February 21

8 ways to give feedback that doesn’t crush the author’s spirit

Last week, I posted about how to respond when you receive useless, frustrating, murky feedback from reviewers. This week, let’s talk about how you can avoid being one of those annoying reviewers.

Whether you’re providing responses to your kid sister’s essay or to a peer-reviewed journal, there are some guidelines you should follow in order to be both helpful and honest.

14-02-20 feedback
1. Create a numbered list! Goodness, I cannot tell you how difficult it is to respond to 80 uninterrupted lines of criticism in a single paragraph. Number each point that you’d like the author to notice or address.

2. Start with two or three good things about the manuscript. Compliment the thoroughness of the author’s research, or her vivid details and descriptions, or his straightforward writing style. Everyone is more open to criticism after a little ego boost. Besides, you really want to be helpful, not just crush the author’s spirit.

3. Then, identify the most pressing and broadest issue in the manuscript. If there seems to be a major hole in the author’s argument or a flaw in the methodology, discuss this problem first and in as much detail as possible. You don’t have to offer the solution, but you should try to really uncover the problem.

It’s not enough to say, “Your argument isn’t fully substantiated.” Instead, you should say (and I’m pulling a random example here), “I understand your point that religious people tend to score lower on SATs, and I understand that people who graduate with PhDs are overwhelmingly not religious, but I’m not sure that either of those points fully supports your statement that religious people are less intelligent than non-religious people. I think you should spend at least several paragraphs addressing the other potential interpretations of the data.” Then, list some possible interpretations. That’s much more helpful, right?

4. Progress to the increasingly less important issues. Maybe next you’d talk about some minor methodological issue, another literature that the author could read, or a section that could use strengthening.

5. After you’ve addressed the substantial issues, then you can mention any style or wording issues. Perhaps the author writes in passive voice or uses too many quotations and citations. These types of problems the author can generally fix without going back to the drawing board, so to speak.

6. Go back and read the points you’ve asked the author to address. Make sure none of your points contradict each other! You never intend to contradict yourself, but it definitely happens, especially when you’re in a hurry.

7. End with some words of honest encouragement. Tell the author if you think there is promise in the manuscript, even if it’s going to require a lot of work.

8. Offer to review the manuscript again, after the author has made further changes. There’s no way for the author to know whether she did a good job addressing your points, unless you’re willing to review the manuscript again.

What are your own guidelines for providing an author feedback? When was the last time you gave another author feedback? Maybe it’s time to offer your feedback services to another author.


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