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Very often, I happen to have to offer my feedback on friends' short stories or novels or poetry. However, I find it very difficult to give a throughout feedback on this kind of writing which is not "technical" so to say.

I have read many books over the course of my life and have some experience with literary criticism, however I would appreciate some suggestions (or reference books) by expert writers or editors (or anyone who has two cents to put in really) on the appropriate way to give a professional comment on works of literature (in particular, novels, short stories, an poetry, as I said before).


Note that I asked a similar question (Literary criticism handbook), which is indeed only a reference request, but this one has broader scope in my opinion.

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"Literary criticism" and "editing feedback" are two entirely different beasts.

Litcrit is about looking at an existing text and analyzing it. You look at the author's intent, you look at symbolism, at context, at what the writer wanted to achieve, at how it fits into X genre canon, and so on.

Editing feedback is what you give on an unfinished piece of work with the intent of giving the author tools to change and improve it. You may be able to use litcrit tools to frame your feedback ("The house symbolizes X, so what if Y and Z happened and what if Mary did A and B?"), but as an editor, your job is to help the writer shape the work into its final form. Literary criticism is something you do with a work which is already final and published.

Also, litcrit is generally not done with the author. You can critique something in a classroom, a book, an essay, or a blog post, but editing feedback is personal and one-on-one, deliberately done with (and only with) the writer.

  • Thank you very much for your answer: I realize that you are completely right. Then, what suggestions can you give me about giving a feedback? – user10974 Oct 24 '14 at 13:53
  • @Dal look under the editing tag on this site for some suggestions. – Lauren Ipsum Oct 24 '14 at 15:18
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I think this all comes down to the one question:

Does the writing work?

Fiction writers often attempt to escape critique (and criticism) by saying, "well, who can say if it is right or wrong, it is Art."

Take It To An Extreme

Okay, let's take that to an extreme. Imagine if I created an a piece of writing that was so original that it used a new language. Here's my story:

Igto fraxim gelsim dee, hopta angko mazzin frim. Zilla tark il niteo arv vis a erfto.

Stop Being Ridiculous

Now, you could say, "Stop being ridiculous." I could respond, "I'm an Artist and I'm ahead of my time. Just wait, 50 years from now, people will be reading my stories and begging for more." Who can say? And the writer escapes critique.

Now We Can Talk About Writing That Works Well, I would say that fiction writers who say, "Well, who can say whether it is good or not," are in the same boat as the previous example.

Something Measurable That means we need something measurable then to use as a guide to give a writer an idea of whether or not her writing is great or good or terrible.

Suggested Categories of Critique

Here are a few suggested categories which can help you evaluate and provide some actionable changes for the writer.

Clarity Can you tell what the writer is attempting to communicate? As simple as that. If you have to re-read the piece for meaning or simple understanding explain to the author where you got stuck and why. Was the entire thing cloudy? Let the author know. Writers must be clear.

Appropriate Did the author take a lot of tangents? If the author is writing about the mating habits of the swallow tail butterfly in her novel about a bank robbery she is not writing a novel about a bank robbery.

Stimulus / Response Writing Authors are often confused about how events happen. You may read something like: The boy was injured by the speeding car. How about:

Sam was humming a song as he stepped into the street. He looked up too late to see the red Chevy Bronco bearing down on him. He screamed as the vehicle slammed into him.

One thing should happen which stimulates another thing. Does the author consistently miss this? Let him know. You can learn much more about this in Jack Bickham's great book, Scene & Structure (at Amazon).

Smooth Transitions Authors who jump around confuse readers.
When an author writes the next thing that the reader is thinking because she's led the reader to think the next thought, then she is writing great.

Music The sounds that the words make in readers' heads actually matter. That's why some writers can write anything and you want to read it. Does the author take this into account or are sentences difficult to read.

Style What is the overall tone? Did you enjoy reading it? Let the author know.

Conclusion

There are many more actionable types of criteria you can use, but if you used these you would provide the author with many great actionable items she could use to make her stories better.

You can learn much more from Gary Provost's great book, Make Your Words Work.

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You say that the persons asking you for feedback are friends. You are not asking how to criicize the work of other professionals.

A professional writer is, in my opinion, someone who takes writing as serious as a job. He or she wants to excel in their writing, and when they ask for feekback, I would expect they want it honest and detailed.

A friend is someone who expects you to support them. This support is usually not professional, but emotional. For example, when friend tells you of some bad experience, they don't want you to explain to them what they did wrong, but that you understand how they feel and provide a secure situation where they can cry or be angry or feel however they feel, without being judged for letting their guard down.

This expectation of emotional support, that comes with friendship, makes feedback for the artistic work of a friend somewhat tricky. On the one hand the friend might really want to learn what is wrong with their work and how they can improve it. On the other hand they might want you to share in their pride and joy at having accomplished something and to reinforce their sense of purpose.

I have a small son, and as his parent I understand my role towards him to be twofold: I provide an example of how to live well, and I support him in his attempts at doing so, himself. When he shows me his homework, I don't point out his mistakes to him. Instead I share in his joy and with that teach him the joy of doing homework. Learning the joy of doing work is much more important than learning to correctly spell a difficult word. Teaching him spelling, is the job of his teacher. Teaching him work ethics is my job. I think friendship is the same.

As a creative person I have friends who are creative. My personal opinion is that it is my job to make them feel good and have the courage and energy to do what they want to do. My job is to say: It is so cool that you want to be a writer! Do that! I am the person giving them support, where others say: But making a living as a writer is hard. My job is not to teach them how to be a writer, except by example.

I therefore only offer critical feedback if I am asked a very specific question. If they say, how do you like it, I know that they are uncertain. So my answer is: I think it is a great accomplishment that you did this. Now, why don't you show it to the people who will be your readers and see how they react? I don't tell them how I like it. I like that they finished it, and I show that. Only if they specifically ask: I'm unsure about X, what do you think of it? Only then will I say: I think that ..., and maybe you could try ... . I never give detailed feedback when I was asked for general feedback, because what that friend really wants is support.

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My 2 cents: Focus on the objective of the writer, and let your feelings and taste aside. Everyone have the right to have a taste, but a professional critics needs, in my opinion, give a guidance to the writer so the creator can fulfill his objectives, not the critics.

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