offering the feedback a writer really needs

February 11, 2019

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I’ve been thinking about how we offer feedback to writers. Partly because I’ve been sharing my work with a group of fellow writers, for the first time in a long time. And also because I recently received an email from a lovely reader of this blog named Stephanie. It began like this:

Hi Patricia… I can’t tell you what an amazing impact your Writer’s
Workshop book has had on my life and the kids in it! Three years ago
you gave me some encouragement to get started, and I have been very
successfully offering Writer’s Workshops in my area.

She’s been offering workshops for three years! Stephanie was kind enough–with a little nudging from me–to share some of the feedback she’s received from parents and kids about her workshops. You can read it in her comment here. Some of the words thrown around: exciting confident fun thriving creative. Yes! This was just the sort of feedback I got from kids and parents when I offered workshops. I can still see those kids in my family room, squeezed together on the couch, sprawled across the carpet, their faces trained on the writer sitting before them, expectant. I see them clapping and encouraging and I see the face of writer in the author’s chair beaming back at them. I see–I really do–the beaming faces of all the kids who participated in our workshops, dozens over the years. Those faces are why I wanted to write my book. So more kids might feel encouraged and excited to write. Workshops offer big results from minimal effort on the facilitator’s part. It’s always been hard for me to talk about them without using the word magical.

(That’s Mr. T in the photo, almost five years ago–sigh–reading during one of our end-of-year workshop celebrations.)

Stephanie also had a question. In her workshops she’s been focusing on positive feedback, which is what I recommend in my book. Yet, she says, some kids in her workshop feel ready for more constructive feedback–or what I like to call “building” feedback–and she wonders how to go about it.

It’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking about it. It’s a good question because it applies not just to writer’s workshops, but also to parents working with their kids on writing.

And to adult writers working with fellow writers.

* * *

A few weeks back, the cohort of writers from my yearlong program did an online reading of what we’ve been working on. There they were: a grid of faces on Zoom, now familiar and growing ever more dear, showing up from different parts of the country, from different time zones. We each read for about ten minutes, and then offered brief feedback.

I read a few sections on my chapter about the dreaded s-word question. (Any homeschooler knows what that means: socialization.) They listened, faces trained on me. Attentive. Kind.

I’m using an unusual format for this chapter. After reading my passage, my fellow writers had lots of positive feedback, which was, of course, encouraging. A few of them also wondered about the format, and if I might modify it a bit.

I thought about the suggestion. These are smart, insightful readers who offer spot-on feedback and are thoughtful in doing so. Still, my gut is telling me to keep pushing the form as I have it. My readers didn’t hear the piece in whole, and they didn’t see it on the page. My gut says that pushing the form is the point of this chapter–and that I should try to make it work as I have it.

Here’s why I’m telling you this: When it comes to my writing, I’ve learned to trust my intuition. I know when to take a smart reader’s thoughtful advice, and when to stick with my vision. And I think writers can only hone that sort of intuition if they’ve shared their work carefully and not been beaten down by readers who go overboard with constructive feedback.

* * *

If we want kids to develop that sort of intuition with their writing, we need to proceed with the same sort of care. Which is why I have a whole chapter on the benefits of positive feedback in my book. I also wrote a post for young writers on offering feedback for the (now defunct) Spilling Ink blog, which you can read here.

And a post for parents on the importance of positive feedback, and how to offer it on your kids’ writing here.

If your kids want something more than positive feedback on their writing, I wrote a long post for parents on offering building feedback here. The key point again: proceed with care.

* * *

So, back to Stephanie and her group. They’ve been working together for a while, and want to make building feedback a bigger part of their workshops.

My advice to a group is much like the advice I offer parents above. A few thoughts:

* As always, keep the focus on positive feedback. Spend most of your time there. Positive feedback is not just nice—it’s highly instructive.

* The trouble with opening a feedback session to free-for-all criticism is that it’s human nature to want to fix the work of others according to our own taste. It can be highly satisfying to suggest ways to rewrite another writer’s work; it’s easier than fixing our own work! Once you open that floodgate, everyone will have ideas for fixing–but that’s not necessarily what the writer needs. A single such session can be highly discouraging to a writer. The damage can linger for years.

* So, when moving into building feedback, there are two simple questions that help readers offer feedback that is useful and doesn’t necessarily feel like a criticism: Were there places in the writing where you were confused? Where there parts where you wanted to know more? As I write in my book, those questions may be all the building feedback your group needs.

* If your writers want more, keep this in mind: the best building feedback is driven by the writer. Writers will be more likely to improve if they want to improve. So: writers need to ask specifically what they want help with. This is very different than a free-for-all critique session. It’s also likely to generate feedback that the writer will find useful rather than destructive.

* How do you help writers know what they need? This is a skill that may take some time to develop. I would spend some workshop time discussing it. Ask your group of writers to brainstorm how they would like their own work to improve. What do other writers—peers or professionals—do that they’d like to get better at? Maybe offer suggestions to get them going. Some examples: I’d like to write more exciting beginnings. I’d like my dialogue to be stronger. I want to get better at creating interesting characters. I’d like to write stronger arguments in my essays. I want my endings to be more powerful. You get the idea. Once you get the group going, they’ll have their own ideas. Write them all down.

* Create a master list of their responses and distribute copies to each writer so they can refer to it. Leave space for them to add new ideas as they come up. As their work evolves, they’ll find new skills they want to improve at.

* Ask workshoppers who are interested in building feedback to arrive at each workshop with one item of improvement they want help on, and a corresponding question. Examples: I’d like to write better dialogue. Do you have ideas for how I might do it in this scene? Or: I’d like my ending to be more powerful. Do you have ideas for how I might write this ending in a more exciting way?

* It’s important that writers formulate their question before the workshop, when they have time to think carefully about it. The question must be specific. It shouldn’t be a vague, open-ended question like: Do you think this part is good? Do you like this? No, the question must request specific help on one aspect of the writing.

* Again, start the session with the typical positive feedback! Then ask the writer to share what they’d like help with. (Or the writer might pose their question before reading aloud, so workshoppers can listen with the question in mind. Still, after reading, start with positive feedback.)

* Then again, if a writer does not want to improve their writing—which may be the case with younger writers in particular—don’t force them to ask for building feedback help. They shouldn’t have to hear suggestions for their work if they aren’t receptive to them. These writers are likely to learn plenty from positive feedback. They’ll ask for revision help when they’re ready. It’s fine if some members of a workshop want building feedback, and some don’t.

* Asking for this type of feedback is a skill and it may take time to develop, but it can transform your workshop! Writers will begin to see the workshop not only as a smiling, clapping audience for their work, but also a community that helps them improve their work just as they want to improve it. That’s powerful.

* * *

I hope that’s helpful, Stephanie! Writing this reminded me what a useful tool a receptive workshop audience can be. I’ll be sharing another snippet of my memoir with my cohort next week, and rather than simply reading my work aloud and awaiting their general feedback, I think I’ll make better use of those attentive faces and their generosity. I’ll consider what I need help on most and ask them for it.

A willing, enthusiastic audience is a gift to a writer. And when it comes to gifts, sometimes the best are the ones we really need.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristin February 14, 2019 at 9:36 am

When anyone in any creative field shares something personal, it’s soooo important to be considerate of their feelings when providing feedback.

The ‘safe’ sharing environment i.e., constructive criticism techniques, in your writer’s workshop, was one of the best things about it for participants.

On a side note, I found the advice in this post useful in relation to giving and getting feedback on rough cuts for a film project. Nicely written!

Kristin

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patricia February 14, 2019 at 10:40 am

Hi there, my friend!

Yes, it’s surprising to me how people feel that adults, especially, should be able to handle constructive feedback on their work. And while many of us want help with our work, feedback can be such a damaging thing if it’s not offered with thought and care.

I’m glad the post might be helpful in your own work! It can be hard to remember, when we share our work with others, that we’re putting the respondent in a tricky place. It’s a lot to ask for feedback; it can be such a hard thing to give, especially if we want to be thoughtful about it. I think it helps everyone involved if the artist is specific about what they’d like help with. I forget to do that myself, but I’m going to try harder with it. It’s not only more helpful to me in my revising, but I think it’s more respectful of the person I’m asking for help.

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Jennie March 19, 2019 at 10:06 am

This post is so helpful! It has me thinking about feedback and constructive criticism, in all areas of life, in an entirely new way. Thank you.

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patricia March 19, 2019 at 9:03 pm

I’m so glad it’s helpful, Jennie! Yes, it can apply to much more than writing, can’t it? It really can apply to help of any kind. Just remembering to ask, “What do you need?” Thank you for reading and for taking the time to leave feedback for me. 🙂

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patricia April 4, 2019 at 8:53 am

This excellent article on Lit Hub explores the role of a writer during an MFA workshop. There are some ideas here that might help expand building feedback even further, via the writer. https://lithub.com/unsilencing-the-writing-workshop/

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