Friday, June 15, 2012

Going beyond Critique: Structuring Feedback to Best Help Your Writing

One summer I attended a workshop with an award-winning short-story writer.  His writing astounded me, and his stories were favorites for years as I studied the craft.   When I learned he'd be teaching at a well-respected conference that year, I was thrilled.

We were asked to prepare a short story for critique.  I polished my very best one, which had won a couple of writing contests, and prepared to learn how to take it to the next level.  I looked forward to this great writer opening doors for me, creatively.  But I took a writing friend along, since at heart I was nervous about his feedback.  If it proved heart-breaking, I could cry on my friend's shoulder.   

Each day we listened to this writer rant.  Midweek we began to talk about the stories we'd brought, but he decided only to work on a few stories by previous students of his who were also in the workshop.  Mine got a cursory discussion, as did most of the others.  To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement.  No creative doors were opened for me, but I did learn a lot about the writer's fame and struggles with his own work--interesting to a point but not for five days.  He was not able to give good feedback because his own writing was his only world.   

Sadly, many of us went away from that workshop confused about the writing journey.  Does it really lead to this kind of self-absorption?  Can't writers learn to help each other succeed?  The flatness inside gave me no real idea how to take the next step with my short story.  It found its way to a drawer in my closet and never got looked at again after that summer.     

Critique--Only One Model for Feedback
Many years went by and I learned more about this feedback and especially critique, the academic method for giving feedback.  The goal of critique is to find what is wrong--it looks at writing with a critical eye and the sense grows in the writer that she will never quite be enough.

Critical feedback has it uses at certain stages.  But it works best if delivered with the intent to open doors in the writer's creative self.  Not close them.  I had made the mistake of thinking that this famous writer would know how to teach as well as how to write.   

That he would be able to help me.  Actually, he was really only able to help himself. 

How Do We Get Help for Our Writing?  How Do We Learn to Give it to Other Writers? 
Writers learn about their writing in several ways.  There's the harsh experience of rejection letters--which tell you everything is bad.  There's the gentle experience of support--which tells you everything is good.  In the middle is constructive feedback.  This points out both strengths and weaknesses in writing.  It lets the writer know the solid ground to stand on, as well as the next step to take to grow.

Most writers aren't born with an inherent ability to give good feedback. Even professional writers, as I learned that summer, can be lousy at it. They don't necessarily offer comments that the writer can actually use. And they give feedback for all sorts of wrong reasons-to show off how much they know, to make every­one aware they'd never be caught dead making a mistake like that, to boost literary egos.

Obviously, this does nothing good for the receiving author-to-be.

That's why I've come to believe that questions are the most untapped form of good feedback. In teaching writing for over twenty years, I've found that questions open door­ways for the writer. They let us see (1) there's something unaddressed or unanswered here, and (2) there are ways to find out what it might be. When we are asked a question, it allows new information to come up organically from our in­terior worlds. A lot of my first-time students don't believe in the power of questions. But after one exposure, they get it.

You really had to be there, to get the full impact of the question, to see the writer light up with new awareness and love for his manuscript, but perhaps some of these questions will trigger ideas on this form of feedback.

1.  What would happen if Jonah didn't say yes to Ann at that moment? (In response to a chapter where two characters fall into a pseudo-agreeability, where they really need to get more separate, this question caused the writer to catapult into an new realization of Ann's angrier side. We'd seen Ann simmering for weeks, but this writer hadn't yet, and it was deadening the chapter.)

2.  What's the most outrageous thing this woman could do? (In response to a stuck character, this ques­tion caused the writer to have her go into a bar and bargain sex for a ride to L.A., a totally unex­pected action that was entirely believable and got the writer excited once again about this person.)

3.  What was always in your mother's refrigerator? (A memoirist suddenly remembered her moth­er's quart bottles of diet Pepsi, which brought the realization that she hadn't yet written about junk food and constriction, an essential theme in understanding her family.)

4.  How does lightning play out in your life? (In re­sponse to a skilled writer's struggle with finding theme in his nonfiction book. He went from writing sequential and slightly repetitive scenes to interspersing musings on the nature of light­ning, personally and topically, which helped his book rise from the ashes.)

Any feedback in class needs to be monitored by an in­structor, who has the welfare of the students in mind. If there are writing classes in your area, try them out. Online classes are easy to find and good forums for learning feedback skills.

Assessing Your Feedback Needs
A writer in my classes was convinced that he didn't need feedback.  He worked hard on his novel and sent it off to a list of agents.  It was agony to watch him get the rejection letters--not one even read more than a couple of pages.

I suggested he spend some time getting feedback--finding out why.  Because the submission process had flattened him, Noah was more willing to try peer review now.  He found a writers' group in his Detroit neighbor­hood, one he's been with now for two years. He learned to ask good questions and he learned that careful and constructive feedback made his writing improve steadily.  He sees the group members for coffee and chapter exchange one Sat­urday morning each month, and each writer has grown tre­mendously from the feedback.

At first, Noah said, the group was large and not very committed. Over time, the original ten members shrank to five steady writers who showed up at each meeting. Those who didn't submit work eventually dropped away. Noah's writing was gently critiqued, chapter by chapter, until he col­lected good feedback on his entire book. He now knew more clearly why agents never got past chapter 1-and he's hard at work on a more informed revision.

To assess your feedback needs, spend some time with your writer's notebook or journal today. As you think about where you are in your manuscript revision, make some hon­est notes about your concerns and eagerness for feedback. Then, when you feel you're ready, take one small step toward reaching out.

Go on line, visit community bulletin boards in your lo­cal bookstores, or make a call to the English department of a nearby university or college. Research some possibilities for a manuscript exchange with a writers' group, writing coaches, or writing partner.

Discover how constructive feedback can help you take your manuscript to the finish line-and the publication that awaits there.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Spend a few minutes today writing about how you feel about your book, right now.  Are you excited, overwhelmed, discouraged, skeptical?  Describe the feelings as specifically as possible:  "They feel like . . . " or "I feel like. . . "

2.  Now switch to assessing what might help you most at this place.  Begin writing again, finishing the sentence:  "I think I most need . . . "  Repeat this prompt 5 times, answering it differently every time.

3.  From this exercise, make a list of three things you need most to move forward right now.  They can be specific issues with your book or overall needs you have for support.