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Feedback with Compassionate Detachment

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
I feel sorry for the first writers who ever came to me for feedback. My initial writing experience was in news, where deadlines were brutal and so were the editors. We believed that was because nobody had time to waste, but I now believe it was because we were young and stressed out and didn’t know another way. I’ve discovered that providing feedback with the goal of serving both writer and story can be faster and easier, if you know how.

I learned the hard way, the first time I judged a writing contest. I meant to be empathetic and constructive when I told a writer that her story about financial hardship was an opportunity to broaden readers’ minds. Unfortunately, I included this: “…take a moment to explain why you couldn’t get a better job.” She was outraged, believing I was judging her for not having a better job. Egads, that wasn’t what I meant at all! I was just suggesting she write more detail. I was a professional writer and I had failed to communicate.

I felt terrible.

I had many positive teaching experiences before that, so I chose to see this as an opportunity to improve. I sought more training and a new perspective on feedback. Creative writing is always deeply personal, fiction or non, and I’ve learned that’s why it’s important for feedback to be both compassionate and detached.

I’ve since developed a reputation among coaching clients, writing colleagues, and students for giving feedback that encourages and motivates. Here are a few tips that have helped me:

1) I take responsibility for my opinion by emphasizing “I” statements over “you” statements. This helps writers take feedback as opinion, rather than personal blame or praise, encouraging them to decide whether their writing needs to change or just needs another audience. For example:
  • I’d like to know more about this character’s relationship with his father. 
  • I’m confused here. Is it possible to clarify? 
  • I find myself wondering how this character felt when she saw the body.
    2) I address what I observe in the writing rather than my opinion of the writer:
    • The opening effectively introduces the character’s motivation: her father betrayed her, and she has never trusted men since.
    • The dialogue in this section didn’t feel realistic to me. I had a hard time believing a three-year-old would talk that much about death.
    3) I spend less time making suggestions than I do asking questions:
    • What do these people really want in this relationship? 
    • What’s at stake for the protagonist? 
    4) I clarify that my intention is to serve the story, not to prove I’m right, sometimes adding phrases like, “As a reader…” or “From an audience’s perspective…”
    • I like that she notices his cologne. As a reader, I’d be interested to know exactly what he smells like to her and how that scent affects her.”
    • From a female audience’s perspective, this kind of language might sound sexist, which might make it difficult to root for him.
    5) Instead of pointing out what’s missing, I ask for more information:
    • I don’t understand why he reacted that way. I’d like to know more. 
    • How does meeting someone else who has lived with this kind of secret affect him?
    6) I beware of information overload. In evaluations, I offer no more than three challenges the author faces to take the writing to the next level. It can be difficult to remember more, and the writer may shut down. I use terms like “challenge,” and “take it to the next level,” not to add a spoonful of sugar, but because I believe it’s more accurate than talking about what’s “good” or what “needs work.” Growth in any craft is a lifelong journey. I find it helpful to remember we can always improve tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we’re failing today.

    7) I try to spend as much time on strengths as challenges. It’s important for writers to recognize what’s working, so they can lean into that. What’s more, writers who regularly receive feedback want to know whether their changes are effective.

    By giving feedback with compassionate detachment, I’ve discovered something unexpected. In the powerful movie Whiplash, the megalomaniacal music teacher declares: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” I disagree. When I emphasize what’s working and simply ask questions about the rest, my students improve faster – especially the geniuses.

    Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.


    1. All wonderful tips! My crit group dishes out some tough love, with the emphasis on love. It is a given that we truly respect each other as writers. We emphasize what we love about the writing and passages with an equal hand to the things that need improvement, less us puzzled, etc. You need a setting of safety. Everyone who views your work sees something slightly different and catches things others won't. You don't always have to agree with the feedback, but if you hear there's a problem area from more than one person, take heed. We have the luxury of discussing what we thought/caught in detail. You obviously can't do that with every work you critique as an editor. For my money, it helps to have both an intuitive thinker and an emotional sensor read it. I guarantee they won't read the same story!

      1. Interesting point about having an intuitive thinker and emotional sensor read your story. I had never thought of that, but I can see how it would help you make sure your work is reaching both camps.

      2. Thanks for your great insights, Diana. I too am intrigued by your comment on the intuitive vs. emotional reader. That's one reason it can be helpful to get multiple feedback. I don't think any two people read quite the same story. Which is why sometimes, just sometimes, I don't take heed until I hear something from three people!

    2. Good tips, Cara ... too bad my old boss didn't heed these ... his feedback usually entailed something like him sniffing and saying, "What's that awful smell?" Then he'd hold up my copy, sniff it, and say, "Why, it's coming from this! Get this out of my office, Hudson!"

      1. Christopher, those of us in journalism many moons ago had similar experiences. Thank goodness the editors I've worked with on my books have been much kinder.

      2. Hahaha, Christopher! Sometimes my news director actually named the smell, which I won't repeat here, but it had something to do with bodily waste...

      3. Mine did too, Cara ... I was just trying to keep my comment 'G' rated.

    3. The most exhaustive evaluation I ever received came from the head of a critique group I had joined. (I should note that she was an unpublished mother in her 20s, and I was in my early 60s.) The critique's 3 single-spaced pages informed me what story I meant to tell but didn't and which character was my intended protagonist but was not as the story was written. Criticism was heaped upon criticism, and I nearly quit writing. Today that same story receives kudos from most readers and neither its content nor its characters are questioned.

      Your comments about focusing on the story and using questions rather than accusations are worth their weight in gold, Cara. (Please forgive the cliché.)

      1. Thanks so much for the illustrative story, Linda! That is just the sort of issue I had in mind when I wrote this. It's also a good reminder for us writers to beware when a critique partner, beta reader, or content editor makes comments personal. It can help to step back and remind ourselves that information presented in that way is likely more about them than us.

    4. Great post Cara. The first critique group I belonged to developed that compassionate approach to comments, and I learned so much from the feedback. When a critique is done well and with kindness, it does make such a difference.

      1. I absolutely agree, Maryann! I believe the detachment is critical too. In that original critique I made with the woman who got upset, I went out of my way to create a compassionate tone - yet I still managed to accidentally say something that came across as a personal affront. To me, much of the detachment is about depersonalizing the language so miscommunications are less harmful.

    5. Great post, Cara. I have a wonderful critique partner. When we started, years ago, we were delicate in our crits. Now we say whatever we think, and it's great. We know each other so well.

      My worst experience was when I exchanged a novel with someone else for a critique. This guy, yes, it was a guy, said he had to stop after 30 pages because the structure was all wrong, and went on to name other things that were unacceptable. I thought I wouldn't publish that book. He set me back months. I finally got over it and published it. That book continues to get five-star ratings, but I thought his tactic was beyond the pale. I never said anything about his. I'd read 90 pages, and the first part was about the death of a school printer. Since then, from posts I see of his, he thinks he's the reincarnation of Hemingway. Sorry if I don't agree.

    6. Thanks so much, Polly! Your story of the reincarnated Hemingway made me smile. It's instructive, I think, that so often the people who criticize the most accomplish the least.


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