How to give feedback on a story
Detail is king
As an author, writing teacher and long-term writing group member, I’ve learnt that the best feedback you can give your fellow writers is detailed feedback.
Saying, ‘It was good,’ doesn’t tell the writer much. On the other hand, saying, ‘I loved the way Jasmin stood up to her boss. I felt her nervousness when her voice faltered. She was a really credible character’ is GOLD!
Giving feedback on a story can seem a daunting task when you first begin, but it needn’t be. You’ve probably read thousands of stories in your lifetime, so you know what works and what doesn’t. But, giving feedback is difficult when you start, so that’s why it’s useful to think about the building blocks of stories.
Perhaps the easiest way to analyse a story is to think about how it’s constructed.
Writers use different techniques to craft their stories and it’s sometimes hard to unpack what these are, let alone know what to call them.
That’s where this table can come in handy. It lists some of the most common elements to look at when analysing a story so you have a starting point for thinking about what makes it work. It also helps you to think like a writer.
Think like a writer
So, how do you ‘think like a writer’? For a start, you consider how the different elements the writer uses impact the story. For example, as you read, you might ask yourself how the dialogue makes you feel about the characters. Does it show us that certain characters are bossy or playful, educated or unhinged? Does the gloomy coastal setting seem to be symbolic of the nature of the characters’ relationships…or is it just a description of that part of the world in winter? By asking these sorts of questions, you’re thinking like a writer.
Practice thinking like a writer
You don’t have to consider every element when critiquing a story. Start with a few that make sense to you and go from there. For example, in Jane Harper’s The Dry, the drought features heavily in the work. So you might you might comment on how this setting impacts the story. To me, it feels like the landscape and the drought are characters themselves as they are so interwoven with the way the story progresses and how the characters feel.
Another example might be the character ‘Toots’ in Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Toots is infatuated with Miss Dombey. He is a gentle soul with more money than God, but not a lot of self-esteem, so he is constantly about to declare his love for Miss Dombey, but always backs away with a stuttered ‘It’s of no consequence.’ When he finally declares his love and is rejected (kindly, of course), he shows his true worth by being, as he would say, ever and always Miss Dombey’s servant. And he does do her great service. Toots is one of my all-time favourite characters. If you can manage the dense Dickensian writing and references to things that you have no hope of understanding without a search engine at your fingertips, it’s a wonderful read…but I digress.
There are no right or wrong answers in story analysis, other than taking a moment to think about the piece. Once you start thinking like a writer, you’ll do this instinctively and giving feedback becomes easier.
The benefits of giving feedback
The other thing that we sometimes forget about critiquing is that when we do this effectively, we are not only giving valuable feedback to our fellow writers, we’re learning new techniques and skills as well. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve learnt what to do (and what not to do) by reading the work of other writers. I’ve learnt that some characters talk exactly like everyone else, so it’s important to make each one sound different from the others. I’ve learnt that characters can’t ‘disappear’ in a scene just because you’re not giving them anything to do. And I’ve learnt that having lots of people critique a story gives you perspectives you’d never have come to by yourself.
So, think like a writer. And until you feel comfortable with your own descriptions, use the table above to give you somewhere to start.