Commenting on others' writing

By R.

Here are some guidelines I've come to believe useful in providing feedback on others' writing, through both my teaching and my own experience as a writer.

  1. Make a point of identifying things that you think work well or you found resonant. It's hard to take feedback as constructive if the comments give the impression that there's nothing good about the piece.
  2. Direct all judgements at the writing and not the writer. Couching critiques in terms that can be read as generalizations about the person rather than the piece is a good way to make said critiques personal, even hurtful. It also misses the point, distracts from the central task at hand, which is working on the text and not the personality or positionality of the author.
  3. Direct judgements at the piece as it is and not as if it ought to be something else entirely. There are times, of course, when a text strays topically from a prompt or given aim or breaks with a given genre. But most critiques of a piece of writing that come off as essentially saying, "You should have written something altogether different," are difficult to read as constructive and should be avoided if at all possible.
  4. Broad critiques of a writing effort such as, "You're trying to do too much," ought to be accompanied with a concrete suggestion as to how the perceived problem might be addressed. If you think a writer is trying to do too much, for example, make the effort to propose an alternative bracketing or scope. Otherwise, such comments can feel less than useful or, worse, dismissive.
  5. Avoid confusing the writer's project(s) with your own. If you find some argument or line of reasoning facile, for example, focus on ways to strengthen the elements in question rather than on your own objections rooted in content. It is one thing to say, "A respondent might claim Point X here is facile because of Reason Y, so it might make sense to give some additional consideration to the reasons you offer (or do not) for Point X." It is another to say, "Point X doesn't make any sense at all to me, as I prefer Point Z." Too much of the latter can feel to a writer as if the commentary is aimed at making their writing and thinking more like your own rather than helping them to effectively articulate their own ideas toward their own ends.
  6. Read your commentary on others' writing through at least once as if it is being applied to your own writing. Ask yourself if you would take it as constructive and helpful. Imagine, too, that the critique is coming from somebody you respect, somebody whose opinion matters to you. Would the comments read as meaningful? Encouraging? Hurtful? Useful?