I am one of those people. You know the ones, those that are stuck in Niceville. I don’t want to be mean to people, and sometimes, because I’m chronically nice, it can be hard for me to give constructive feedback.
A recent conversation with friend and fellow writer Dona Fox helped me realize I’m not the only one with this problem. I worry about coming off too negatively, about discouraging someone else from writing, about hurting people’s feelings, or making people mad.
Personally, I think this is a good problem to have because it means we’re thinking about the person behind the words. This is the kind of person who can give really good constructive feedback while lifting others up. We just have to figure out how.
I’ve been in a number of writer’s groups, and a couple of workshops now and I’ve seen a wide range of different approaches to giving feedback. I’ve seen people comb through a piece line by line while others hit the major components—hook, character, tension, setting etc. But no matter what rubric is used, it’s still hard to know how to approach giving feedback.
The key, in my opinion, is balance. It took me a while to understand that my feedback wouldn’t be valued if I couldn’t offer critical analysis. If all I’m doing is patting the writer on the head and boosting their ego I’m not doing my job.
Well balanced feedback = being helpful.
I’m going to assume the person who sent me their work wants the work to improve. It’s true, sometimes that’s not what people want. You’ll find out pretty quickly if that’s the sort of person you’re dealing with and you can handle that however you see fit.
To achieve this balance, I use three tools.
First, point out the problems, but also point out what they’ve done well. I have yet to find a piece of writing I couldn’t say something good about. Maybe I’ve been lucky in that regard, but I can usually comment on a nice turn of phrase, a great insight, a well drawn image, the imagination, whatever.
Second, remember, we’re critiquing the work, not the writer. Sometimes, if I’ve had negative interactions with someone in the group, this can be difficult. I’ve heard other writers talk about receiving a critique that crossed this line, feedback that somehow jumps from critiquing the writing, to critiquing the writer. I’ve received feedback like that myself. It can be painful, and it can be hard to divorce ourselves from our feelings and be objective, but remember, these aren’t just members of a critique group, they’re our colleagues, and a little professionalism goes a long way.
And finally, I’m never afraid to admit I don’t know something. If the piece being critiqued has elements I’m unfamiliar with I’ll either take a moment to look them up, or I’ll comment that this isn’t something I know a lot about. This way I have a chance to open a dialogue with the writer and learn something new.
For example, let’s say I’m reading a piece that’s built around the idea that France was still executing people by guillotine when the first Star Wars came out. That sounds pretty unlikely to me, but a quick internet search reveals that it’s true, or at least internet true. Now, instead of commenting, “This sounds pretty unlikely. I’m not buying it.” I can say, “Wow, I had no idea. Fascinating.” Now I’ve learned something new, and my comments are much more positive and less likely to antagonize the writer. And, it took me less than three minutes.
Also, I don’t typically do line by line editing, at least not in a workshop setting. I focus on those major components I mentioned above. And, as tempting as it can be, I never try to change the voice or give specifics on how to fix problem areas. Not unless I’m directly asked. The way I figure it, this piece is not mine, and if I start giving ideas on how to change things, then I’m inserting myself into that person’s story. For me, it’s a question of boundaries. Now, if the writer is stuck and comes to me wanting ideas, I will gladly brainstorm with them.
Still, no matter how careful we are, sometimes miscommunication happens. This happened to me in a recent workshop. In the past, I often used written forms of laughter like LOL or HA interchangeably with SNORT. I meant it as a variation, and didn’t think about how it could be taken as an expression of derision. If this happens stay calm. Apologize, and explain. And, if you receive a piece of feedback you’re unsure about, don’t accuse. Reach out, and ask about it. I’m very glad my colleague did because I hadn’t dreamt my snort would be taken negatively. By asking, this writer helped me see it wasn’t the best possible choice, and has enabled me to give better feedback.
This isn’t a piece on how to take feedback. There’s a very nice article on that over at Storyville, but I do want to say one thing. Sometimes we might find ourselves getting linguistically eviscerated by someone’s feedback—and I’m not talking about finding thin spots or even just saying they don’t like it, but literally attacking and tearing us down without nary a good thing to say—ignore it. That’s no longer constructive feedback, and it’s not helpful. Don’t even hate-read it, there’s too many good things in life to waste time on the negative.
Hopefully there’s something here that’s helpful whether you’re chronically nice or just looking for a place to start.
Oh, and check out my friend and colleague’s webpage at www.donafox.com. She just had a story published in The Beauty of Death Vol. 2: Death by Water. She’s one of the good ones.