Last night was critique group for we motley crew of writers. This time round I was not the person receiving the feedback.
Writer’s need feedback. In fact, I go further and think writer’s should crave feedback. It should be as natural a part of the writing process as checking spelling and grammar. This doesn’t mean you should enjoy the process. Even writing a short story can take a tremendous effort and it’s a sensitive matter to put your head on the block. I crave feedback out of necessity, not some masochistic desire for verbal punishment.
Giving the feedback takes some effort to do well. I have a slightly deadpan humour that might not always come across so well in written format, so I have to be careful what I’m writing. On the other hand, it’s a particular style I’ve developed professionally so I have learnt to be (mostly) subtle about it.
I look at feedback in terms of the macro and the micro. Macro relates to the broad thrust of the story, it’s characters, plot etc. Is the general idea sound? Can I detect it’s theme from just a few chapters?
Micro is the line by line commentary. I tend not to bother about specific elements like spelling and grammar unless they are confusing a sentence.
I tend to read the work very broadly in the first instance to get the gist of the story, and then read and comment in more detail. This sometimes means I make a comment and then find my query/issue resolved in the next paragraph. I find this handy though, because if the writer is deliberately trying set up a situation with a little misdirection, foreshadowing or hints, then it’s a good way to experience it from the first time reader point of view. It allows me to guage levels of subtlety. It’s annoying if a change comes out of the blue without some prior indication – it makes me question the realism of the subject matter.
In giving feedback, I try to be as structured as possible, giving a broad overview, providing detail, and then summarising. Writing is an art but it still has a professional quality about it. A good analogy is the suggested structure of an interview question – tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.
Providing a copy of your notes is always handy.
A final thing is to be respectful, but honest. If I don’t like something, I try to be prepared to give a reason, but I don’t shy away from it. It may be that it’s a common response that the writer has picked up, giving them opportunity to make changes. I don’t worry if the writer doesn’t accept my suggestions. The purpose of feedback is not to find fault, it’s to give the writer options. They may have legitimate reasons for rejecting my comments. They don’t have to agree.
What I learn from the process though is the feedback others in the group give. It helps me think about my own work, and elements of it that might need changing. It helps me gather some insight on the process of writing.
So getting feedback is essential, but being to give feedback constructively is beneficial too. Treat it as one of those “treat others as you would be treated” moments and I reckon that’s the best way to get improvement out of it.