What a career in medicine has taught me about giving feedback to fellow writers

Image from Flickr.com/photos/karlhorton

Like most writers and wannabes, I have a day job. How else to fund a creative life, unless your name is J.K.Rowling? A day job can give so much to a writer, apart from food on the table and a roof over your head. Mine gives me job satisfaction, social interaction—which, being the introvert I am, I might not otherwise seek—and exposure to people from all walks of life, with interesting stories to tell. I write because I love to write, and not because I crave a career change.

The other thing that my role as a specialist doctor has given me is years of experience at giving and receiving feedback. The good, the bad and the ugly.

Now that I’ve sent my manuscript out to various beta readers, and had a formal mentoring relationship with a published author, writer friends are asking me to read their fiction manuscripts and provide feedback. The pressure…

Once I recovered from the initial panic of being asked, I realised that all I need to do is to apply what I’ve learnt over the years from giving feedback to trainees and colleagues at work to this new type of feedback. So here goes:

My top tips for giving writers feedback:

  1. Start by asking them what they thought went well, or what they were hoping to achieve. In my mind, this keeps the focus on what they really want to know, which is the whole point of giving feedback.
  2. Start with positive feedback. You would think that this one would go without saying, but I’ve certainly been at the receiving end of a barrage of negatives with no gentle words at all. Rabbit in the headlights stuff. Try to think of something you genuinely liked about the manuscript, preferably more substantial than, ‘nice font.’ It might be the plot, a particularly well-drawn character, or even the pace of the story.
  3. Ask them where they feel they could improve / what’s not working so well. This is a great way of opening up to discussing the things that could be better. Writers spend so much time navel-gazing, they’ll probably come up with way more than you were planning to deliver, which may also open another opportunity to give positive feedback (sandwiching the positive and negative comments).
  4. Identify where you think things could be improved. And now, to the meat in the sandwich. After all the great work you’ve done to start with positives and keep the focus on them, your constructive criticism is more likely to be well received.
  5. Don’t focus on too many points. Focus on three points. Most people won’t take away more than three. I prefer to stick to this rule, rather than giving a shopping list of every mis-placed comma and typo. If they want that detailed stuff, offer to put it in writing for them, but don’t deliver it all at once, both barrels loaded.
  6. Be specific, use examples. And focus on what’s achievable. It won’t be helpful to make comments like, ‘I don’t like your style.’ What could they expect to do with that? If you don’t relate to a character, try to figure out why.
  7. Avoid words like ‘but’ and ‘however’ as these words immediately turn your positives into negatives, undoing all your good work in points 1-3.
  8. Aim for feedback that is timely, relevant, precise, constructive and supportive.

Speaking from the point of view of the receiver and giver of feedback, a little time taken preparing to deliver the best feedback you can will be greatly appreciated.

By Lisa Kenway

Lisa Kenway is an Australian writer and doctor. Her debut psychological thriller, ALL YOU TOOK FROM ME, is coming in August 2024 from Transit Lounge Publishing. An early version was long-listed for the 2020 Richell Prize. A 2023 Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre fellow, her work has appeared in Island Online, the Meanjin blog, Meniscus Literary Journal and elsewhere. Find her at www.lisakenway.com or on Twitter @LisaKenway.


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