How to Give Feedback to Writers

Works-in-progress are sacred ground. And in the past I have taken enough writing workshops myself to know that people piss on that ground all the time. I mean, have any of you ever taken a fiction class? I don't think I've ever encountered more self-hating artists with a thirst for blood anywhere else. The Brutal Writing Workshop has been parodied in enough films that I know that it's a common phenomenon.

As I explained in a recent post, one of the greatest challenges that writers face is finishing what they started. Many will cite lack of time as the number one factor that keeps them from getting to the end, but I actually think it's the internal critic that is the most problematic. When it comes to working on first drafts, self-criticism leads to self-defeat. And in a group of your supposed peers, the wrong kind of feedback compounds the problem. If you are full of self-doubt about your work, others tend to pick up on that and see it as an invitation to kick your literary ass.

In my playwriting workshops (I teach playwriting at USC in the Master of Professional Writing Program and at East West Players in the David Henry Hwang Writers Institute), where students develop new full-length plays over a three-month period (sometimes less) and finish them, I encourage them to stop thinking. In the early stages of a script's development, students tend to over-intellectualize the process and try to analyze things that essentially do not matter in the early stages of a new project.

What's important in that early draft is writing from the gut, exploring the "emotional core" of the piece and each character, and ignoring the internal (and external) critic(s) just long enough to finish your script. This will also allow you to try new things and take more risks without fear (whether conscious or subconscious) of persecution. And risk-taking can lead to exciting new discoveries about your work and, sometimes, about yourself.

I'm not saying that there is no place for constructive criticism or structural deconstruction or deep analysis. All that stuff is wholly necessary when you are in the rewriting phase. That's how to take a script to completion and get it production-ready. Feedback on completed first drafts should be thorough and direct. You want to know how people are interpreting your work because it will help you gauge what your next steps should be.

My rule of thumb is, if it's finished, then we can give complete and all-encompassing feedback. If it's not finished, if it's still a work-in-progress, if we're seeing just parts of the whole, then we have to reframe the way we generate and give feedback.

Ready for some new guidelines?

First, remember the following:

1.) We are dealing with works-in-progress—that is, works that are incomplete.

2.) We cannot fully know what a writer intends in his/her writing, especially in its very early stages. The writer himself/herself may not even know this early on.

3.) What we would like to see in a piece is not necessarily what the writer would like to see in a piece. Our aim is to help writers develop their work in accordance with what he/she would like to see in his/her own work.

4.) Writing is a process of discovery—for the writer and no one else.

With all this in mind, these are the rules for discussing works-in-progress. Answer only the following questions:

1.) What did you like about the piece? ("I liked the monologue on page three," "I liked the way the main character handled the situation," etc.) This overlaps with #2:

2.) What things that are already in the piece would you like to see more of in the piece? In other words, what parts can be expanded for your enjoyment and/or understanding? ("I think the mother's dark sense of humor is really intriguing, and I would like to see more of that," "The relationship between the father and son has some good conflict, and I would like to see more of that," etc.)

3.) What confused you or what didn't you understand about the piece? ("I'm confused about when this story is supposed to take place," "I don’t understand why he walked back in the room when he said that he wasn't," etc.) This includes perceived technical/logistical problems. ("The war that your main character is referring to was in 1812, not 1813," "One of your characters looks out at the sun and comments on it, but earlier in the piece someone says it's midnight," etc.)

The above questions can be most readily answered if you have first asked the writer: What do you want to accomplish in this piece? In this scene? In this character? Etc.? But the writer may not even know this yet, and that's okay.

Do nots:

1.) Do not tell the writer what you didn't like about the piece. It's irrelevant at this early a stage.

2.) Do not compare the writer or writer's work to some other writer or some other piece. In other words, do not start a sentence with, "This piece reminds me of"....

3.) Do not rewrite the work for the writer—that is the writer's job. In other words, do not make suggestions of things to add or change.

Now before anyone starts flaming me about these seemingly rigid guidelines, let me emphasize once again that I am talking about works-in-progress. Once the writer has completed a first draft, then we can dig more deeply and talk about character arcs, plot development, structure, what doesn't seem to work on the page, etc. You need to talk about that.

But all that comes much later. Once the writer has a finished draft, most of the above ground rules will not apply.

With first drafts the goal is not perfection. The goal is completion. If they were meant to be perfect, they wouldn't be called first drafts.


  1. On a totally unrelated note, did you know that your HSM2 "Chock Full of Gay" blog was mentioned on the Kevin and Bean show on KROQ in LA this morning? They read a couple of lines from it during the showbiz report as proof that one of the hosts (Bean, who loves HSM) is gay, which he's not, but it's sort of a running joke on a sometimes stupid, sometimes funny show.

  2. Great post, Prince. Can I use this is a handout for my class?

  3. Enrique, sure thing. Just cite my name and my blog URL as the source. Thanks.

  4. Cheryl, thanks for the tip. ABSURD!

  5. Excellent, excellent guidelines! When are you going to write your book?

  6. As a still very immature and mediocre writer, I still struggle with the lack of inspiration to continue, and finish stories. I have a horrible work ethic, and I over analyze every bit of my writing until I'm convinced it's rubbish.

  7. Fleshie, that's why should follow my advice, word for word!

  8. Once again, a great entry on the writing process. Which makes me cringe to think of all the times I'm f-ed over creative types early in their process with "constructive criticism".

  9. I wrote my first full-length play in Prince's class. So yeah, this actually works!!! =D

  10. Listen to Ed--he actually turned out to be a pretty damn good writer.

  11. i've been meaning to post here.

    i've finally turned back to writing after 25 years away... i'm going to follow these rules.. and thank you again for the kind comment on my little bit of work. i flushed in either happiness or menopause.

    i think it was happiness.

  12. Quin, seek out those who know how to give compliments. It's the key to keeping motivated.

  13. okay, obi wan... i'm reading this again, bookmarking it... and, well, we'll see how it goes.

    peter is going with me to sundance... how does venice sound to you?

  14. This was so helpful. Even for me, a non-writer. Shockingly, I am approached by my writerly friends for advice, when they are beginning new works. I will implement these rules next time. Thanks Prince!