Giving and receiving feedback

If you belong to a writing group, or are thinking of starting one, you might want to take a look at this guideline I’ve put together on how to give and receive feedback:

Presenting Your Own Work for Feedback:

  • Remember that hearing what other people have to say about your writing can be helpful.
  • Reading your work aloud may be difficult, especially if you haven’t done it before. It may help to think of it as something you need to learn, just like writing.
  • Bring enough copies for everyone in the group. To make it easier to read, make sure the manuscript is set in 12-point type and double spaced. A long piece, more than 5 double-spaced pages, might need to be brought in ahead of time or posted online before the meeting.
  • Before reading your work, state any necessary background information: Is it a piece of fiction or nonfiction? Is it an incomplete rough draft or fairly finished version? If the piece is finished, you may just want an opportunity to read it aloud.
  • If you think your writing needs work, ask the group for comments on the specific areas in which you think you may need help: Are you unsure about the ending, tone or organization? Are you wondering if parts are missing or need to be cut? Do you need help deciding exactly what the piece is (essay, story or poem) or what it is about? State your questions to the group so they can be thinking about them while the piece is being read.
  • Read slowly and pay attention to responses from your audience, including laughter.
  • Later, during the feedback session, if you become overwhelmed by comments, feel free to say, “That’s enough for now. Thanks.”

Responding to Another Writer’s Work:

  •  The main purpose of any feedback session is to help the writer keep writing because it is by writing that most writing problems are solved. No comment, no matter how truthful, is helpful if it stops the writer from writing.
  • Be gentle but professional.
  • The “hamburger approach” is worth keeping in mind. It has three parts, the top bun, the burger and the bottom bun. The top bun is a positive comment, the burger a negative one, the bottom bun another positive comment. Keep this in mind when deciding in what order to present your comments.
  • When pointing out areas that need improvement, offer them as suggestions and opinions, not as fact. It’s ok to be hesitant. Keep in mind that any revisions will require work on the writer’s part.
  • If the writer seems to be receiving a lot of feedback, you might limit your comments to the most important and note the rest on the paper for the writer to read later.
  • Don’t assume the writer is the narrator. Don’t assume fiction is based on fact. Don’t assume it matters if a piece of fiction is based on fact. Don’t overload the writer with comments. Don’t repeat what’s already been said. Don’t use sarcasm, irony or humor. Keep the tone neutral.       

Some things to think about while listening to a piece of writing being read:

  • Where did you struggle, get lost, confused or lose interest?
  • How would you summarize the piece? In a sentence or two, what does it seem to be saying? Is it clear what the writer is trying to say? If not, where is it unclear?
  • What words or phrases do you especially like?
  • Is the opening effective? How about the middle, the end?
  • How effective is the dialogue? Does it sound authentic? Is there too much or not enough?
  • How is the scene setting? Are details used to convey a sense of place?
  • How are the characters presented? Are their motivations clear? Do you care what happens to them?
  • Is the plot strong enough? Does the story draw you in?
  • How would you describe the use of language? Literary? Experimental?
  • How about rhythm, sentence order and length?
  • Is the writing too abstract?
  • Could the organization be improved?
  • What you do think about the voice, tone?
  • Are there sections that could be expanded?
  • Are there areas that could be tightened or cut?
  • Is the basic idea or theme intriguing?
  • Is there enough conflict? Does it unfold at the right pace?
  • It’s ok to just say, “I like it,” “I don’t have anything to add,” or “I think it’s ready to send out.”
  • Think twice before suggesting the manuscript be changed into something dramatically different from what it is.

 Back Home, Going Over the Comments:

  • Sort through the comments.
  • Decide which, if any, to use.
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