A Good Home, Critiquing someone's work

How to Give ‘Feedback’ to Anyone

A team member, working on a project with me years ago, had seen me give feedback to others.  She noticed that I always pointed out ‘the positives’ before getting to what needed improvement, and especially so if the critique took place in a group-setting.

One day, she told me: “If you ever have to give me feedback, just get to the bad stuff first. Please don’t spend a lot of time telling me what’s great: it’s the bad stuff I need to know about.”

So there came a time when I had to identify a few things she needed to improve. I respectfully pointed them out, specifically and without identifying the positives upfront.

It meant I’d compromised my own leadership principles to give her what she’d said she wanted.

But she felt deeply hurt.


Praise matters. Everyone I’ve ever met wants to know what they’ve done well. The fact that you noticed it, the fact that you value it, matters. Praise matters. 

Praise opens up a door for the recipient to hear and absorb your suggestions about weaknesses in their work. This is especially true for work that is very personal or tasks someone has laboured over.

Honest praise matters even more than criticism of weaknesses.  Giving honest, specific praise allows you to reinforce the high standards that you believe the other person is capable of attaining. In some cases, that’s enough.

“I like how you described the setting in this particular paragraph. You used the five senses to great effect. It pulled me into the story and made me feel I was right there, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Do more of that when you describe the other settings in the story.”

Being specific in your critique of someone’s work can point the way to continued improvement, as the above once did for me.

Early in my career, I deleted entire scripts, short stories or scenes of TV shows because someone I respected said: “It doesn’t work”.  It didn’t occur to me back then to ask: “What specifically doesn’t work?”

If someone requests your feedback, ask: What specifically should I look for?” (Is it the storyline, the character development, the way you describe things, use of dialogue — what?)

Criticise the work, not the person.  Most people flinch at receiving ‘negative criticism’.  One way to make that even worse is to criticise the person, when you should be criticising the work. It’s fine to praise a person’s particular skill in a personal way (“I’ve noticed that you’re skilled at writing dialogue,”) but it’s not okay to say “I’ve noticed you’re really bad at dialogue.”

Praise in public, criticise in private. I learned this soon after becoming a leader. Even the strongest personalities can be hurt when their efforts are criticised in front of others.

Agree on Guidelines for Group Critiques. You need to share expectations upfront with your group, and give each other permission. Never take consent for granted, even when everyone says they know what they signed up for.

Critiques should build up, not beat down. It’s not just because “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”.  It’s because feedback isn’t complete till you have identified both what works and what needs work. When someone receives your critique, s/he should feel equal parts challenged and empowered to make the changes required.






68 thoughts on “How to Give ‘Feedback’ to Anyone”

    1. Me too, Amy. I had some teachers who operated by the tear-down approach and saw the hurt they caused. While replying to you right now, I just flashed back to a professor who devastated a student in front of everyone. I took him on, fiercely. It helped her regain her dignity but I am not sure if he learned anything. To my mind, such behaviour is a misuse of power and unworthy of anyone in a position of trust.

  1. Excellent tips for leadership, teaching, and parenting. We need to know we are valued first, then we can hear specific, constructive feedback. I would like to have bosses like you Cynthia. 🙂

  2. I took several courses on writing chidren’s books in San Diego. One teacher always said we should start with 3 positives and then frame the negatives in a form of questions. We did not always succeed, but if we started with the positive the student was more accepting of the negatives.

    1. Yes, indeed. I first wrote this piece back when I was evaluating TV programs internationally. And I now coach a small group of memoir writers and learned these guidelines always work. So I thought I would share the post here.

  3. Excellent advice as always. I am just coming to the end of reading a fabulous non-fiction manuscript that has twice been taken on by agents, but so far cut no ice with publishers. I think I can see what needs to shift and have been mentally preparing my response to try and persuade the author that it will be worth the effort to make these changes, so your feedback directives are beautifully timely. Thank you.

  4. Great advice. Had to do a lot of this in my former life and realized how much appreciated the good points were. When the not so good points came up they were more likely to be looked at with in a balanced way knowing I was being honest.

  5. You’re absolutely right. i’ve been on the receiving end of both techniques and although i’m the type to take the punch on the chin and move on, critique without the mention of the good parts does hurt.

  6. All good advice. In my poetry critique workshop we use the “critique sandwich” – a positive, an improvement suggestion, a positive. We also call them “hot spots” and “cold spots.” In any given workshop it’s evident that one reader’s campfire is another reader’s iceberg.

  7. I only use praise in my writing classes, Cynthia. I tell the students right up front, “if you want a criticism class, you’ve come to the wrong one.” I explain how we learn the best kind of writing from each other, since I stress what each writer does well with a story, be it dialogue, a wonderful metaphor, a great use of description, etc. This way, each student becomes more and more enthusiastic about his/her work, and no “writer’s block” occurs! I’m with you – stick to your principles.

  8. This took me back to my days teaching public speaking! My students were so nervous about the whole undertaking–they really needed to hear what they did effectively!

  9. Excellent advice! From my practice I know that the beginning and the end of conversation should be focused on positive things and praise.Then people never get offended and heel to the friendly critic. I especially value the last four points. Thank you again for the reminder!

  10. This is such sensible advice, Cynthia. I find giving feedback so difficult and very rarely do it. It is bad enough in a domestic situation where I need to advise a member of my family!

  11. Dear Cynthia, this is oh so true and how sad that a lot of people don’t give a damn about it, thus often destroying hopeful talents, careers without even thinking about the consequences of their behaviour. I’m part of a visual arts group and we have to write critiques every month about the images of our members. This is always a very thoughtful, considerate affair. Mutual respect is often missing in forums that’s why I stay away from them. Have a nice weekend x

  12. Cynthia, such excellent advice. Sometime ago a local woman organized a critique group for all us aspiring children’s book writers, and she handed out a sheet with guidelines for critiquing each other’s work. Not surprisingly, they were much like yours above. We all come to value the critique part, but especially in the beginning, the praise is so critical, especially to those just beginning as writers as souls can be easily crushed.

  13. Well said, Cynthia! One of my father’s sisters had comforted me once, telling me that as children, they were brought up with the idea that children should never be praised; one should only sternly tell them what they had done wrong. She said, “That was wrong, you know, but he can’t help it. That is how we were raised.”

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