Learning how to write well is more than just cranking out words in response to creative writing prompts. For instance, I’m sure you have gotten feedback in your fiction writing workshop (or writing studio or writer’s studio, which is the more popular term of the day) on a submission from someone who you thought was a self-serving ass. When it happens, your defenses immediately go up and you stop listening for anything constructive. At that point, it is a wasted exercise for you and the person providing feedback. As a young writer, this is not what you need.
In writing workshops you often hear a lot about how to receive feedback and that you should remain objective when you receive criticism on your work. This is true. But there is rarely much discussion about how to give feedback to another writer on his or her work. That is unfortunate and it is really odd.
It is odd because the entire purpose of fiction writing workshops is to get useful feedback from which you can gain insights and ideas on craft and plot and the like to improve your writing. If the participants have not been taught how to be constructive, then their efforts can be worse than useless.
Learning how to provide Writing Feedback starts with learning how to consider Writing Feedback
First, do not try to respond to every comment or bit of criticism. For instance, when I get feedback on my work, I believe in “Olympic Scoring”. The name is a bit of a misnomer because there is no one scoring system for all the Olympic events. Whatever name your prefer, I ignore the most critical and most glowing reviews of my work. I do so because neither represents how most people will respond to my writing.
There are two pieces to my logic. First, the consensus on my work is far more important than any one person’s reaction. Second, in the great expanse of human behavior, some people are going to like my writing, and some people are just going to hate my writing. Either way, their feedback is not consistent with how most people will respond to what I have written, so such feedback is useless.
As a manager, this is also the methodology I used when I collect end-of-year feedback on my team members. Everyone on my team had someone who loved them or hated them, and usually both. Because there were always personality issues involved, I would discount the most glowing praise and the most derogatory feedback. Instead, I looked for the common themes.
As a writer, I do the same thing when I consider the feedback on my fiction. And — if you think about it — that is what we all do when we look at the “star ratings” on books at Amazon. We want to know what most people think about a book. What is the consensus? We generally discount the highest and lowest scores.
Interestingly – and happily – of the 200+ reviews I got on a novel I recently ran through Critique Circle, an online fiction workshop, there were few that I ignored … less than five. There were some that thought the novel brilliant and ready to be published. A few others said that my writing was so bad I should be embarrassed to post it. Both views are wrong. Overwhelmingly the community was hugely helpful to me, and by being attentive to the common themes, I did discover some fundamental issues with both my writing and my story that I have been able to address.
Don’t forget to provide writing feedback on what IS working
The other thing that often comes out in writing workshops is a focus on what is not working. That is helpful but only half of the learning opportunity. In all things in life, we need to know what we are doing well in addition to what needs work. Can you imagine a parent only telling their children only what they are doing wrong? Would the child ever learn how to do anything well?
I followed the same principle in another leadership role I had: As an Infantry Officer in the Army we would always conduct quick “AARs” (After Action Reviews) as soon as we finished an exercise or operation. I’d pull everyone together or as many leaders as I could (to keep the group size manageable) and ask, “What are three things we did well that we need to keep doing? And what are three things we did poorly that we need to fix?”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but I always focused on the little things. Somewhere early in my military career I discovered that fixing the little things had a powerful cumulative effect over a surprisingly short period. If we got the little things right, we could not help but get the big things right.
I’ll never forget one day when I was grading a mortar platoon that was tasked to pull into position and begin firing. They did not have an officer at the time, and they were very young, but they had a strong sense of unity and a strong sense of pride and ownership in their performance. Part of their culture was that they were demanding of each other, but also constructive in their feedback to one another. A band of brothers they were.
The day I came across them was very hot and dusty and the men were tired. For the most part they had already demonstrated their competence in all the subordinate tasks, so I thought it was a sure thing that they would pass this test their first try. But one of the subordinate tasks was that they had to string wire between the armored mortar carriers so they could communicate securely by intercom (not over their radios) once they were in position. It was a very easy thing to do for one soldier to run from one armored vehicle to the next with a reel of wire spooling out behind him. Easy unless the wire had not been rolled up properly and got tangled while it was being unrolled.
When the timed event started a hundred thousand pounds of armored vehicles were clattering into firing position, targeting commands were coming over the radio, sweat was dripping, a ton of high-explosive rounds were ready to fire … and a lone soldier stood in the middle of the swirling dust trying to untangle that damn spool of wire. The Platoon Sergeant jumped off his track and ran to the man to help jerk it free, but it was hopelessly knotted.
I called time when it was clear they had failed. After the young man’s sergeant got through his emotional explosion, we had a quick huddle about what we could do better next time. We also confirmed what had worked (which was nearly everything else) to make sure we kept doing those things. After ten minutes to fix the spool of wire, and an hour to recock the entire exercise, they tried again.
The next time the platoon execute flawlessly in record time, and they put their high-explosive rounds dead on target. As it turned out, they were the highest scoring mortar platoon of three that were tested that day.
Getting the little things right got the big thing right. Writing is the same way. Lots of little things done well can add up to a well-written, compelling story. So when you provide someone feedback on their writing, be sure to also highlight what worked and they did well.
Providing Constructive Writing Feedback in your Fiction Workshop will also ensure you have helpful critiquing partners
This last point is also important. If you want to write a book someday, to pen a compelling novel, or to crank out short stories that you can sell to magazines, you will need some trusted, critical, honest and thoughtful partners. No matter how well you write, you need constructive feedback. So being a credible reviewer will attract other competent writers and critiquers to you who will become part of your inner circle of trusted readers.
I was flattered last week when one of my reviewing partners at CritiqueCircle wrote me after I had finished critiquing the last chapter of a novel they had up for review. He said to me of the feedback I had provided: “…frank and fearless but enthusiastic and generous.” I am delighted that someone feels that way about my ability to critique their fiction. And to my point, he is standing by for my next submission. He is now one of my trusted reviewers.
This brings us to some specific thoughts that can guide us when we provide writing feedback as critiquers in fiction workshops. Here they are (in no particular order):
- I’m just one reader. Unless I have published two bestselling books, I understand my feedback is no more or less valuable than anyone else’s feedback
- What I have to say is only of value if the writer thinks it is of value (otherwise I’m just talking to hear myself talk, which is a waste of everyone’s time)
- I will provide balanced feedback. We all need to know what is working and what is not. I will call out what I thought was effective as well as what I did not think was effective
- When I point out something that I think could be done better, I will offer examples or suggestions of how it could be done differently
- All my feedback is on the work. I never talk about the writer
- I understand it is the writer’s work (not mine), and they are free to accept or ignore my suggestions (and I’ll respect them for making their own decisions)
- I will keep my comments concise and limited to the time allotted to me to provide feedback so that everyone gets a turn
None of this is to suggest that you should gloss over problems or withhold criticism. You absolutely should speak clearly about what you think was not working in the piece.
Always remember that your personal capital will increase based on how constructive you are, not how critical you can be
If you do these things you will be highly valued as a critiquing partner, and you will gain your own following of reviewers that will help you with your work.
For another view, see Emma Darwin’s thoughtful article on the Pros and Cons of Writing Courses. In it, Darwin makes this assertion: “A good course should also be a safe space to experiment and dig deep in your past and others’, to make mistakes, to fail. It’s also hugely valuable as a way to meet other writers, and share support and information, although with the online world that’s more available to everyone. There’s all the difference in the world between the wonderful affirmation and support you may get from a non-writing partner or a loving parent who never reads a book, and the reactions of people who know what you’re trying to do, know that it’s difficult, and can talk intelligently about where you’ve succeeded and where you haven’t…”
Your thoughts? What did I miss? From your experience, what should be added?
Use the buttons at the right or below to share it with other writers! Thanks, Allen
PS: Because some of us are visual learners, below is a good presentation about how (and how not) to respond to a critique of your work. Along the way, some suggestions for those giving the critique as well. It is a bit long at just under fifteen minutes, but nicely done with some dramatic examples and a bit of humor.