovely post, Helen and well done for having a story in the Love is All You Need Anthology. Criticism is so easy, helping others to develop and improve their writing so much more difficult. I think the advice and guidance you’re giving here on how to enable others with their writing is spot on. Thanks

  7. Pingback: The Art of Receiving Criticism | Sally Jenkins

  8. philippabowe says:

    What an excellent post Helen, constructive and as kind and considerate as you advise anyone giving feedback to remain. The sandwich is great, simple but effective.

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