* For purposes of this article, an “ambitious writer” is one who is serious about his or her work, desiring ongoing learning and improvement. You don’t need to be published to be ambitious, but you do need to have readers to provide feedback, even if those readers are other writers.
“So, what did you think?”
As a stage performer, for many years I was on both ends of this innocent but dysfunction-breeding question. As an audience member, I would think about what I would say while watching the show, planning my words verbatim to be both honest and supportive. When performing, I stopped asking the question and instead simply thanked my friends for attending when I saw them afterwards.
Neither change created opportunities for genuinely helpful feedback. My problem in these situations was that there was no structure around what I knew and still know is a delicate process fraught with potential disaster.
So, I signed up for a weekend workshop with the then named Liz Lerman Dance Exchange on “Critical Response Process,” a feedback method developed by Liz and John Borstel: (https://lizlerman.com/critical-response-process/) To say this was a lightbulb moment doesn’t capture the relief I felt. The process was precise, respectful, and intentionally geared toward helping the artist make better work. I’ve used it with both advanced critique group and with writing classes, with both experienced writers and students new to critique who were in need of language beyond “good/bad” and “liked it/didn’t like it.” The format is simple but precise, and its specificity taught me a lot about how structure can vastly improve the substance that emerges from a critique session.
Inspired by the Critical Response Process, I’ve developed some of my own tips for giving and receiving feedback. Most people join Inked Voices in hopes of providing and receiving feedback on their writing. What follows are some concrete strategies to help critiques function at a high level, helping the writer both make progress on his or her manuscript and also evolve as a craftsperson.
Tips for Critique Groups
Discuss goals and process with your critique group when you begin, and then check in with everybody once or twice a year, to keep everyone focused and on the same page.
Create a group mission statement
Crafting a mission statement with all group members participating means clarity and collective agreement. Revisit it once or twice a year, in January or September when we’re already in the mindset of new beginnings. You’ll have new members join and it’s important that they are actively included.
In your mission statement, articulate both the ends and the means. For example:
“Our group helps writer members grow their skills and keep their motivation high to make the best work they can. Reading members provide feedback geared toward writing members’ questions about pieces they submit. The tone of our feedback is encouraging and we do not offer suggestions or technical edits/proofreading unless the writer specifically asks for them. The writing member provides a ‘wrap-up’ statement after all critiques are submitted to reflect on the feedback, how and whether it was helpful, and any other questions he or she may have.”
Tips for the Writer
While groups provide some of the structure, we as individual writers can also do a lot to co-create great feedback.
Take responsibility for where you are and what you need
Many of us never learned how to be active in the feedback process. This is quite demanding. It means being aware of our process, aware of our goals for the particular piece, aware of the type of help we need, and articulate about how to get it.
Revisiting craft books can be a wonderful refresher course, and reading new ones essential to growth. Taking classes, in particular about something you’ve never studied but that’s relevant to your work, should be standard professional development for ambitious writers. All of this helps us formulate our questions and directions when it’s our turn to receive feedback.
When it’s your turn, ask for what you need. Here are a handful of such directives that I’ve collected over the years in my quest to improve my own skills:
* I’d like to hear comments on the general flow between one chapter to the next. I’m interested in general readability, the big picture.
* Please let me know your emotional reaction to the second chapter.
* Which character(s) did you relate to and why?
* Can you tell me how you felt in the thunderstorm section and how setting did or didn’t help create tension in the scene?
* Were you satisfied by the ending? I’m interested in hearing why or why not.
* Please comment on the pacing in the restaurant section.
* I’m experimenting with form and would like to hear if the physical structure (words on the page) affected your experience as a reader and how.
This ups our game. We’re forced to consider the elements of a well-crafted piece in relationship to what we’re working on and where we’d like to focus a well-educated reader’s reflections. The more responsible we are about our process and needs, the better able we’ll be to direct the process and elicit the comments that help us the most.
Tell us what you don’t want
This is a component of what’s above, but it’s so often neglected I wanted to give it its own section. In a creative writing class I took recently, a writer asked that readers not give their emotional reactions, since she was primarily working on structure. The tricky part of this was that the main character was very provocative and controversial, triggering intense emotional reactions in most classmates. In spite of her question, the class spent the majority of the session talking about why the writer was offensive and arguing with what the main character was espousing. Sure, the classmates wanted to vent, but the writer knew the issues and she was focused elsewhere. There was no mission statement at the beginning of the class, just a general directive to help each other improve our writing. Having a specific mission statement or group goal to fall back on would have been invaluable.
Other things one might not want comments on could be grammar, a particular section of the piece, transitions, pacing…really anything you either feel is done to your satisfaction or something you’re not working on yet.
When I’m in a live workshop, I have a rule for myself when it’s my turn to be critiqued. I take notes like crazy, trying to write everything down that’s said, but I never join the conversation. After the feedback period, I thank them for giving me their time and smarts and for pointing out issues I would have missed on my own. If I have a question about a comment, I’ll ask it. I never, ever, ever defend my piece “against” a comment or a note, or try to explain anything (unless I’m asked directly). Doing this interferes with trust, something essential for a strong critique group. My job is to consider all the comments, to take what makes sense to me, and to leave the rest.
Tips for Readers and Feedback-Givers
Finally, it pays to spend a bit of time thinking about how to provide the best critique you can as a reader.
Read through the whole piece at least twice
I actually read the piece three times if it isn’t long, the first time just to enjoy and experience it as a reader, the second time to jot down general notes about feelings and responses, and the third time to do the actual critique. This way I make sure I’ve read everything and notice everything, and it puts me in a position to comment on what I might have missed my first time through, which is good information for the writer.
Start with something positive
Did you roll your eyes? I know, I know…but the truth is, we make ourselves vulnerable when we share work-in-progress. The Critical Response Process calls this “Statements of Meaning.” When we hear honest positive feedback, or how our work touched someone we trust, it’s easier to hear about what isn’t working. It helps us feel our fellow members’ support , knowing they are trying to help us make the best work we can.
What happens if you don’t like anything about a piece? Don’t make something up or offer a comment like, “The length of your paragraphs was perfect.” Trust is very important in critique groups and praise will mean more when your group-mates know it’s honest.
Also, your experience, like every reader’s, is complex and has so much to do with who you are. Articulating why you had trouble with the piece can actually be very helpful to the writer, because chances are, if he or she submits the piece, there will be an editor who feels the same way you do.
I try to lean on my subjectivity if I’m in that position. I might say something like, “Honestly, I struggled a lot with this piece. I didn’t identify with or connect with any of the characters and it didn’t capture my attention. I wondered if it had to do with my being female and Jewish and the characters in your story were male and Christian. I also have a hard time with stories with lots of flashbacks and lots of violence.” I own my reactions and don’t pin them on the writing.
Occasionally, I come across material that is offensive in some way. This is very, very tricky because writers are entitled to free expression. All characters, at least in fiction, can show up, including ones we find repulsive. My strategy is to be honest because, again, if the piece strikes you in this way, it’s likely an editor will have the same reaction. I also once again lean on my subjectivity in how I phrase my comments. One story I read was a sci-fi fantasy YA piece and there were four girls and one boy. Guess who was fixing the spaceship when it broke down? No, this isn’t offensive in and of itself, but it certainly perpetuated stereotypes about what girls and boys are capable of. My comment went something like this: “Wondering if you considered having one of the girls be the mechanic on the spaceship? I’ve seen boys and men in this role pretty much exclusively and it might be interesting to offer young readers something different here.”
There are “sensitivity readers” who look at literature for bias, usually in terms of race, class, gender, sexual identity and orientation, religion, and culture. (http://writeinthemargins.org/sensitivity-readers/). This is somewhat controversial because it can clash with free expression, but I think it’s important because it provides writers with information that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Making the changes is then up to the author.
This is a skill we develop with practice, which includes reading (if you don’t read regularly, I strongly suggest setting an achievable monthly goal, even if it’s modest). Making notes in the margins or on a device about sentences or words or sections of a piece you like or don’t like and why is great practice for flexing those critiquing muscles.
I am sometimes lazy and write things like “lovely!” and “beautiful image.” There’s nothing wrong with those comments, but they don’t necessarily give the writer concrete information. Something like, “I’ve read a lot of sunset descriptions, but here, having the sun ‘slide’ down the sky touched me both because I was able to picture it vividly but also the verb invoked the main character’s lack of control, of things ‘sliding’ out of her hands.” We can’t be this precise every single time but it’s something to aim for.
In the Critical Response Process, step three is about turning opinions, or judgments, into neutral questions. I like this idea of getting curious about something that strikes you in a negative way. I like to give the example of a play which was critiqued in dress rehearsal. In the entire last scene, the lights were down to about 10%, making it very hard to see what was going on. I jotted down “the lighting didn’t work for me” as I watched. But then, since we were utilizing the CRP, I asked the director, “Can you tell me about your choice to use dim lighting in the last scene?” He said he wanted audience members to feel confused and lost, like the main character in the beginning of the play. This was, in fact, what happened, so I did not give my opinion during the last step.
There are other questions that can help orient a writer in ways he or she hadn’t thought of. Asking about the writer’s intention overall for the piece, about background information, about choices like POV, about what number draft you’re reading, or about any character information you don’t have are all examples. One of my critique partners is phenomenal at this and my revisions are so much more layered and deep after she’s given me feedback.
Giving and receiving feedback is a challenging but rich process, an opportunity for all of us as writers and as readers to develop our skills and help each other grow. If you have tips or pointers about what’s worked or what hasn’t worked in your group, please leave them in the comment section.
About the Author
Gail Marlene Schwartz’s story, “Chosen,” was a winner in Lilith Magazine’s2017 fiction contest. Her work has been published in anthologies including Breaking Boundaries (Rebel Mountain Press, 2017), The Stand (Polar Expressions Publishing 2017), How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting (TouchWood Editions, 2013) and Hidden Lives (Brindle and Glass, 2012). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Quarterly, Room Magazine Online, Sunday@6, and Wilde Magazine. She is working on her first novel. Gail sunlights as a copywriter (www.gailwrites.net) and lives in southern Quebec with her wife and son. www.gailmarleneschwartz.com.