Our thanks to Vicki Hudson for the following handout from her session at the San Francisco Writers Conference about how to give feedback in a writing workshop:
In a writing workshop or critique group, the reader has an important partnership with the writer. The writer hands over pages that represent his or her heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams to the reader. The reader’s part is to provide feedback and constructive criticism that will support the writer in improving the final product of his/her hard work.
What if you don’t like the work? What if you hate the story? What if you can’t find anything redeeming in the main character that you can relate to in your own life? None of that matters. Because it is not about you or about the writer, it is about the words on the page, the movement of the story, the flow of events, the development of the characters, and more.
Tools for Feedback
Tools for providing written feedback:
First read the story without critical thought. Just read it through like any story or article you might pick up. Then sit with it for a few moments. Turn it over in your thoughts.
- What remains when you put the pages down?
- What are you still curious about at the end?
- What question pops up for you or what unexpected turn of events makes you chuckle?
- What are you still curious about?
- Nothing? Well, that is also important.
After you’ve read and then sat with the piece for a few moments, get ready to read it again. This time, you’ll make comments. Just don’t use that red pen. Red is a loaded color for many writers. Returning the poor writer to freshman English is not a positive experience. Write comments in the margins (writers: make sure to have one inch margins all around) and use the space between lines for recommended language (writers: double space your lines).
What to write about? That’s a long list that includes plot, dialogue, scene, summary, balance of scene and summary, character development, timing, cadence, pace, transitions, technique, point of view, perspective, humor, seriousness, and emotional impact…
Time and Language
If you don’t know where to begin, start with time.
- What is the chronological pace of the piece?
- Does that chronological pace make sense?
- Is it confusing?
- Does it carry the reader or create obstacles for the reader?
- Why? (Get used to answering why. Why is a big part of what works or what doesn’t work regardless of what you write about.)
If not time, look at language. Are there phrases that really stand out? Lines that grab and pull the reader into the piece, stopping time and space for the reader or lines that bring the reader back to reality, breaking the hold of the story? Highlight, underline or circle the lines that strike you as bold, chilling, hot, fevered, delicious, enticing, inciting…(you can fill in more).
Look critically not personally. You can find stuff that you like. Zeroing in on something that didn’t work for you, that you didn’t like, or weren’t comfortable with, or didn’t sound right in your head or feel right in your heart when you read the words is vitally important. Why was that your response? And some of that stuff may actually be the gem of the piece. Dive into the dark waters of discomfort.
A word about editing: Editors edit. Unless you have a pet peeve about a grammatical mistake, and the writer keeps hitting the one thing you hate – leave the copyedits to someone else, down the food chain of the writer’s progress. When she/he has the story at the place where mechanical aspects are crucial – it won’t be a piece brought to workshop for copyediting by committee.
Remember what your mother said, watch your language.
A writer has given you the honor of helping him/her hone the craft. Take that seriously. Be nice. Be truthful. Be honest. Give feedback in a manner that you would hope feedback will come to you. Use real words, not labels, or code because those terms (politically correct/incorrect, clichés, trite, culturally descriptive words that end in ist or ism) mean different things to different people, so define the response you experienced that you want to shorthand by using those terms.
You’ll have comments along the margins, but the meat of your feedback is at the end of the piece or on a separate page.
A four part formula to keep in mind
1. Start with positive comments.
What works well, quote back language, strong character development, solid pacing or cadence – anything you can say that is positive. If you can’t find something positive, look again at language, chronology, or answering what emotions the piece creates for you.
2. Ask questions.
What created a question in your mind? “I felt this at this part. Is that what you wanted to create?” for example.
3. Give constructive feedback about what didn’t work.
What are the areas for improvement in which you encountered an obstacle?
4. Sum up again something that was really positive, that you really liked and a general good point for the writer to remember.
Then sign your name, because when you do, you are saying you stand by what you are saying. You are giving the writer your truth of experiencing his/her story. Take pride in your feedback making a difference.
The simple truth of being part of a writers group or workshop is some people have useful, helpful information to give in feedback, others won’t. Some will just want to hear themselves talk or show off their “wisdom and experience.” You learn over time which members will have something to offer that is worthwhile and who will not. Which comments are worth reading and which to disregard. Be the reader people want to hear from.
(This handout is available online at http://www.scribd.com/Vicki%20Hudson)
(A free download of the book No Red Pen, Writers, Writers Groups, and Critique is available at smashwords.com using the coupon: KL78N which is valid until March 15, 2012.)
Vicki Hudson P.O. Box 387 Hayward, CA 94543 510-200-8749 ©2010 Victoria.firstname.lastname@example.org www.vickihudson.com www.throwrockpaperscissors.com
The goal of the blog is to help you and me understand writing and publishing. Rants, comments, questions, and answers most appreciated.
The 10th San Francisco Writers Conference/A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 14-17, 2013/www.sfwriters.org / email@example.com / http://sfwriters.org/blog /@SFWC/ www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference
415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109