How to Give Constructive and Compassionate Writing Feedback

Writing is an art — and so is giving writing feedback.

JoAnna Schindler
5 min readAug 23, 2020
Original Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash / Edited by JoAnna Schindler

“I’m a bad writer.”

As a writing counselor at a top university, I’d start my sessions by asking clients about their relationship with writing. My clients were high-achieving students, so you’d expect them to have more confidence. However, the vast majority of my clients made this same self-deprecating claim.

“What makes you say that?” I’d ask.

They’d respond with variations of the same answer: “My teacher told me that I was a bad writer.” Third grade for some; high school for others. Remarks like these, especially from teachers, can stick. Often they give birth to deep insecurities that prevent us from reaching our full potential. In fact, many clients said that this criticism discouraged them from wanting to write at all.

In response to an article that I wrote about my experiences as a writing counselor, one reader, Laura, commented:

“Sometimes just one bad opinion lets us down no matter if we’ve received a hundred compliments. One is enough.”

First things first: the critique must come from a place of compassion.

Writing allows us to share the inner workings of our mind, heart, and spirit with others. When we aren’t confident in our ability to translate these ideas into words, we may hold back these parts of ourselves, and thus, hold back from connecting with others as fully as we want to. Writing — and sharing that writing with readers — requires courage and vulnerability.

As a counselor, I’ve worked with the “I hate writing” writers. The “English is my second language” writers. The “I want to be published in The New Yorker” writers. The “I just want to get an A on this paper” writers. The “I have great ideas but I suck at grammar” writers.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter how technically skilled these writers are or perceive themselves to be. By asking for advice, they’re admitting that they have growing to do and need help. I see it as my duty to respect their vulnerability and acknowledge the potential long-term impact that my notes may have on their self-image.

We all must learn to accept feedback — especially critique. Feedback can point us towards opportunities for growth, illuminating the ways in which our writing resonates with readers and the ways our writing misses the mark. That said, feedback can be just as damaging as it is enlightening. If you want to help more than you hurt, read on.

Original Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash / Edited by JoAnna Schindler

So your friend or colleague has asked you to critique their writing. Maybe they’ve asked you to read over a short story they plan to submit for publication. Or maybe they’ve sent you a personal statement, their ticket to the med school of their dreams.

Here are three tips to help you critique with honesty, compassion, and strategy.

1. Target your feedback at the writing, not the writer.

I’d hate to be like that schoolteacher, who spoiled a child’s relationship to writing with a careless comment! Calling someone a “bad writer” without providing any reasoning or recommendations is not only mean; it’s unhelpful. The same goes for making grand assertions about a person’s intelligence or character based on their writing ability. Such remarks imply that a person’s capabilities are fixed and absolute. Like any other art form (dancing, singing, drawing), writing comes more naturally to some than others. However, writing is a learnable skill — part style, part technique, all practice.

Sure, “bad writing” exists; but the definition is subjective. What does “bad” mean to you, as a critic? What doesn’t resonate with you as a reader and why? In other words, ground your feedback in the text, with specific evidence and a clear explanation.

TIP: Pay attention to how you frame your comments. Rather than say, “You’re making no sense,” kindly note, “This sentence is vague.”

2. Be a guide, not a ghostwriter.

At the end of the day, the piece that you’re reviewing isn’t yours. It is the writer’s work — and this means that they must do the work. If your edits render their voice unrecognizable, and especially if you inject too many of your ideas, your contribution hurts more than it helps. Why? That essay may receive an A; that cover letter may get them the job; that personal statement may secure their spot in a top school. But what happens when they need to write the next paper? Will they be able to achieve the same results on their own? Do they feel any more confident in their ability to write?

If you think the writer should expand on an idea or pursue a different angle, ask thoughtful questions that guide them towards their own answers. When you revise an awkward sentence, describe what you changed and why. The more you expose your thought process as an editor, the better. In doing so, you allow the writer enough guidance to self-correct and enough space to maintain ownership over their ideas and words.

TIP: Ask questions like “What do you mean by…?” for clarification. A simple “Why?” can inspire the writer to expound on an idea. “What’s the main idea of this paragraph?” helps the writer get back on track.

3. Identify patterns to promote long-term improvement.

In addition to line by line feedback, I provide my clients with a summary of their “bad habits” (e.g. wordiness, passive voice, vagueness, redundancy). I call out examples, explain how these habits inhibit their writing, and offer tips for improvement. This helps the writer understand how their choices on the sentence level influence the overall effectiveness of their writing. That way, they know what to look out for as they start their next project.

In addition to instructing the writer on what to change, you should also indicate what to keep. What is working? Point out their strengths! Plus, positive affirmation tends to make writers more receptive to critique.

Even as a writing counselor, I don’t want my clients to rely on me for help every time they put pen to paper. The goal is to give them the tools they need to thrive on their own in the long run.

TIP: Skip the fluff and make your compliments just as specific as your critiques. For example, “The anecdote about your grandfather in the first paragraph grabs my attention from the start!”

We now live in a world where we are all critics. Yelp, Goodreads, Amazon — we’re quick to share our honest, even harsh, review on every meal we eat, book we read, and product we buy. But when a person shares their writing with you, remember: your opinion has a consequence. Acknowledge the human behind the words, and bring humanity to your words.



JoAnna Schindler

Writer & technology professional, based in Los Angeles | I also write at