Prescriptive Feedback: A Critiquing Don’t

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Giving critique can be tricky. Feedback comes in many forms, largely depending on what the author wants. But giving critique can offer many pitfalls and problems.

Sometimes, the writer doesn’t know what they want, or maybe think they know but really don’t. I had a very new writer ask me for critique and I drove her crazy asking her what she wanted, precisely. So I gave her the critique she said she wanted, and I don’t think she has touched the story since.

I took her too much at her word, though I softened the critique quite a bit, knowing how new she was and how fragile that newness can make a writer.

At least she still writes.

So if you’re a writer asking for critique, try to know what you want and what you can handle. And be careful whom you trust with it.

Prescriptive feedback is never good. Newer writers might have a harder time spotting it – or realizing they’ve given it. If anyone tells you what you should do, how the story should go, that’s prescriptive. Ignore them because they’re trying to impose their vision on your story.

In fact, I prefer to avoid “you” or any reference to the writer when I give critique. I focus on the story, not the person, after all. If something doesn’t make sense or I can’t understand the logic in a character’s choice, I say so. And by all means, if something is well done, I give credit where it’s due.

But I’ve found it much more difficult to avoid imposing my will on someone else’s story than I once thought. Sometimes I see something that would make a good solution to a story problem, or I can see something isn’t working but can’t put my finger on specifics. When I can’t keep my mouth shut, I try to phrase it as, “This is what I would do, if this were my story.” I try to make it clear that the story belongs to the writer, not me; I just want to point out an option the writer may not have thought of.

It toes the line of prescriptive advice. I’m sure it crosses that line occasionally.

Now that I’ve sent my novel out to beta readers, I’ve had some of those prescriptive comments trickle in. To the reader’s credit, they tried to avoid it. “I wanted this thing to happen (that didn’t)” is a whole lot like “this is what I would do.”

And I would have taken it seriously if it had been, “The story made me think this would happen.” That’s constructive; it tells me I have something to fix.

Seriously, if the story doesn’t support an outcome you’d prefer, you won’t help it by giving your personal preferences. I’d have to rewrite it – again – to make this particular preferred outcome work, and that’s not the story I want to tell. Keep that type of feedback to yourself.

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  1. I would suggest being explicit to beta readers if you don’t want story suggestions or reactions on what they wanted, especially if the reader is new to giving critique. After all, personal preference on what happens in a story is a natural reaction. (Seriously, when you finish a read, how often do you say, “I love that X did Y”, or “I wish Y had happened”? I know I do it.) Also, not giving an explanation or alternative to something disliked is seen in some circles as unhelpful (if not outright condescending). It’s fine if you don’t want such critique, but it’s good to be clear about that to beta readers. 🙂

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