It isn’t any old feedback on their texts that writers need. To be effective, to help the writer improve, feedback needs three qualities: first – to be timely (while the writer is still wrestling with the text); second, to be specific (vague comments lead nowhere) and third to address their needs. The writer can indicate where help is needed, such as description, or pace or even the dreaded ‘show not tell’.
In a writing group the members have to agree practices and to be open about their beliefs or personal relationships will quickly deteriorate. In one group I belong to we do not allow each other to apologise for our writing. It’s not that we are unsympathetic to lack of time, or difficulty or the challenges of a novice, say. Rather, we have agreed that as readers of a text in normal circumstances we would not know about the circumstances in which it was written. It doesn’t help to know that the writer intended to give it another polish before they released it.
I offer the following guidelines based on discussion in a new group of writers, my own experiences and those of other writers (including in the books mentioned at the end of this post).
Guidelines for the writer receiving spoken feedback:
- You could specify in advance the aspects on which you want feedback.
- Be SILENT (ie don’t respond as you listen. This is very hard to do.)
- Make notes
- Respect the work done by your readers
- Review, revise and rewrite later, having considered all comments.
Points #1, 4 and 5 apply to feedback that is spoken or written.
Generally in the groups I belong to, we prefer to receive the extract in advance. The idea is that considered responses are likely to be more useful than those following a first reading, which is often out loud. Email, blogs and websites are a godsend for this.
Remember: You don’t have to take everything on board. The feedback is potentially very valuable because your writing eventually has to stand without you to defend or explain it, and you do not get many opportunities to discover how your writing has been received.
Guidelines for the writer giving feedback:
- Focus on the manuscript NOT the writer, but take care to be careful of writers’ feelings, for example of first time writers who may feel very vulnerable exposing their writing to others. This is a particular challenge with memoir or life writing.
- Be brief
- Nitpicks (spellings, typos, punctuations etc) should be written not spoken
- Tell the writer where you were confused, surprised, annoyed or delighted, which parts you liked, what worked for you and what didn’t. And why.
- Be wary of suggesting ways to fix problems. It’s not your writing.
One member of our new group has experience of an on-line critique group. It demanded of its participants that they commit to providing some feedback at least once a week. The site had some categories for structuring the feedback on novels and short stories:
Setting – providing a summary helps the writer see what made an impression, what was significant to readers.
Characters – comments on believability, depth, development and progress can be helpful.
Plot – is it moving forward?
Referencing – identifying the aspects that require previous reading of other parts of the text
Grammar and spelling
Remember: The task is not to judge the work, but to give the writer insight into the effects of their writing using words and phrases such as ‘because’ or ‘I wonder…’ and ‘I notice that …’.
It sometimes seems to me that the giver of feedback learns more about writing than the receiver. It certainly requires more skill.
Some useful books:
Ursula K Le Guin, Steering the Craft (1998) The guidelines were adapted from this book.
Squaw Valley Community, Writers Workshop in a Book (2007)
Julia Bell & Paul Magrs, The Creative Writing Coursebook (2001)
Becky Levine, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (2010)
I originally got some notes together for the Totnes Library Writing Group. Thanks to the members for the discussion and for enhancing my understanding of feedback.
Do you agree with the guidelines? How is it possible to stay silent? How does it work in your writing group? Let us know in the comments box below.
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