How to Give Feedback
Descriptive vs Prescriptive Feedback
Why knowing the difference can be key to giving helpful feedback.
Giving and receiving effective feedback is the most essential element of a successful writing group. I had a creative writing professor, years ago, teach our creative writing workshop the difference between giving prescriptive and descriptive feedback and I’ve used his advice in my university teaching and writing groups ever since.
So, what is the difference between descriptive verses prescriptive feedback?
You are basically describing your response to what you just read, such as:
- I felt confused about who was speaking here.
- I was scared of the mother and wondered who she was going to betray.
- I laughed so hard.
- I felt sick and uncomfortable with how he described this woman.
- I don’t understand how the daughter got over to her boyfriend’s house that quickly.
- They’re kissing already? I’m not following this here. The way you’ve established this character made this moment feel really off and emotionally inconsistent with the character.
In most cases, a writer can’t really argue with descriptive feedback because it’s simply the reader’s response. There are exceptions to this—maybe if a reader actually misread something, but in most cases, the response is the response and a writer shouldn’t try to argue or defend. With descriptive responses, writers need to consider why and how readers are responding the way they are and revise if needed.
Descriptive feedback is often the most helpful feedback and should be the majority of feedback given in a critique group by aspiring writers.
Think of the word prescription. You are basically prescribing what you think the author should do to remedy a problem or to make an improvement. Prescriptive feedback can sometimes be the least helpful feedback and our prescriptive comments should generally fall in the minority, particularly if we’re overly specific.
The most helpful prescriptive comments are general. Something like, “Consider beginning with the action in this chapter instead of the character’s thoughts.” A comment like this doesn’t tell the writer exactly how to do something, but it gives the writer some general advice. Prescribing to the writer exactly what kind of action scene isn’t usually helpful. Telling a writer that you need more information about the villain before a certain scene can be helpful. Prescribing to the reader exactly how to achieve that is not.
There are exceptions here, of course. Sometimes a writer can feel stuck and might solicit the group for a few prescriptive ideas. Also, if you have more experienced writers in your group, they may be more skilled at actually diagnosing writing problems rather than just responding to them—noting why a reader might be confused, rather than just mentioning the confusion. Experienced developmental editors are able to offer not only descriptive feedback, they can diagnose the problem, and prescribe possible solutions. Not all emerging writers are able to accomplish this in an average writing group of aspiring writers and those who think they have this skill, when they really don’t, can do more harm than good. This is why leaning on descriptive vs prescriptive feedback can be a helpful framework for your typical writing group.
Overall it’s more valuable to present your feedback based on your reactions as a reader and questions that were raised for you. Feedback lands better (and is ultimately more helpful) when you are not telling your writing partner exactly what to write or how to write it — but rather how their work is landing for you. Honesty is paramount in a writing group and so is kindness. A good writing group can balance both.
“You always have to remember, when people tell you that something doesn’t work for them, that they’re right. It doesn’t work for them. And that is incredibly important information. You also have to remember that when people tell you what they think is wrong and how you should fix it, that they’re almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman
A Few Examples of Helpful Feedback
Here are some examples of helpful descriptive feedback mixed with some generalized prescriptive feedback:
- I didn’t understand why Blaine would trust the new guy with all of this personal information after they just met. If you’re going to do that, supply a better reason as to why he would trust this new friend with his secrets or help the reader get why he’s so quick to trust new friends. Or maybe you just want the reader to be worried that Blaine is way too trusting with other people? If so, you could set that up with a little more clarity.
- What? The boyfriend is the murderer? I had a hard time connecting the dots and seeing the motive. I’m going to need some more clues planted and some more details that help me get why he would be willing to go to such lengths to keep his boss quiet.
- I understand that Trudy is neurotic, but I found some of her habits so grating that I wanted to quit reading parts of these chapters. For me it felt like overkill. You could consider toning down some of her neurotic impulses in this section since I feel like your reader is getting your point early on—then you don’t risk losing readers in this section.
Power in Group Discussion
I want to emphasize the power in live group discussion sessions, either in person or through video conference. Written feedback by individuals is helpful, but if it’s never coupled with live discussion, you’re missing something incredibly valuable. A synergy can happen through group discussion that promotes richer feedback than individual, isolated responses. Writers have a chance to ask questions, discuss writing problems, and work through tough spots with the benefit of talking through the issues. I’ve had major a-ha moments in the middle of these discussions and also pondering them later in my writing process. I find it especially valuable when group members disagree, which almost always generates important new insights for the writer. It can also help the writer sift through which feedback to consider more carefully and which to let go.