Rules of Engagement

My world is increasingly filled with people who write. Perhaps this is only a matter of perspective: I remember the early days of my first pregnancy when London was suddenly crammed with pregnant women and babies, even though the official demographics show no sudden increase in births that year. Now, the streets of Cambridge are awash with writers: every backpack carries pages of a half-written memoir; every laptop opened on the coffee shop tables contains a novel which is nearing completion; the neighbor pushing his son on the swing at the park is a New York Times best-selling author. On subway journeys and in line for the bus, I eavesdrop shamelessly and conversations are filled with references to publishers and editors, allusions to dramatic devices, and bald statements about preferable narrative styles.

I share my work across a range of communities. Each Monday I spend a few hours with a collection of ladies who write exquisitely formed memoirs and encourage me to write a novel which would be radically different to the one I am currently drafting. It is unlikely that our paths would have crossed in any other area of our lives, but we like it that way: the formality of social distance contributes to our ability to comment upon one another’s writing. On a Sunday afternoon, I copyedit for the local homeless newspaper: wrestling, tweaking and being generally awestruck by writing which comes from, in the words of our editor, ‘the dark side of the city’. And late at nights, when my children are sleeping and the new puppy is snoring in the armchair, I work through emailed attachments of poems, novels and short stories sent by friends and acquaintances. We’re generating an informal network of people who comment upon one another’s writing – a fledgling Café Aphra.

Sharing is dependent upon trust and I’ve been musing upon the rules that are necessary to support a high-trust writing community. Here are a few I have come up with:

1. Only give feedback if you’ve been asked to by the author.
It is a privilege to be invited to comment on another person’s writing, not a right. For every person who asks for your constructive feedback, there are many more who do not. Do not think that everyone wants to know what you think or that everyone should be grateful for your opinion! Maybe the writer is afraid of (your) criticism; maybe she considers her writing to be an early draft which doesn’t yet need feedback; maybe she thinks you have nothing worthwhile to say. There can be many reasons, but the rule is the same: if you haven’t been asked to comment, then don’t.

2. Qualify what you say
Politely smiling and saying something along the lines of “I love this piece of writing and would love to read more” is not enough. Justify why you are saying what you are saying: what is it that you love? Why would you like to read more? Is it because of the plot? The use of metaphor? The insights into the world? The emotional punch? There has to be a reason that you think what you think, so give it – the writer has been kind enough to share her work with you, so surely it is the least that she deserves!

3. Begin with something positive
There are positive points to every piece of writing: finding them can be a useful learning exercise. What is good about the piece of writing in front of you? Do you like the characters? Is the setting described well? Is the action credible/exciting/tear-jerking….? Do you like the choice of language? The rhythm of the sentences? The message behind the writing? Critiquing a piece of writing to recognize what works well is a skill which can then be used to highlight areas where we might improve our own writing. We learn to be writers through close reading of our own work and the work of others. 

4. Identify 2 or 3 things that don’t work as well in your opinion
You have been asked to comment upon the writing, not to copyedit it. If the author doesn’t use full stops well, identify this in the text once or twice to illustrate your point. Don’t feel that you need to insert every period. And if you decide to make changes to a virtual copy of the text, use the review function or a different color so that the author can easily find the suggestions that you are making.
Anything might not work well: choose to identify the things that are most important to you as a reader.

  • Are the characters credible within the world of the novel and in relation to your own experience?
  • Does the setting feel real to you (real within the world of the novel, as opposed to existing in your world)?
  • Does the structure of the piece provide an effective way of telling the story?
  • Does the author give you the details that you, as a reader, need to know?
  • Does the imagery of the piece work for you – in relation to the descriptions that the writers uses, and the metaphors, similes and language she uses to frame these descriptions? Can you see it in your mind as you’re reading it?
  • Does the piece need dialogue? Or if it uses direct speech, does it contain voices which are true to the characters, relevant to the plot, and plausible within the overall world of the writing?
And so forth…. Being able to clearly identify what we would change, if we were the writer of the piece, benefits us as writers.

5. Summarize by suggesting something that you might change…
… and be explicit about your own subjectivity. Any feedback that one gives is no more than what one may think. We all write in different ways, we all like different types of books. My reading of person X’s writing is essentially subjective. I am talking about what I like, what I think is good. There are no absolute rules in good writing.

Point 5 is particularly relevant to me at the moment. I’m writing several chapters of my current novel in first person present tense. Even the most cursory Google search reveals that many people hate this form. At my writing group I have been told that it will stop people from reading my work, it will mean that a publisher won’t touch it, that it is an impossibly difficult style and should be avoided at all costs. The same Google search will also tell you that Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games was written in first person present tense. And so too, I have been told by a writing friend who commented on this blog, are the Twilight series and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes of the Museum. Which shows that that this style can work for some.

Constructive feedback should be part of a reciprocal process: just as it is a privilege to be invited to read another person’s work, so it is a privilege that a person takes the time and thought to comment upon one’s writing. One of my longest standing friends, and possibly the wisest man I know, is a Buddhist. He tells me that, in everyday life, the art of receiving is as important as the art of giving. Bearing this in mind:

6. Be gracious.
Don’t be defensive. The person who is commenting on your work is not attacking you or seeking to ridicule your work (or, if they are, they are probably not someone to ask to read your work again).

7. Listen.
It is difficult to hear that a person might see flaws in something we have worked on, but listen. Hear the content of the message, even if the words feel hard to take.

8. Learn.
Be willing to revisit your work with someone else’s comments in mind, to see it from their point of view. You don’t need to make the changes that they have suggested, you don’t need to agree with the changes that they have suggested, but if you can see your work through another person’s eyes then you can gain a new perspective on your writing… and that can’t be a bad thing.

As Café Aphra grows and we, as a writerly community, engage with one another’s work, I am sure that these guidelines will expand and grow. For now, please let me know any omissions, improvements, or recommendations that you might have. In the spirit of this blog, I'm asking for your feedback!


  1. What an interesting post! Thanks Zoe.

    And yes, in my experience the points made here are very true indeed. It is amazing how encouraging and motivating constructive and well-thought out feedback can be... and of course, unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Carelessly worded, throwaway criticism can be immensely damaging, often without the giver ever realising it.

    In my opinion it's also worth highlighting that these same rules apply to everyone, irrespective of how much experience we may have in writing (or, even, in publishing). It does happen, on occasion, that writers who are more experienced or who already have work published sometimes feel that this entitles them to be more "direct" and "no-nonsense" when giving feedback to other people. However, I have found that in some cases this is merely an excuse for insensitivity and not taking the time to apply the 'rules of engagement' above.

    I really believe it's important for ALL of us to express ourselves carefully, constructively and to acknowledge our subjectivity when offering criticism. If more people knew and adopted these guidelines, I think we would all gain from it!

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