Critical Feedback for Writers: Why You Need It, How to Love It

Abi Wurdeman
March 1, 2024

Here in DabbleU, we’ve got articles on writing horror, crafting murder plots, and dreaming up debilitating character fears rooted in unthinkable trauma.

But this might be our most terrifying article yet. We’re about to discuss (dun dun duuun!) critical feedback.

It’s time to talk about the moment when you invite other people to tell you what they think about the story you mined from the deepest parts of your soul… the manuscript you’ve given all your heart and attention to for months or even years.

Opening yourself up to criticism—constructive or otherwise—is a vulnerable act. It’s courageous, tenacious, and audacious. It’s also unavoidable if you hope to craft a strong narrative.

My goal is to take some of the fear out of this essential aspect of the writing process. We’ll talk about why constructive criticism is so valuable, how to think through the feedback you receive, and how to put it to work in your writing.

We’ll also cover the fine art of providing feedback so you can help your fellow writers improve their projects, too.

I can’t promise that what you learn will make you look forward to helpful criticism. But I am hoping I can convince you that this process is important, enriching, and gets easier with time.

On that note, let’s talk about… 

Why Critical Feedback is Crucial for Your Writing Career

A writer sits on the floor against a couch, holding a cup of coffee and typing on a laptop.

When we open ourselves up to receiving constructive criticism from others, we can overcome major obstacles that might otherwise prevent us from becoming better writers. I’m talking about things like:

Your Subjectivity as an Author

We know how we intended for our writing to come across, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the image in our heads from what’s actually being conveyed on the page. Not to mention, you can’t spend months on a project and not get emotionally attached to it.

We need someone outside ourselves to deliver honest feedback about whether we’re actually executing the vision the way we mean to.

The Limits of Your Current Skill Set

One thing all successful writers have in common is that they’re constantly trying to become better writers. They never stop learning or workshopping their craft.

When you request a critique from a peer or mentor, you’re engaging in another form of learning. Their critical feedback pushes you to improve weaknesses in your writing, explore new strategies, and discover your personal writing style.

The Limits of Your Perspective

It’s true that your novel is your own self-expression. But your story’s details can still benefit from outside advice. 

Maybe you need an industry expert to review the way you portray a newsroom. Or you’d like to hear the opinion of a beta reader who devours every book in your genre.

When we invite constructive criticism, we give ourselves the benefit of learning from multiple perspectives.

Types of Critical Feedback

A smiling person rests their chin on an open book and gives a thumbs up.

Not all forms of critical feedback are equally helpful. It’s important to be aware of this when you’re both giving and receiving criticism. 

As the recipient, you deserve to know the difference so you don’t waste time ruminating on needlessly harsh advice that wasn’t meant to be helpful in the first place. And when you’re the person giving feedback, you need to differentiate between two key types to ensure that you’re delivering criticism in a useful way. 

So let’s break this down.

Constructive Criticism

Constructive criticism is actionable feedback. When you offer someone this type of criticism, you don’t make a judgment about their abilities. You make a specific observation that suggests a clear path to improvement.

For example, constructive criticism might be something like:

“This scene feels similar to the one before. I think you could afford to either cut it or combine the scenes to keep the story moving forward at a steady pace.”


“The protagonist seemed a little too perfect. I think a few flaws would make them more relatable and give you somewhere to go with their arc.”

Destructive Criticism

As you might have guessed, destructive criticism is the opposite. In destructive criticism, the person giving feedback focuses on the negative without offering any insights that are actually useful.

For example, someone providing this form of critical feedback might say, “That story was unoriginal and dull” or “Boo! Do better!”

You can’t really do anything with that. Fortunately, you’ll encounter very little of this type of criticism among fellow writers and you’ll never see it among folks who give feedback professionally, like editors and sensitivity readers.

On the rare occasion that you receive destructive criticism, it’s likely coming from someone who got the idea that they sound smarter when they’re harsh. It’s not personal and has nothing to do with you. Let it go and get advice from someone with stronger feedback skills. 

Receiving and Processing Feedback

Two hands rest on a desk on either side of an open notebook marked up in red pen.

Even though constructive criticism is meant to be enriching and even kind, it doesn’t always feel great to receive it. Not only do our egos get in the way, but we’ve spent weeks, months, and even years viewing this story through our perspective alone. When it’s time to open up to outside opinions, you might find your hinges are a little rusty.

I don’t know about you, but the first time someone presents feedback based on an angle I hadn’t considered, my very first internal reaction is that they’re so wrong and obviously don’t get it. But I don’t say any of that out loud because experience has taught me that I’m probably wrong.

So instead, I follow this tidy little three-part process:

Express gratitude - This person took time to help you make your novel better. Whether they provide good feedback or not, they deserve a big, fat “thank you.”

Give it time to sink in - If you have an instinct to argue against any aspect of their constructive criticism, stifle it. Set it aside. Give yourself time for the irritation to subside. Then consider their feedback again. Odds are, you’ll see something valuable in it, even if you don’t take the whole note.

Ask questions but don’t get defensive - If something is unclear, go ahead and ask follow-up questions! It’s totally appropriate to have a conversation about their feedback. You just want to avoid a heated debate.

Giving Constructive Feedback

And what about when you’re the one providing constructive feedback? How do you ensure that your insights are actually helpful and don’t crush their delicate dreams?

Be precise - Provide specific examples so they understand what the issue is. For example, if you think their characters are a bit underdeveloped, say exactly what you think they’re missing.

Specificity doesn’t just help them improve their writing, it also keeps the focus on what could be better instead of on whether or not they’re any good at this.

Be honest (in a nice way) - While you don’t want to give destructive criticism, you also want to avoid holding back valuable guidance to spare their feelings.

Acknowledge what works - When it comes to critical feedback, most people think of compliments as something you dole out only to soften the blow of the really useful stuff. But positive notes actually do more than make the recipient feel good.

When you tell someone what you loved about their story, they have a better understanding of what’s working. This helps them consider the whole piece more strategically, looking for opportunities to enhance or support that aspect of their storytelling. 

Surviving and Thriving in Creative Writing Workshops

A person sitting in front of a computer laughs as they hear feedback from the person next to them.

We often receive constructive criticism in the form of written notes from beta readers, critique partners, and editors. But sometimes feedback is a live, group effort, like in a writing workshop or writers’ group.

That takes a whole different brand of courage—receiving feedback in a group setting. With a little preparation, though, it can be a fun and enlightening experience. Some quick tips:

Bring an open mind - Workshop settings can be hard because you don’t have time to sit and process criticism. The impulse to debate feedback before you’ve thought about it might be stronger than ever. Resist. Thank others for their input and give yourself time to consider it.

Prepare emotionally - Not everyone is out there reading articles on how to best way to offer constructive criticism. Most people will be helpful and respectful, but prepare yourself for the possibility that someone might think being destructive is the same as being honest. It has nothing to do with you. 

Be concise - When you offer feedback, keep it brief and specific.

Take notes - You’ll want to note any input on your story, of course. But what’s great about group settings is that you also get to learn from the critiques of other people’s work. So bring a notebook and record any gems you pick up along the way.

Overcoming Feedback Challenges

A stressed-looking person runs a hand through their hair as they look at their computer in a booth.

As undeniably valuable as constructive feedback is, there are aspects of it that are a little challenging. Let’s talk about how you can move past some of the trickier moments in this process.

The Bruised Ego 

Even when we know it’s not personal and that constructive criticism is one of the best tools we have for improving our craft, it can still feel lousy to have someone point out our shortcomings. 

I recommend letting it feel bad for a minute. You can even rant in your journal or to your dog about how totally off-base your critique partner is. Those angsty, defensive feelings will pass and you’ll find it’s a lot easier to see the feedback with an open mind on the other side.

It also helps to nurture a growth mindset. Get a little obsessed with advancing your craft. Read books on writing, listen to podcasts, and join writing groups. When learning becomes a goal, constructive criticism feels less like a burden and more like another stepping stone.

“Bad” Feedback

Sometimes you’ll find that you still disagree with a note even after a cooling-off period. It just doesn’t work for you. You don’t want to do it.

So don’t do it. It’s as easy as that. However, I recommend reconsidering any feedback you hear multiple times from multiple people. Speaking of which…

Conflicting Feedback

One beta reader loves your ending and another one doesn’t. Or half of your writing group thinks you spent too much time on the antagonist while the other half thinks the antagonist needs a deeper backstory.

There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to conflicting feedback, such as each person’s point of view, area of expertise, and relationship with the genre. But if you weigh those factors and still feel like you’re looking at a tie, then the tiebreaker is you.

It’s your novel, after all.

Putting Feedback to Work

A person sitting in front of an open laptop writes in a notebook.

Now that you’ve got a big ol’ pile of constructive criticism to inspire your revision process, it’s time to work those ideas into your next draft. We’ll take this step by step.

First, review all your feedback - Whether you’re working with input from multiple beta readers or just implementing notes from a single editor or sensitivity reader, take time to sit with all of it. 

Decide which changes you want to make and which suggestions don’t really fit your goals for the story. Notice if there are any common themes in the feedback. If your readers have flagged multiple lines of dialogue as “unrealistic,” it might be worth sharpening your dialogue skills and taking another pass at that aspect of your manuscript.

Follow up with questions as needed - This is also a good time to ask for clarification if you received any constructive criticism that you don’t quite understand. Just remember that this person has already given you a lot of their time, so make it a brief email or a quick conversation.

Make a plan - Decide how and in what order you’ll tackle the feedback you received. I recommend starting with major changes like rethinking character arcs, tweaking plot lines, and combining scenes. That way you don’t spend time fixing a clunky paragraph only to completely eliminate it later.

If you’re a Dabble user, you can also make use of the program’s extensive editing tools to leave notes for yourself right in your manuscript. Leave a Sticky Note to remind yourself to rework a scene, write a comment on a clunky line of dialogue, and more.

(If you’re not a Dabbler, you should know that it makes the revision process so much easier. Rearrange scenes, duplicate projects, have your work read back to you with the Read To Me feature… it’s got everything. You can try it for free for 14 days, no credit card required.)

Building a Writing Community

Of course, you won’t get many chances to follow all this advice if you don’t build a solid writing community. That’s where you’ll find critique partners and beta readers, get suggestions for great editors, and track down friends who are willing to sign up for that intimidating writing workshop with you.

Connecting with fellow writers is one of the best and fastest ways to get comfortable with the fact that constructive criticism is a necessary part of the process. You can count on them to be real with you and make sure you hear positive feedback every now and then.

So where do you find them?

Anywhere writers hang out! Writing workshops and conferences, local writing groups, online communities, you name it. Dabble even has an online writing community that’s free to join whether you use the tool or not! It’s called the Story Craft Café. Click here to come hang out with us!

Wherever you find your people, know that you’re not in this alone. There’s a massive community of writers out there who are eager to share resources, swap feedback, help you grow…

…and make this whole thing a lot less scary.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.