How to Give Helpful Writing Feedback

As a writer, it’s nearly impossible to get helpful, specific, actionable feedback on your writing. Even if you join a WRITING GROUP, most of the feedback you receive is vague, unactionable, and often more about the person giving the feedback than the actual writing.

To that end, we decided to provide this guide to giving helpful feedback to writers.

It is based on 30+ years as a professional editor by Story Grid’s creator and founder, Shawn Coyne, along with extensive experience in our Guild Editor Mentorship program.

We hope you’ll take this to heart when giving feedback to a fellow writer, or send it to people along with your writing sample when you are getting feedback.

Let’s get started.

How to Give Helpful Feedback to Writers

What is Helpful Writing Feedback?

Before we can give specific advice on how to give feedback, let’s first define what helpful writing feedback looks like.

We believe helpful writing feedback abides by five principles.

1. Focus on the Writer’s Goals

We must know what the writer is trying to accomplish with their writing. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of assuming their goals are the same as ours.

By keeping the writer’s goals in mind, we make sure all of the feedback we give is tailored towards what the writer is trying to accomplish.

It’s is not about us, the feedback giver, it’s about the writing we are giving feedback on.

2. Keep an Open Mind

Even if the writing is not in a genre we personally enjoy or is contrary to our sensibilities, we must read the story and offer feedback with an open mind. 

As much as possible, read the writing sample as an independent editor would read and evaluate it.

3. Identify Clear, Actionable Problems

All feedback should be something the writer can understand and fix. If we identify a problem, we should be specific about where it shows up and why we believe it is a problem.

  • Example of Bad Feedback: “The middle part of your scene reads a little soft.”
  • Example of Good Feedback: “In the fourth paragraph, sentence two and sixth paragraph, sentence one, you use the passive voice instead of the active voice, which makes the reader work harder.
  • Example of Bad Feedback: “I’m not really connecting with your protagonist.”
  • Example of Good Feedback: “Your protagonist shifts to the inputter role instead of the outputter role in paragraph three. Additionally, your language when describing the protagonist in the opening paragraph lacks specificity.”

4. Wait to be Asked to Suggest Fixes

Our main role in offering feedback is to identify clear, actionable problems that need to be fixed. It is up to the writer to decide how she would like to fix these problems. 

If you have suggestions, wait until the writer asks for them. If she does not ask, keep them to yourself.

5. Ensure Your Writing Feedback is Evidence-Based

The feedback we give should not be based on our opinion or what we like to read. It should be based on clear evidence as a result of applying the Story Grid Tools.

Which leads us naturally to the next topic. 

How to Identify the Problems in a Writing Sample

The tools of Story Grid were developed to help us identify clear, actionable problems with writing from the macro manuscript and quadrant levels all the way down to the micro beat and scenes levels.

Depending on the length of the writing sample and the goals of the writer, we will use different tools to give usefulf feedback.

  • Five Commandments of Storytelling – Identify the foundational pillars of a story that works to pinpoint any issues in the construction of the story’s arc.
  • Genre’s Five-Leaf Clover – Evaluate the category of the global story according to five components of genre to determine what readers will expect.
  • Genre Conventions and Obligatory Moments – Ensure the necessary elements for the story are present to set up and fulfill reader expectations.
  • Narrative Path – Develop a consistent strategy for creating a story that comes from a coherent perspective and sends a clear signal to a specific audience.
  • Story Grid Foolscap Page – Get a high-level overview of the full story with a macro analysis that fits on one page.
  • Editor’s 6 Core Questions – Go more in-depth on the topics from the Story Grid Foolscap Page.
  • Story Grid Spreadsheet – Analyze a manuscript scene by scene to see the movement of the story.
  • Scene Event Synthesis Analysis – Understand the movement of each scene by answering four questions that evaluate whether all levels of the scene work together.
  • Trope Analysis – Break down a scene into a progression of tropes, which illuminates the development of the protagonist’s strategy over the course of the scene and highlights any places where the escalation goes awry.
  • Beat Analysis – Apply precise tools to diagnose problems in the line-by-line writing within a scene.

Here is a rule of thumb to apply when using these tools: If you can’t find the answer in the writing, then there is a problem in the writing. For instance, if we can’t identify the inciting incident in a particular scene, this is a problem we can bring up in our feedback that is clear, actionable, and evidence based.

Story Grid tools help us identify what is missing and what is executed incorrectly in a given level of story so we can offer feedback the writer can use to improve their story. Once we have applied the given analysis tool and identified potential problems in the writing, it’s time to deliver the feedback.

How to Deliver Writing Feedback

There are two steps to delivering the feedback.

1. Review the writer’s goals. 

It’s important to remind ourselves and the writer what we are currently working on together. This will put the mind of the writer at ease right from the beginning. 

2. Focus on the next thing to work on rather than everything that needs to be improved eventually. 

It’s important to not overwhelm the writer by sharing every single item at every level of writing that needs to be fixed. This will be overwhelming emotionally for the writer while also confusing them about what needs to happen next. 

If the writer asks specific questions, be honest, but don’t flex your feedback muscles by dumping all your feedback at once. 

Focus instead on the next skill they should be working on.

Helpful Writing Feedback

The goal of providing feedback to a writer is not only to help them improve their story, but to help the writer level up their skill at the craft of writing.

By focusing on the writer’s goal and giving clear, actionable feedback that is based on the evidence you find when you apply the Story Grid tools, you will provide the perfect support to help the writer consistently move forward.

Expert Feedback: Guild Editor Mentorship Program

Writing feedback is an integral part of our Guild Editor Mentorship Program.

Here’s what a few of our students have to say about the feedback they get in the program:

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