Writing Feedback: An Actual Sample of Comments 

The sample writing feedback here is an abbreviated version of a manuscript evaluation, printed with permission of the author, but with the character names and some other revealing details removed to maintain the author's privacy. A full evaluation normally consists of roughly  6 to 10 pages of writing feedback. 

i. General writing Feedback

I imagine that you poured your soul into the writing of this piece, and the authenticity shows. You provide a gratifying social context that illustrates both the sad reality of young people forced by events to live in an environment of fear, and also the disquieting vulnerability of expatriate life in another country during a time of political unrest.

Your writing is accomplished and I found your story both moving and fascinating. The protagonist, possibly still somewhat roughly drawn at this point, manages nevertheless to create a strong impression.

At no point did I find him unbelievable, and I found myself rooting for him whenever he encountered any opposition. You handled the dialogue well, and you used speaker attributions sparingly and with skill, while also managing to write natural-sounding dialogue.

You demonstrate Character A's strength well, through both actions and dialogue.

The story could, however, be enhanced through deeper characterization, and by creating more tension throughout the story. As the narrative is not plot oriented and has no strong story question (something we can work on), increased tension in the writing will help to pull readers forward all the way through to the end.

II. Content

A. Organization

The writing loosely follows a conventional short story structure, but the focus is on character more than on plot. Nevertheless, you have unified the elements through the use of the school year, and through your characters [called A, B, & C to preserve the author's privacy].

The result is what editors call a "quiet" story, which really means that there is not much plot activity, though the hockey game provides good potential.

This quietness is unlikely to cause literary editors a problem, as long as you have very compelling characters, which you do. However, you could strengthen the story by introducing more conflict and tension between the characters. 

The hockey game strikes me as a missed opportunity because you could crank up the tension in the game, and do slightly more with the dodgy win that A orchestrates when he gets the goalie disqualified.

The trouble at the end of the story will have more  impact if you highlight that action. Don't overdo it, but readers need to experience A's elation with the win to feel the corresponding disappointment when B doesn't acknowledge him after the game.

I also wonder if you might introduce B and his motivation earlier in the story. He comes in on page five now, and you will create a unifying effect if you introduce him around the same time you have A in a hockey meeting on 9/11. 

B. Characterization

You've done a fine job with characterization so far, but you could do more. A and C stand out as memorable characters, but too much about them is told in summaries of their action, rather than shown.

If readers experience more of the sensory details as the characters experience them, the characters will be more compelling. Also, character B gets a bit lost in the story. Part of the problem with B is that readers may be confused about who he is. 

Is he the chemistry professor? If so, shouldn'’t you call him Professor B? For too long I wondered if he was the third rate player (mentioned only once) who now owns a store. Much later in the story, I learned that man is the unnamed coach.

For better clarity, all the characters need names, so unless you have a good reason not to, make it clear the first time you mention the third rate player that he coaches. Once that is all cleared up, Professor B will seem to play a larger role, and indeed can play an even larger one if you show what is currently told in summary.

C. Dialogue

You don't use much dialogue in this story, but when you do, it is crisp and authentic.

You have chosen to summarize, rather than to show through dialogue, and the story would benefit more if you reversed the current balance so you have more dialogue and only occasional summary. Please see where I have provided examples of how you might do this in the margins of your story.

You also write strong internalizations or inner monologues, which are and interest and depth to the characters.  However, consider changing how you introduce these internalizations. I've demonstrated this in marginal comments in the text, but you needn't write: A wondered if he'd want to go to college in the U.S., given the opportunity, or if he would prefer to go back to Canada. 

That tells the reader what A thinks, when you might instead give readers access to the thoughts themselves.

The immediacy of that approach will add power to the piece and is in keeping with the third person limited POV. So the old adage show, don't tell applies here. For example, you might get the same thought across more directly by writing something like: Did he want to go to the outside college? Probably not. Not even if it meant a hockey scholarship. Not even if his parents thought he should. Especially if they thought he should. 

Where you do show character thoughts, you sometimes put them in quotation marks. This is unnecessary. (Quotation marks are reserved for dialogue, so don't use them when characters are only thinking.)

D. Setting

The setting is largely missing in this story. I recall only the description of the ice rink, with its wall of tall glass windows. You could do much more with this. Before you do, ask yourself what mood you wish to get across. Fear? Inner turmoil? Or vulnerability? Whichever fits, make your setting contribute to that overall feeling. 

For example, if you wish to convey fear, you might place shadows, have dark corners, or creaking floors, anything that will contribute to an atmosphere of fear. You might have him park around back where everything is eerie, rather than in front of the rink, where the bright lights feel safer.

To portray vulnerability, brainstorm fresh ideas. Solitary items may suggest vulnerability, in certain circumstances. Someone staring him down while simultaneously crushing a soft drink can might suggest vulnerability, as might the big empty rink, or wide, barren fields. 

Much of the story focuses around the hockey rink, so I found myself wanting a sense of the effect the rink has on the characters. 

E. Believability and Research

I never once questioned the authenticity of the story. All the historical details feel right, and the characters respond to each other in believable ways. 

The ending is rather abrupt, however, and I am surprised when A says B knows "dick" about hockey, as A has not come across as an angry person anywhere else in the story. Still, just as when he says he doesn't care about the war, his response is entirely appropriate in the situation, and here it serves to remind readers that he is only seventeen. 

F. Point of View

The POV is one element that is inconsistent. Initially, I believed you wished to write in the third person limited POV, limited to everything A experienced or thought.

Then, with the introduction of this line: "He had an uncanny ability to produce only sufficient marks to ensure his freedom to play ball hockey after school," I believed you wanted to write in the omniscient POV, with an external narrator, as A would not think of himself as having "an uncanny ability."

The summary also suggests an omniscient third person narrator. However, in other places in the narrative A, or occasionally C, tells the story from a personal perspective.

To correct this, make a conscious decision about which POV you will use, and work to remain consistently in that perspective.

G. Topicality

This story is particularly topical at the moment, and you handled the subject matter well with C, who is at first supportive, but toward the end seems more suspicious and confrontational with A. 

The themes of the story—struggle, nationalism, fitting in, living in fear—all of these are archetypal in nature and always of interest. Many students have similar experiences today.

My one caution here is to decide what you want readers to take from this story.  A conventional plot structure arranges the story events so the reader sees, through the setup, the story world in its normal state first. Then something happens to change that status quo and present a problem that the character, with difficulty, sets about trying to right. Before he rights his world, he experiences many complications that thwart his attempts to get back to normal. Then, when something big happens to test him,  he must act. This action leads to the resolution of the problem, either to his satisfaction or not. 

Considering these conventions may help you determine what would make the purpose of this story clearer. In the conventional narrative, when things go awry initially, and the character makes some decision about how to right his world, it is that decision that creates a story question. If A decides he wants to prove himself as a hockey star, then the story question becomes, "will A succeed and become a star?" 

Of course the question is often much subtler than this, but readers need something to wonder about. If you don't give them that, you have to give them something else to draw them through the story. So the events you have chosen, and the ubiquitous nature of hockey in Canada, make good choices, as they tap into cultural interests. And you pull it off. The story is indeed engaging and worthwhile reading.

III. Writing 

A. Technical Ability

You exhibit much technical proficiency, as outlined above, and you use the elements of fiction to advantage except where noted. In particular, more tension may be necessary. But you write strong scenes, dialogue is captivating and believable, and  themes are strong,

B. Style

Your writing style is accomplished. The characters are all easily distinguishable, every one different from the others. The overall voice of the narrator is unique and draws readers in. Sentences are varied in length and appropriately short or long for effect. The writing is lively and fresh. You use no cliches or archaic phrases. In short, this story is very well written.

My only stylistic concern is that you write somewhat passively, so this "telling" may be better rewritten to make the language more active. I have noted many places in the text where you might work on that, and provided examples where I thought they would help. You use language skillfully and have no grammatical concerns, so if you focus on showing rather than telling, your style will be even more engaging and readable than it already is.

IV. What to do

To recap, you will most improve the story if you give the following areas priority:

  • Rewrite to "show" rather than summarize so readers can have the same sensory and emotional experience the character would have
  • Expand your characterization by putting characters in situations where they must react, and then show that reaction
  • Make the protagonist's purpose clearer
  • Add a new layer of meaning to the story by detailing the setting

This process of evaluating your writing necessarily focuses on suggestions for improvement, but I hope my writing feedback also reflects how much I enjoyed this piece.

I admire your ability. You managed the narrative well, with great subtlety. The story made me think, and your characters remain with me, particularly C, as you gave him such an interesting quality by making him a devil's advocate and by having him turn or change slightly at the end.

I wish you much success in your rewrite, and in further writing, and I hope this feedback provide ideas that spark your creativity.

~ Pearl

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