How to give peer feedback

The process of giving and receiving feedback or critique from fellow writers is an ideal way to determine what works, what resonates, what falls flat – and how to improve. Feedback is a useful skill to develop: it’s about giving the writer insight into how you as a reader understood the piece of writing. The work we look at here focuses on giving written feedback, but remember the same principal applies when giving verbal feedback as well.

To get the most out of peer feedback, it is important to keep the following in mind:

Feedback as a reader:

  • You are being asked to identify particular narrative techniques in your fellow writers’ work. This will help you identify these techniques when you come back to your own work.
  • It is very important that you approach others’ work thoughtfully and respectfully – in the same spirit that you would like your own work to be read. 
  • You may find you are reading work in a genre that you don’t normally read.  This should not be a barrier to analysing narrative elements such as voice and point of view, use of dialogue, etc.
  • Try to remain objective about what is on the page.
  • When commenting on another’s work, keep in mind that you are not being asked to offer solutions.  In fact asking questions is often the most helpful way to respond:  ‘I’m not sure what happened here — did your character really break into the car?’ is more helpful than: ‘I didn’t like the scene with the car.’

Feedback as a writer:

  • Remember that the aim is to help you see your work through the fresh eyes of a reader unfamiliar with it, and in this way gain a deeper understanding of how your manuscript is working
  • You may also care to keep Neil Gaiman’s advice in mind:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Tips for feedback

You might write your feedback as little as one sentence, or you might write a paragraph or two.

  1. What worked well in this piece?
  2. What could be improved? Be specific.
  3. What was your overall impression of the piece?

Important: The more specific you can be, the more you will help the writer understand what is working in their piece, and what isn’t. If you say, ‘I like this poem’ say why. Be as specific as possible.

Also remember to make your feedback encouraging. Instead of ‘this paragraph doesn’t work‘, take the time to write ‘this paragraph might work better if …’

Critique sample 1: original poem

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins (16 lines) 

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Critique sample 1: feedback

  1. What worked well in this poem?
    I love the point this poem makes! It’s a clever way of suggesting how poems should or could be read, instead of the way we learned to read them in school. This poem also has lots of vivid imagery and sensory details, such as the sound of a buzzing hive, the feeling of one’s fingers searching a wall for a light switch and the sensation of beating something with a hose. The word choice also captures a real sense of dynamic movement: dropping, probing, walking inside and feeling, waterskiing, waving, tying up and torturing, beating – these are all strong verbs that put us in the action of the poem, rather than a flat, static image.
  2. What could be improved? Be specific.
    There were a few things I wasn’t sure about that detracted from the overall strength of the poem. I’m not sure what a colour slide is (maybe this is just me). I found the line ‘press an ear against its hive’ confusing – is the poem the hive? But it can’t be, because the phrase is ‘itshive’ – so is the poem a bee?
  3. What was your overall impression of the poem?
    This is a fun piece, but it also has a clear point, and I feel it will stick with me long after I’ve read it.

Critique sample 2: creative non-fiction piece

It’s My Mortal Coil, and I’ll Laugh If I Want To by Susan Keller (award-winning humour essay) 

I’ve started planning my funeral. No, I am not dying. I cancelled my Netflix subscription so I need something to do.

My children, both in their twenties, find this horrifying. I’d like to think they can’t live without my love and guidance, but that’s delusional. They’re old enough to find food and shelter. Both know how to operate a car and a washing machine. One knows how to change a toilet paper roll. But neither knows how to make my mac-n-cheese; losing me would trigger an existential crisis. A good mother might make it a priority to teach them the recipe.

Instead, I showed my daughter how to plant my ashes with a seed to turn me into a tree. She reminded me she’s killed every plant I ever gave her. Fair point. She’d have to constantly explain a dead philodendron to guests.

She called to tell me there is a place that turns cremains into diamond rings. Great idea, I said, until she loses the ring. She didn’t appreciate my dramatization of her in tearful hysterics, explaining to mall security that she set me down while trying on clothes and she is certain somebody stole me. She hung up before I got to the part about the pawn shop.

I said I want party favors, like a wedding – everyone gets a tiny jar filled with candy or something. Nobody wants the stupid favor, but they take them home, put them on a hutch and throw them away after a few years. It’s tradition. I’ve instructed my kids to fill 200 jars with my ashes. (Granted, 200 is ambitious; I can’t get six people to show up for a dinner party.) Giggling, I visualize the mortified expressions when people are told what’s in the jars and there’s no polite way to refuse to take me home with them. I’m also amused by the ensuing crisis of conscience I am gifting everyone who will one day stand in front of a trash compactor, wanting to get rid of my grotesque party favor but fearing eternal damnation.

My son, who inherited my sense of humor, thought this was pretty funny. My daughter started googling “adult onset psychosis.”

He doesn’t know the life insurance lapsed, so he isn’t as put off by the notion of my passing. He came up with the idea of propping a selfie stick in my casket and turning on the Facebook “live” feature so that hundreds will see my lifeless body under the caption, “Susan Keller is live now.” I love that kid so much it hurts.

Of course, I love them both. Just not enough to show them how to make the mac-n-cheese.

Not just yet.

Critique sample 2 : feedback

  1. What worked well in this piece of writing?
    This short humorous essay has lots of great specific details that give insight into the main character and her relationship with her adult children. There are lots of funny jokes, like only one child knowing how to change a toilet paper roll, and the image of the dead philodendron. The ending reference to mac-n-cheese nicely references the opening, giving this essay a sense of completeness.
  2. What could be improved? Be specific.
    For me, I found the tone and voice of this essay a little stilted and formal, which detracted from the humour. For example, this line ‘No, I am not dying. I cancelled my Netflix subscription so I need something to do’ feels very formal. I might suggest something like, ‘I’m not dying, but after I cancelled my Netflix subscription, I needed to do something with all my free time.’ Other phrasing that make the tone feel formal are ‘Granted, 200 is ambitious’, ‘he isn’t as put off by the notion of my passing’, and ‘She didn’t appreciate my dramatization of her in tearful hysterics.’
  3. What was your overall impression of the piece?
    This is a fun and quirky piece, written for entertainment and also to make people think about their own funeral plans.

Critique sample 3 : original children’s story draft

Once upon a time, a little girl named Harriet decided she didn’t like socks. She took off her socks and fed them to a horse. The horse decided he loved socks, and began eating all the socks he could find. All the people of the town had to hide their socks, but the horse found them anyway. Eventually he ate all the socks in the whole town. Then he started eating hats. Then pants. Pretty soon everyone in town had nothing to wear but their swimming costumes! After the horse ate those, the town gave up and became a nudist colony.

Critique sample 3 : feedback

  1. What worked well in this story?
    I love this story’s humour. It also has a clear starting point (Harriet taking off her socks) and builds to an unexpected ending.
  2. What could be improved? Be specific.
    The story probably doesn’t need the phrase ‘once upon a time at the start’, especially because it feels contemporary. I was curious why the little girl had a name (Harriet), even though she was only in the first few lines. The horse didn’t have a name, however, even though the story feels more about him. I also wonder if kids would know the phrase ‘nudist colony’. Maybe there’s another way to phrase this, such as ‘everyone in the town gave up wearing clothes and spent their days naked.’
  3. What was your overall impression of the story?
    This is a humorous story that, with some revision, will be sure to delight kids and parents alike.

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