Writing Groups: Giving Feedback

by Ekaterina Fawl

I’ve already talked about the joys and challenges of receiving feedback graciously (even if it’s not the glowing praise you expected!) and using it to improve your piece (even if the comments aren’t as helpful as you might have hoped). Now it’s time to turn the tables… Let’s delve into the art of giving feedback! How can we do that without crushing our fellow writers’ spirits, while giving them our honest opinion? How do we organise our thoughts? How do we provide the most useful and thoughtful feedback the writer can get?

1. Our goal is improvement

I believe this is vital for everyone in the writing group to remember! We’re not here to tell people if their writing or stories are “good” or “bad”. We’re trying to make the stories better, and we’re trying to become better writers. Where we are right now doesn’t matter: if we keep improving, there’s no telling how far we can go. So we’re not here to judge, but to help each other on the way.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I think your story is ready for professional publication”. For many people that’s a milestone they’re aiming for. But telling someone they aren’t very good is actually pretty pointless for the purposes of the writing group. Even if the story hurts you on every level you have an obligation to treat it with the same thoughtful care you would expect people to give your writing, and you have to be kind and polite. We’re all on a journey, and in a couple of sessions a novice might catch up. In a year they might very well overtake you, and you’ll be glad you’re friends when they’re helping you out!

2. What did I actually write?

This sounds weird, but bear with me. Here is the most important information the writer needs from the reader: have I written what I set out to write? Have my ideas survived their transition onto the page? Have I created a stalwart hero on an epic quest, like I wanted to, or a dull prude out for a boring walk? Have I shown you the landscapes I see in my mind? Have I infected you with my love for my characters? Did I frighten you? Did I make you laugh?

So the best feedback, really, is just to tell what kind of experience you had as a reader. Tell the writer what their story was about, what happened and whom it happened to, how did you imagine the world and the people. Be as earnest as you can, this is not the time to be passive-aggressive or funny. If there’s a gulf between your perception and their intent, they’ll know.

3. All the good things

Here I’m going to encourage you to just praise your writers without any restraint whatsoever.

Liked something? Mention it! Something made you smile? Say it! You’ve come back to an impressive passage to figure out their writing technique? They’ll be so happy to know it!
If your writing group reads the stories beforehand, you might mark the texts as you read them (some people write on their the printouts, some insert comments into the files). The natural impulse is to mark like an editor, only checking problems, clunky or weak passages, inconsistencies, factual errors and so on. But we’re not editors, and it’s just as important to know what works as it is to know what doesn’t. So please, mark and note every good bit!

No need to go into details here, if that sounds exhausting. The writer would most likely already knows why the passage is good, after all the work they’ve put into it. We might want an explanation when people tell us that something missed the mark, but we’ll simply (and gladly) accept that something worked as intended. So draw smileys in the margins, paste star stickers to the pages, put “+1” and “yay” in the comments, give thumbs ups to the best lines and know you’re making a writer happy – and helping them grow.

4. My favourite part!

I strongly urge you to pick your favourite part and talk about it in some detail. It can be a passage of the description, a plot twist, a character or a setting, doesn’t matter. This is the strongest, most effective aspect of the piece, and the writer needs to know about it!
They might be pleased, they might be surprised or even upset if you praise something they hadn’t thought much of. Succeeding on accident is definitely a mixed bag of emotion, but it’s still important to know! If the story doesn’t work out, this one gem could be something the writer takes from it to build a much stronger story around it. If the story is still taking shape you can help find its heart and core. If it’s mostly done you can help the writer see what they’ve hung the piece on, and perhaps reshape it to better support its strengths.

5. Constructive criticism

Sometimes the story is so wonderful (whether it’s because it’s technically flawless or because it just grabbed you by the throat and you can’t see any faults in it) you might struggle pointing out anything that can be done better.

Sometimes you just don’t like the story at all. It happens.

In any case I would recommend spending some time thinking about exactly one aspect of the work you would most want to see improved.

If the answer is “everything”, then you have to put in more effort. This has to be something concrete and quantifiable, not something like “make the story less boring”. Consider what alienated you from the story most, or what was the first time you decided you didn’t like it.

Was it grammar and spelling? A lot of people would say that’s just petty, but I personally struggle to read an unpolished text. Who knows – if you share your proofreading tricks and tools it might really help someone out!

Was it the prose style? The writer might be trying something experimental with the voice, and your feedback will be invaluable.

Were the descriptions too lengthy for your taste? Did the plot lack momentum? Did you dislike the protagonist, and why? All important for the writer to know!

It’s up to you if you want to offer more than one criticism. An onslaught of them can be overwhelming, and there’s only so many aspects of your writing you could focus on improving at once. But there’s always at least one thing to bring up, no matter how great the piece is, if you give it enough thought.

This, along with the previous step, is an excellent exercise in general. It will give you tools and habits that will help you analyse and improve your own writing.

6. The checklist

If you find you’re struggling for words when giving the feedback, or (like me) can’t stop going on and on, it might be helpful to have a simple checklist of the aspects of the piece you want to talk about it, such as characterisation, dialogue, themes, style etc. Some groups include such checklists in their guidelines to help members structure their feedback. If yours doesn’t, it might be time to adopt one! Sticking to the list could make the feedback more rounded and thorough, but also give you more focus and confidence when you deliver it.

Writing groups work on reciprocity and a kind of honour system: over time we all collectively get out of it more or less what we put in. Every time we give good quality feedback we set the tone for the whole group, and by growing as writers we all become more thoughtful critics as well, and vice versa. When it comes to learning and discovering yourself, no work is ever wasted.

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