The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.
Dealing with that other F-Word: Feedback
You know the social contract that stipulates that you don’t tell someone their baby is ugly? Well, as a member of a writing group, you will break that contract. The baby, in this case, is someone’s novel, screenplay, blog, or poem.
Let’s face it, the tendency is for most people to fall into one of three categories when it comes to commenting on someone’s writing: The “Hack and Slash” types, the “Lukewarm” types and the “Shiny Happy” types. Hack and Slash seems to take great pleasure in totally decimating everyone else’s work. There is not one positive nugget they can find in anyone’s writing, save their own. Lukewarm will often take the middle road on everything. The feedback they provide is wishy-washy and they will not give you direct feedback on anything. Shiny Happy, on the other hand, treats everyone’s ego as a fragile Tiffany egg and, while pointing out all things positive about a piece of writing, often fails to give the writer notes they can use to better their work. All of these types tend to be non-productive, especially in the group setting.
Believe it or not there is a tactful way to go about letting someone know that their writing needs work. We know it as constructive criticism. The key word here is “constructive.” Feedback given by members of a writer’s group must be the type that propels a person’s writing forward. Feedback such as “I really like your work. I found it interesting,” while positive, doesn’t really tell the writer anything specific that he or she can use.
Having been in the same writers group for the past eight years and having offered feedback on student papers as a teacher, I have found the following model to be helpful:
a. Point out one or two things you really liked about the piece and why. Give specific details so that the person receiving the feedback can tell you read his or her work closely. What specifically did you like about the writer’s work? What exactly made it interesting? Compared to what? Try to point out specific sentences or paragraphs that work well.
b. Point out one or two areas for improvement. Don’t just mention the problems you saw, offer potential solutions and “What ifs”. For those sentences and paragraphs that don’t work well, explain ways the writer might adjust the ideas or content presented so that they add rather than detract from the overall piece.
c. Ask clarifying questions of the writer. This often helps generate new ideas and helps sort out problem areas in a piece of writing. For example, “Where do you see this character going in the story?” or “What if you took the dialogue from Chapter 2 and incorporated it into Chapter 1 instead?”
Sticking with the ugly baby metaphor, I have always viewed writing as a little like giving birth. Heck, writing gives birth to ideas, right? In that sense, when one of our “children” happens to be the focus of constructive criticism, it is important that all members of the writing group understand how to accept such critique of their work gracefully. When members of a group are familiar to one another, they are often aware of how they need to approach critiquing a fellow member’s writing. But when the members of a writers group are an unknown quantity, so to speak, it often becomes a little nerve-wracking for both the constructive criticizer and the constructively criticized. It might be helpful to put the following protocol in place, especially if members of the writing group don’t yet know one another:
- When receiving constructive criticism, instead of speaking, take notes and write down questions you have for those offering their feedback.
- Allow each member of the group to offer feedback and then address each member’s comments and questions.
- Always keep in mind that the goal is to help you develop your writing.
- If something someone says strikes you the wrong way, be sure to ask questions to help clarify their comments. Chances are, they did not mean the comment to be taken in a negative manner.
The fact is that most everyone is nervous about giving and receiving constructive criticism. As long as clear expectations are conveyed to the entire group, there should be very few problems with the process. Not everyone is going to agree and sometimes you might be providing feedback on a piece written in your least favorite genre, but try to put personal feelings aside and look at the writing itself. Ask yourself how you can help the writer make the piece better. And always remember that each person in the group has a common goal: to improve their writing. Listen to one another. Work together. Read thoroughly and provide meaningful feedback. Those are the keys to using constructive criticism in a writer’s group.