Friday, June 25, 2010

Feedback and Critique--Finding Safety as Well as Good Growth

Writers need other writers.  I'm seeing this in action today, as my weekly book-writing class pairs off to exchange feedback on their storyboards.  The group is engrossed, the noise level in our classroom is high, and I'm listening carefully for enthusiasm and ah-ha moments.

When I eavesdrop on some of the conversations, I am impressed.  The feedback is s accurate, helpful, and kind. This class has been together for months and they respect each other.  A very necessary aspect of helpful feedback that opens doors for writers, rather than shutting them down.

In this corner of the room, I hear
a plot-strong thriller writer giving good advice to a memoirist struggling with not enough happening in her story.  Although she can't change facts, his questions are making her think differently about the arc of her book. Over here, a medical writer and a young adult fiction author exchange similar benefits--one writer's story is very subtle, the other's is quite dramatic.  So their suggestions range from changing the order of scenes to help strengthen the emotional impact on a reader, to ideas on when to go interior and when to stay in the exterior moment.

The hum tells me all's well, and that's great.  I've been in many classrooms as a writing student, and I've had devastating results from feedback.  I'm dedicated to making sure my own classroom contains exchanges that are as positive as possible.

Feedback is unavoidable, really, so it's just a matter of structuring it well to get good rather than bad results.  An isolated writer can only go so far on her own.  At some point she needs others to give an objective look at what she's trying to achieve--and tell her if she's anywhere close.

Creating Environments for Safe Feedback
There are three kinds of feedback that actually help you grow.  The first is simply a mirroring process.  I learned this from therapeutic models--you try to state what you are understanding from the writing without putting your personal spin of "good" or "bad" on it.

It's not always easy to do this, believe it or not!  We pride ourselves in objectivity but actually there's such a strong critical mind in most of us, objective comments are really hard to achieve.  I admire writers who are able to just give the facts, not comment too much from their personal viewpoint on what should be done next. This is the safest, mirroring, and it's helpful (if done well) to any level of writer from beginner to advanced.  The writer retains her own sanctity about the work, because all she hears during the mirroring feedback session is what one reader perceives.  Back at home, the writer can compare the information she got with her original intent for the passage or chapter.  If the intent and what the reader gets from it are vastly different, the writer can go back to the writing and revise it with the feedback in mind.

More advanced writers benefit from a feedback based on what I call "opening-door questions."  These are a bit harder, because they require the feedback partner or writers' group to think more deeply about what might open doors for the writer.  Say the writer is great on plot, with many dramatic scenes, but not so good on making his characters come alive in a believable setting.  The questions might be:

What was the motive behind this character's decision?
What does the character desire or fear most?
What was the character's happiest moment in childhood?
What kind of shoes are in this character's closet?  Under the bed?
What is a smell in this environment?  A sound?
What does the character see when he looks around this scene?

These opening-door questions all deal with a character's interior life, how that life is revealed by exterior choices, and how the setting reflects this (what the character notices via smells or sounds tells the reader a lot about his state of mind).  I've found just a few questions like this will often make big light bulbs go on over the writer's head.  Because questions are nonthreatening, the writer can allow them in.  Maybe he never thought about these things because he was so focused on the action.  So these good questions can really open doors.

The third level of feedback is critique.  Critique is the riskiest, the most able to devastate a new writer or a seasoned writer with a new piece.  I get hired to give critique all the time; I've worked with clients from all over the world and in every genre.  The way I try to keep critique helpful is to focus on two aspects equally:  the piece's strengths and weaknesses.  I first list what I liked about it, what worked, what writing skills are evident.  Then I go through the content of the piece.  How is it flowing, from one dramatic action to another?  Are there chunks missing or is there too much backstory in any section?  This is primary--if content isn't in place, the writing doesn't really have enough to go further into critique.

Then I look at the structure of the entire piece, followed by each section.  Are the scenes or moments or ideas arranged in an intuitively logical order--something that makes sense not just to the writer but also to the reader?  Sometimes this is a bit like working a jigsaw puzzle.  The writer's mind might have a certain order for the sections in an essay or a story or a book, but this order might become stronger with slight rearranging.

Finally, I look at the language, the voice and pacing.  It's the hardest but also the make-or-break element of publishable writing.  How does it flow?  Is there consciousness throughout or does the writer "drop out" in sections, using a different tone or too intellectual language for the moment?  Is the voice authentic, in that it conveys vulnerability and a journey?  Do the moments of the piece of writing move easily, or is the pacing slopping and jerky?

Rarely do we get into this level of feedback in my classes, but sometimes the group has been together long enough to be able to do it.  Sometimes writing partners and writing groups can do it too.  It requires a lot of trust on the part of the writer being critiqued, and I am frankly always wary of writers who tell me "Bring it on, give me everything" because it shows their experience with deep critique is a fantasy.  It is never easy to change your work, and it is never easy to hear radical suggestions about something you love dearly.  But it's always necessary.

I have a wonderful writing partner and good writing groups.  They give me excellent feedback.  But for this level of critique, I always hire a professional editor.  I rely on professionals for my books, before submission and publishing.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Do you have a piece of writing that you've worked on for a while?  One that you suspect might be ready for feedback?  Choose something that is not first, second, or even third draft.  You've written it, you've set it aside, you've looked at it again.  You've even read it aloud to see where there might be changes needed, and you've tried your hand at making those changes.

Consider whether you have someone (preferably not a spouse, child, or best friend) who might be able to give you mirroring feedback.  Ask this person to read your piece and write down three things they noticed in it, facts about it.  Compare these with your intent.  Do they match?  What could you change to close the gap?


  1. I am delighted to have stumbled upon your writing site. I feel very fortunate and would like to be included in the free writing exercises. It's a privilege to learn the writing game from a master such as yourself.

  2. Thanks, Don! I've added you to the list for free writing exercises each week.

  3. Thanks for the valuable insight on providing feedback to writers, Mary. Honing our feeback skills to our fellow writers is as important as honing our craft.

  4. Thank you, Elise! I think that's so true.