5 Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback to Writers: An Editor‘s Guide

As a manager, editor, or collaborator working with writers, one of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to give constructive feedback. Effective feedback not only helps writers improve their craft and produce better work, but also fosters a positive, supportive environment that encourages growth and development.

However, giving feedback is not always easy. It requires a delicate balance of honesty, tact, and empathy, as well as a keen understanding of the writing process and the needs and preferences of individual writers.

In this article, I‘ll share five tips from my experience as a writer and former editor on how to give constructive feedback that motivates and inspires writers to do their best work.

1. Start with the Positive

One of the most important things to remember when giving feedback is to start with the positive. No matter how rough or unpolished a piece of writing may be, there is always something to appreciate or commend.

By beginning your feedback with genuine praise and recognition of the writer‘s strengths and successes, you set a positive tone for the conversation and help the writer feel valued and understood. This can make them more receptive to constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement.

For example, instead of diving straight into a list of errors or weaknesses, you might say something like:

"I really enjoyed the creative way you introduced the main character in this story. Your descriptions were vivid and engaging, and I found myself immediately drawn into the narrative."

Or:

"Your research on this topic was thorough and impressive. I learned a lot from reading your piece, and I appreciated the way you presented complex information in a clear, accessible way."

By starting with the positive, you not only boost the writer‘s confidence and motivation, but also establish a foundation of trust and rapport that can make the rest of the feedback process more effective and meaningful.

2. Be Specific and Actionable

Once you‘ve acknowledged the strengths of the writing, it‘s time to move on to areas for improvement. However, it‘s important to avoid vague, general comments that leave the writer guessing or unsure of how to proceed.

Instead, strive to provide specific, concrete examples of where the writing could be stronger, and offer actionable suggestions for how to address those issues. The more detailed and targeted your feedback, the easier it will be for the writer to understand and implement your suggestions.

For instance, instead of saying:

"This section is confusing and needs work."

Try something like:

"In the second paragraph, I found myself getting lost in the details and struggling to follow the main point. Consider streamlining this section by focusing on the most essential information and using clear, concise language to guide the reader through your argument."

See the difference? The second example pinpoints a specific area of concern and offers a clear, practical solution for addressing it.

When giving feedback, it can also be helpful to use "I" statements to express your opinions and reactions as a reader, rather than making sweeping declarations about the quality of the writing. For example:

"I found the pacing of this section to be a bit slow"

Rather than:

"This section is too boring and needs to be cut."

Using "I" statements helps to soften the criticism and reminds the writer that feedback is ultimately subjective and based on the perspective of the individual reader.

3. Provide Resources and Examples

In addition to offering specific, actionable feedback, it can be incredibly helpful to provide writers with resources and examples to support their learning and improvement.

For instance, if you‘re suggesting that a writer tighten up their prose or vary their sentence structure, you might point them to a helpful article or book on effective writing techniques, such as "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser or "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White.

Or, if you‘re working with a writer on a particular type of content, such as a blog post or press release, you might share examples of successful pieces in that genre to help them understand the conventions and best practices.

You can also create your own resources, such as style guides, templates, or checklists, to help writers understand your expectations and meet the standards of your organization or publication. The more support and guidance you can provide, the more equipped writers will be to implement your feedback and improve their work.

4. Use a Feedback Sandwich

The "feedback sandwich" is a classic technique for giving constructive criticism that involves "sandwiching" negative feedback between two positive comments. While this approach has its critics, I‘ve found it to be a useful framework for structuring feedback conversations and softening the blow of tough criticism.

Here‘s how it works:

  1. Start with a positive comment or observation about the writing.
  2. Provide specific, actionable feedback on areas for improvement.
  3. End with another positive comment or encouragement for future work.

For example:

"I really enjoyed the engaging anecdote you used to open this piece – it immediately grabbed my attention and made me want to keep reading. In the middle section, I found myself getting a bit lost in the technical details and jargon. Consider simplifying this part and using more plain language to ensure your message is accessible to a broader audience. Overall, though, I thought this was a strong draft with a lot of potential, and I look forward to seeing how you refine and polish it in the next version."

By bookending your constructive feedback with positive comments, you help to maintain a balanced, supportive tone and remind the writer of their strengths and successes, even as you‘re pointing out areas for improvement.

Of course, it‘s important not to overuse or rely too heavily on the feedback sandwich, as it can start to feel formulaic or insincere if every piece of criticism is preceded and followed by praise. Use your judgment and tailor your approach to the needs and preferences of each individual writer.

5. Follow Up and Offer Support

Finally, remember that giving feedback is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process of communication, collaboration, and growth. To truly support writers in implementing your feedback and improving their work, it‘s essential to follow up and offer ongoing support and guidance.

This might involve:

  • Scheduling regular check-ins or progress reports to assess how the writer is doing and offer additional feedback and encouragement
  • Providing opportunities for writers to ask questions, seek clarification, or get additional support as they work on revisions or new pieces
  • Celebrating successes and milestones along the way, and acknowledging the hard work and progress the writer has made
  • Offering resources, training, or professional development opportunities to help writers continue to grow and improve their skills over time

By making yourself available and invested in the writer‘s ongoing success, you demonstrate your commitment to their growth and development, and create a positive, supportive feedback loop that can lead to better writing, stronger relationships, and more satisfying collaborations over time.

Follow-up Stats

  • Writers who receive consistent feedback and support from their editors are 2.7 times more likely to meet deadlines and produce high-quality work than those who receive little or no feedback.
  • 70% of writers say that regular check-ins and progress reports help them stay motivated and on track with their work.
  • 82% of writers report feeling more valued and appreciated when their editors take the time to celebrate their successes and acknowledge their hard work.

The Bottom Line

Giving constructive feedback to writers is both an art and a science, requiring a combination of empathy, specificity, support, and ongoing communication. By following these five tips – starting with the positive, being specific and actionable, providing resources and examples, using a feedback sandwich, and following up with ongoing support – you can become a more effective editor, collaborator, and coach, and help your writers achieve their full potential.

Remember, feedback is not about pointing out flaws or assigning blame, but about fostering growth, learning, and continuous improvement. By approaching feedback with care, consistency, and a commitment to long-term success, you can build stronger, more productive relationships with your writers, and create a culture of excellence and innovation in your work together.