In this new series, writing coach Noah Pelletier lifts the curtain on his process and work with students in the MatadorU Travel Writing course.

Two weeks into my first gig as a writing coach, I came across a student’s story that I did not know how to critique. The writing was not bad, and technically it fit within the parameters of the assignment, but the story was so different that I didn’t know how to proceed. So I stared at my computer screen, stumped.

I feared this day would come. No one had ever paid me for my opinion before. I’d been an editor, and while aspiring writers would often send their work to me, they weren’t doing it to seek out my advice — they wanted to get published. And so too did the student who submitted this great, strange story. After some thought, I struck upon a balance, affirming the writer’s gifts, and offering comments to help them strengthen the work. That was two years ago, and I haven’t gotten stumped since.

I’ve arranged some of these principles into short guidelines I’ll sometimes refer to whenever critiquing a particularly challenging story. They are as follows:

Become a better writer.

It may sound obvious, but better writers give better feedback. Critiquing other people’s work improves your writing because it makes it easier for you to spot what not to do. There are certain mistakes that less-developed writers make, and each time I spot one I vow to never do it in my own writing.

For example, I used to use crazy synonyms for the word said. “Don’t touch me,” the drunkard murmured. “Daddy said I had too much champagne!” the flower girl squeaked. Ugh.

“This is the mark of an amateur,” one teacher said. I’ve adopted this motto, but repetition has made it a habit. A student may hear me say this one time, but I have heard myself say it hundreds of times.

Consider the writer.

Writers are very close to their subject matter, which makes it hard to see mistakes. In memoir and travel writing in particular (where we write about ourselves), it can be very easy to overlook key details. While reading other students’ work, I consider the individual writer’s voice, style, and the overall structure of the piece. Based on this, I make specific comments on parts I thought worked well, and then the aspects that confuse, distract, or simply don’t work.

I would not recommend trying to overhaul their story, or asking them to use words I like over words they’ve chosen.

Two Stars and a Wish

At some point you will find yourself brimming with advice. I’m gonna help this person! But I don’t suggest trying to cover everything. I use a system called “Two Stars and a Wish.” It goes like this: Point out two things you like, or Stars, and tell the writer specifically what you liked about it.

For the Wish, or the place where you wished something had worked better, I suggest focusing on the more obvious areas of improvement. For example, if someone is writing about a beach, and you were tripped up by their description of the sand, chances are suggesting they add a dolphin as a metaphorical device won’t be of much help. A good wish shows the writer something (an angle, an opportunity) that they couldn’t see before.

(If the author requests specific feedback, give it to them, but typically what writers are dying to know is: How is my work experienced by my readers? Does it have the impact I intended? Does it convey what I wanted it to convey?)

Don’t be afraid of pissing people off.

If you critique enough stories, you’re eventually going to piss someone off. It’s rare, but some people will just take it the wrong way. Get used to it. More often than not, though, folks will appreciate the time and effort you put into helping them.

And as you continue to give thoughtful, balanced feedback, backing up your statements with evidence and passages from the work, your writing will improve in ways that readers will notice.

Have you pissed off / been pissed off by someone giving feedback? Have a question about critiquing or any other aspect of travel writing you want to ask the writing coach? Find him in the comments below, and on Twitter with the hashtag #noahsnotes.