Writing Groups: Taking Feedback

by Ekaterina Fawl

Being in a writing group is tons of fun. Socialising with like-minded people, getting to read their first drafts and workshop their stories as they take shape, getting a glimpse of others’ creative processes – all amazing experiences. But sooner or later comes the time do that what you have ostensibly joined the group for: receive feedback on your own writing.

You might dread it, or can’t wait to hear what the others think, or some healthy combination thereof. But the fact is, taking feedback and effectively using it to improve the story and your writing as a whole is a skill in itself. If you’re new to it, there’s quite a lot to learn there.

First of all, let’s get the most controversial, scary and important part out of the way:

  1. It doesn’t matter if they like it

I know, it sounds weird! After all, that’s exactly what a beginner writer whats to know when they share their first piece with their first readers: do they like it? Is it any good? Am I any good?

These are not the questions your writing group needs to answer.

Oh, of course they might like it! They might love it, and it’s wonderful when they do. Receiving praise is always wonderful. But the purpose of the writing group is to support each other and work to improve. It doesn’t matter if you’re already skilled, or still figuring it out. The group should still support you. It doesn’t matter if your piece is already polished to high shine or an absolute mess. It can still be improved, and that’s what the group should be focusing on.

Whether the story is ‘good’ is for the readers to decide. Or for the potential publishers, if that’s what you’re aiming for. And their judgement will depend on so many things: is this their preferred genre? Does the story explore the themes they’re interested in? Is it done in the style and voice they like?

Your writing group can’t pick and choose those things, so inevitably you’ll have to look at stories you would never read for pleasure. But it doesn’t matter: the group should take the piece and workshop it anyway.

In fact, if all they say is ‘I love it, change nothing’ – well, the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time then! You want to know what about your story didn’t work, just as much as you want to hear what did.

Which brings us to the next part:

  1. Be cool

Most writing groups aim to be supportive and welcoming. They have a clear set of rules to ensure the critique is constructive, balanced and delivered in a sensitive way.

Still, receiving writing critique for the first time can be difficult and even painful. The fact that it’s happening in front of the whole group could be embarrassing. You might disagree with the comments, might even get angry at the people making them. Their words can feel like a personal attack or condemnation of your ability or your character.

(And, however rarely, toxic cliques and mean people do find their way to some writing groups, so it’s not necessarily you. It really could be them.)

Best advice I can give you: if the critique makes you feel upset, humiliated, angry… don’t respond.

It’s not about poise and grace. Yes, published writers who publicly argue with the reviewers tend to become laughing stock. But their frustration is understandable: the book is out, they have no way to address the criticisms now. Humiliating reviews will be read by thousands, and will hang around internet forever, possibly destroying the book’s sales.

Anything said at the writing group will stay between the few people. It’s meant to help you improve, not pass judgement on you. You don’t need to convince anyone that their reactions are wrong. You need to understand why they react the way you do, but we’ll get to that in the moment.

So, keep quiet and keep taking copious notes on what people say, writing down their names, too. This will ground and settle you, to start with. If you’re emotional you might forget what exactly was said, so having a detailed record will be invaluable. Later, when you’re alone and calm, you might see that the comments were nowhere as harsh and hopeless as it seemed at the moment, and you can easily address them and actually improve the piece.

Or, if you realise that what was said really was unkind and uncalled for, you’ll be able to take your notes to the group’s moderators and make sure nobody else would be mistreated like that.

Remember to thank everyone! It’s easy to forget your manners when you’re nervous, but people put in a lot of work to help you, they’ll appreciate you acknowledging that.

And if you were attacked by a rare writing group troll, nothing upsets them quite like politeness does.

  1. Prepare your questions

So, what happens if people do say ‘I liked it’ and nothing else? Or, worse, what if they say ‘It’s not really my cup of tea so I don’t know what to make if it’? What if people note the strengths of the piece but don’t talk about the shortcomings?

This can happen, especially if people giving critique are also new to this! Just in case, it’s best to prepare the Most Important Questions:

– did the piece evoke the emotion you were aiming for? If it’s horror, ask if it was scary. If it’s romance, ask what people thought about your main couple. If it’s adventure or thriller, ask about the pace: was it easy to read, did they put it down at any point, which part made their attention flag.

– was the theme clear? Writers love subtlety and hate to summarise and simplify their own work, but sometimes you just need to ask out loud something like: ‘Was it obvious that the protagonist is lonely and desperate to make new connections?’ or ‘Does it come through that it’s a critique of gender performativity?’ or ‘Could you tell the main guy is a vampire?’

– were the descriptions enough to visualise the setting? Ask how they imagined the places you described. It might turn out you forgot to mention that the scene happens at night. Or underwater.

– are the characters’ motivations clear? Did people pick up on what mood your protagonist is meant to be in? Did they understand why other characters reacted the way they did?

– bring up anything you’re unsure about. Did the fight scene seem realistic? Was the joke on page five funny? Did you introduce too much information too early, was it easy to remember?

– if the piece is part of the longer work, you might ask how people think it might progress or end.

The more specific the questions are, the more useful the answers will be.

  1. They can tell you what doesn’t work, but only you know how to fix it

Sometimes people get carried away with their feedback, especially if they really like the piece, to the point they’re ready to take over it. You’ll hear something like ‘I thought the ending was rushed. The plot line about the invisible assassins was dropped, and the lizard king wasn’t as important as he seemed to be at first. What you could do instead—-’ and they’ll talk for ten minutes about how they’d write your story differently.

It’s an extreme example, though I actually saw that happen. But people often suggest how to fix the issues they’d noticed with the story, just because it feels natural to offer a solution to a problem.

But it’s not how you’d do it. That’s not your voice, not your vision. It might not fit, but most importantly, it wouldn’t come from your heart. It wouldn’t excite you. It wouldn’t inflame your imagination. It wouldn’t be you.

So, definitely take on board any thoughts on where the improvement is needed, and politely ignore the rest.

  1. Collate conflicting feedback

Sometimes you’ll get completely different reactions from different people, and that’s always baffling. What to do about that?

This is why it’s important to note down who the feedback is coming from. It’s often quite obvious on reflection what’s going on in each particular case.

For example, when everyone thought the Asian character was funny, except for the Asian member of the group…

Or when all male group members thought the female character was cool and sexy, and most women thought she was a cliche manic pixie dream girl…

When everyone thought your world building was flawless, except for the woman in the wheelchair…

When everyone thought your technobabble was convincing, except for the person with the physics degree…

All right, sometimes it’s more subtle. Once I had different people voice dislike and praise for the same paragraph of text: some thought it dragged and wasn’t needed, others loved the language and the metaphors. And both opinions were absolutely correct. It was a nice piece of writing, but it didn’t fit in the chapter. It stood out so much that everyone made note of it, even if they couldn’t decide if they loved or hated it!

  1. Keep going, keep going

Your first feedback workshop could be a draining experience. Sometimes it feels too intense even if it’s overall positive. It’s tempting to try to give yourself some space and not go back to the story for a while. After all, letting the story ‘rest’ is a common writing advice. Leave it be for a few weeks, come back later with fresh eyes…

Personally, I strongly recommend getting on with the edits as soon as possible. Make plans to work through the feedback you’ve received in the next few days, while it’s all fresh in your memory, before the tasks of ‘fixing’ it could grow too huge and insurmountable in your mind. Make plans to attend the workshop again. Now that you’ve taken the plunge it will be a lot better next time. Even if you thought you weren’t the slightest bit nervous, even if you didn’t feel intimidated by a roomful of strangers picking your precious words apart, even if you didn’t blush or stammer at all… Next time will be even better.

2 thoughts on “Writing Groups: Taking Feedback

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