For many beginner writers publishing fiction online the comments section of their blogs is their first interface with receiving feedback on their work. It may also be the only feedback they receive until they form a network of supportive writing colleagues.
I remember when I started out how much I craved constructive comments. But it was a double edged sword: the need for validation balanced against the need to know what needed improvement.
There was one participating author in Fiction Friday who did a brilliant job of deconstructing stories. I would have equal doses of anticipation and anguish when I saw he’d left a comment on a story. But I appreciated his honesty—I knew when a story was good and when one wasn’t. His comments always left me knowing what I needed to work on to improve a story.
This was long before I knew anything about beta reading, before I had a critique partner or belonged to a writers’ group and well before I wore an editor’s cap.
WHAT CONSTRUCTIVE COMMENTING ISN’T
Constructive commenting is not an opportunity to tear someone and their work apart for the sheer pleasure of doing so. It’s absolutely NOT an invitation to be a troll or to indulge in behaviour you wouldn’t be happy to be on the receiving end of. Nor is it justification for a flame war.
Non-Constructive commenting is easy to spot (but often hard to recover from when you’ve been on the receiving end). It is identifiable due to it being :
- general or vague (ie. without specifics)
- personal in nature
“Your writing is boring and two-dimensional.”
“You should give the world a break and give up writing.”
“Your writing is naïve. You should go and live in the real world.”
“This story sucks.”
“Writers like you make me feel better about what I write.”
Non-constructive comments are destructive, callous and cowardly. They are in no way intended to help a writer improve a story or honestly reflect on a writer’s craft. They are intended to hurt, belittle and shame.
Feedback that does not offer specifics or suggestion on how to improve a story is nothing more than personal attack masquerading as literary critique.
Conversely vapid niceties do nothing to invest in a story or a writer either. While not destructive like their negative partners, if they are vague and general in content a writer has no more of an idea of what makes an enjoyable engaging story than they did without the comment. They are also dangerous because they give writers a false sense of ‘awesome’ so they become defensive when the honest comments begin to flow in. A culture of positive, but empty, comments also discourage honesty and openness in commenting.
WHAT A CONSTRUCTIVE COMMENT IS
Constructive comments invest in a story and in the future of the author who wrote that story. They are roadmaps to improvement, a reflection of what works and what doesn’t in a story. They are devoid of ego and are offered with generosity and grace.
Like non-constructive comments they are also easy to recognise.
They are offered:
- in good faith with the intention of helping the author to improve the story in a future revision and form the basis for a dialogue on the story
- In recognition of being the opinion of one person.
- With specifics of what the reader enjoyed and what they didn’t enjoy–offering examples where practical. Others will deconstruct a story on what they believe to be the strengths or weaknesses of the story.
The benefit of multiple people commenting honestly on a story is the inherent strengths and weaknesses will be echoed. For example: if readers comment week in-week out about poor grammar and punctuation, those comments are a wake up call to the author in questions to do something about improving their grammar and punctuation.
HOW TO OFFER CONSTRUCTIVE COMMENTS
There are a few hard and fast rules to commenting constructively. The rest is personal engagement with a story ie. what you bring to the understanding of the story. To comment constructively, ensure you:
- are always specific
- balance your opinions – leave positive and negative feedback
- provide examples to back up your assertions about the story.
- only ever talk about the story or the writing (never the writer).
- articulate your comments as your opinion
- identify your bias (if you don’t normally read in a particular genre – let the author know that as a caveat to your comment)
- where confidence time permits, provide suggestions on how weaknesses may be strengthened
Confidence to comment, increases with the number of comments you make. It starts with just one honest comment: something you enjoyed in the story, something you didn’t enjoy as much. It is as easy as that.
Can I say I like/enjoyed or dislike/didn’t enjoy something?
Absolutely? But be specific.
“I like the way the dialogue was played out in the story. Each character was easily distinguished from the others. It flowed and felt natural. [insert example]
“I felt the inclusion of dialogue tags on every line of speech cluttered the narrative. For the most part the dialogue stands strong without the need for the dialogue tags.”
DEALING WITH UNSOLICITED CRITIQUES
Publishing work online comes with a silent permission to readers to comment. If you don’t want people to comment on your work consider if online is the right place, or turn comments off (though I wouldn’t recommend this.)
As the author you are at liberty to accept or reject opinions and suggestions offered in the comments. However, if someone has gone to the trouble of writing more than a single line comment, it pays to seriously consider what they have to say before rejecting it outright. Always thank people for taking the time to comment.
What if someone doesn’t like my commented?
That is their issue. To be a writer, a thick skin is required. If you have articulated your impression of the story in a thoughtful, specific fashion and acknowledged any bias, then you have done the best you can at the time.
Time is a precious commodity and commenting is an investment in the work of someone else. If that investment is not respected or appreciated, consider where your time may be directed. Gracious, insightful and honest commenting is the foundation for future professional critiquing partnerships (beta reading, crit partner, in/formal editing arrangements). Constructive comments are also the knight in shining armour in the battle against cavalier back slapping and empty praise.
Every constructive comment you make pays it forward and backward; invests in your future work at the same time as it invests in the current work of another writer.
Make each comment count!