Walk the Right Path: Three Tips for Writing Comments

While at the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto, I had the opportunity to attend a session led by the wonderful Arlene Prunkl, an experienced editor who works with self-publishing clients. During the session, she talked about how to give feedback to writers in a positive and compassionate way. I believe her tips are useful not just for editors, but for anyone who has been asked to provide comments on someone else’s work.

While listening to Arlene, it occurred to me that writers asking for feedback are in a similar situation to the character of Neo at the beginning of the movie The Matrix. They know something is not quite right about the story world they are living and breathing. But they’re not quite sure what the problem is. They seek out an editor, who offers to show them the truth.

That editor needs to be careful when delivering feedback, or the writer is going to regret choosing that red pill.

Matrix Red pill or blue pill

Can I put this off until tomorrow?


Here are three simple tips provided by Arlene on how to word your comments positively.

1) Avoid using the word “you” in an accusing way. (“You need to change this.”) Refer to the problem, not the person.

Don’t be like Agent Smith and make your writer feel like a worthless insect.

2) Write your comment in the passive voice. (“This sentence can be tightened.”) This helps you to convey the information in a neutral tone.

Be a calm mentor, like Morpheus.

3) Show flexibility by using words like “perhaps” or phrases like “you may want to consider.”

After all, the writer is the One who wrote the text, not you. Respect the effort that has been put into the text. And remember, you don’t know everything. Sometimes there is no spoon.

If you do your job right, the writer will suddenly see the text in a new way. And they will have the confidence to change things for the better.

Matrix code

“I see…everything.”


© Sue Archer and Doorway Between Worlds, 2015


Images from the movie The Matrix

Do you find it difficult to provide feedback to writers? What has worked for you? Have you ever read comments that made you cringe?

42 thoughts on “Walk the Right Path: Three Tips for Writing Comments

  1. From personal experience, I can tell you that each of these goes triple for people outside North America. Certain cultures cannot tolerate direct statements that aren’t “softened”.

    On the other hand, I often fear the message isn’t getting through after being softened. “Perhaps you should run spell-check.” “You may want to consider not typing your entire novel in capital letters.” I don’t consider those actions optional, but now I’ve phrased them as if they were…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PDC, that is an excellent point about cultural differences. I must admit I laughed in sympathy about the idea of “considering” spell-check or the removal of capital letters. In those cases, I would probably appeal to the idea of the reader, and how they might become distracted rather than focusing on the author’s words.


  2. Good advice that applies to any situation in which we must give feedback. But we writers can be a sensitive lot, so the gentler touch is nice. Then again, I had a beta reader who didn’t mince words, and his comments helped me the most. Luckily, my skin has thickened in this game. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think we all need a thick skin in this business. 🙂 I can’t say how much I value honest feedback. It’s so rare to find it, because people are so concerned about hurting your feelings. I’m glad your beta reader took up the challenge and helped you in such a meaningful way.


  3. You know? I figured that out by myself. Besides, I’ve given more than 1000 crtiques on the workshop I’ve been part over a few years alone, and I’ve received about half that much on the same site. It’s truly a school 🙂

    I learned a lot from the workshop as a writer, but I’ve learn a lot as a critter too. It leaned to take critiques and to manage them, but I’ve also learnd to give feedback… which is not as easy as one might think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, you certainly have a lot of experience with writing critiques! Good for you, helping out all your fellow writers. 🙂 I practice these tips, too, but it was great to hear them summarized in such a useful way, especially for those who are newer to this process.

      I’m curious – what workshop have you been participating in? It sounds like you’ve received a lot of great feedback.


  4. Totally agree. 🙂 That style of commenting tends to take a lot longer, but it’s absolutely worth it, especially when you haven’t built up a relationship of trust with the author yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does take some patience (and a lot of self-awareness) but it’s definitely the right thing to do, even when you know the author well. I’ve heard stories of longer-term editor/author relationships being wrecked because the editor became comfortable and dished it out too hard.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s great advice, not just for editors but for writers too. I’ve been a Beta Reader for a number of other writers (who’ve read for me too) and over time I changed my way of phrasing things as I realised I could be a bit blunt sometimes. The tips you mention like the passive voice can make such a difference in how the critique reads.

    It’s interesting because I always thought I was quite thin-skinned, and I realised that when it comes to edits and critiques I’m actually pretty thick-skinned. Which is nice for me, but it does mean I need to be careful of how I phrase my critiques of other people’s writing.

    By the way, I loved the link to the matrix 🙂 it works really well! And

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you liked the link to the Matrix. 🙂 Looks like your comment got cut off, hope I didn’t miss something! I think I’m fairly thick-skinned when it comes to being critiqued – and you’re right that this makes me have to be even more aware of others when I critique them. Of course, I haven’t written a novel yet…I suspect I’d be more twitchy about feedback on that than on something like business writing. 😉


      1. Oh, I’m not sure what was following that last comment. Hmm – might just have been a brain fart on my part or something. Either way I don’t think it was important 🙂

        A novel is definitely a much more sensitive thing than any other kind of writing. That said, when I trust the person in question I love getting critical remarks because I really feel then that I’m being pushed to do better, and I really thrive on that. I think it’s a real special thing to establish a trusting relationship between writer and editor / writer and critique partner.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I couldn’t agree more!!! Great tips.
    Nothing is more irksome to me than someone crossing out my text and revising it as a way of giving feedback. (Yes, that has happened.) When giving feedback, the hardest part is letting go of one’s own ego in order to be constructive. I often have to force myself to avoid thinking, “This is how I would have written this scene.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you liked it! I love your point about letting go of the ego.

      That’s interesting about crossing out and rewriting the text as a way of giving feedback. In one of my editing courses, I was told that sometimes it’s better to “show what you mean” by making the changes rather than writing a lot of comment bubbles. I think that’s a tricky situation – as you say, you find it irksome (and so would I), whereas another writer might be glad to have someone else make the changes. I think it all depends on the context – what type of book the person is writing, what they are looking for, and what’s been agreed upon. Even then, crossing out someone’s text is a potential minefield!


  7. Excellent timing, Sue, isn’t it? I have a lot of experience with getting critiqued–from as far back as I can recall. I was always auditioning for something, so the act of getting feedback on my writing resonates with my past years of performing in front of an audience, producers or critics. I’ve run the gamut on considerate criticism to downright hurtful. (Newspaper critics can be a cruel bunch) But if you love what you do, you find a way to turn a negative into a positive.
    Working on the project I’m doing now has been entertaining as I’ve never crowdsourced for feedback before. I’ve always used my editors, my agent, my beta readers or my critique group. This was a leap. And how bout that, the net appeared.
    I so appreciate the help you’ve offered. Means more than you know, Sue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, newspaper critics…with some of them, it feels like they are solely writing to support their egos by tearing down others using the largest possible vocabulary. Not helpful at all. Although I do agree with your point about turning a negative into a positive.

      It’s amazing what help you can get when you simply put out the call. I have found the online community to be such a supportive bunch. And you’re most welcome, Shelley – what else are friends for? 🙂 Looking forward to your success!


  8. The best advice I’ve ever heard about framing feedback for writers is that “the purpose of feedback is to get the writer excited to go back and revise their work”. Also, you give feedback because you are on the writer’s side and want to help them succeed (whatever “succeed” means to that writer at that time).

    These statements help me frame my queries and suggestions, especially when the writing makes me want to tear my hair out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Wendy! Thanks for reading and commenting. I especially love that advice about getting the writer excited to go back and revise. Given how much most of us hate to go back and rework something, that is a worthy goal indeed!


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