Monday, 3 February 2014

Writers' groups: giving feedback

Running a writers' group spoke about how valuable writers' groups are, in offering community, motivation, and feedback. Accepting feedback well is an art form, but so is giving it well. Over the years of being in and running writers' groups and writers' courses, these are the three best rules of thumb I've learnt for feedback.

1. Specify what feedback you want

Many writers' groups end up giving only one kind of feedback: close prose criticism. Individual sentences, words that work or jar, well-written and awkward passages... (After all, for those of us who studied English, that's what we're best trained in.) The problem is that close prose criticism is only useful for your final draft. If this is your first draft and you're still feeling your way through the story, that intense attention to detail can stultify you. It also leaves out huge swathes of potentially useful feedback: how your characters are coming across, whether your narrative is gripping or flagging, how the overall narrative arc is working, whether the exposition is clear or clunky, and so on.

In my writing courses, everyone submitting for feedback has to say what kind of feedback they want. Some of the requests we've had are...

  • This is first draft so don't worry about style too much - how is the narrative working?
  • What impression do you have of the main characters and their relationships?
  • (For a mystery novel) Can you tell what's going on? Is it too confusing / too obvious? Do you have any theories of what happened?
  • This is the first chapter - does it catch your interest? What do you expect in the rest of the book? What do you think will happen next?
  • How is the world-building working? What can you tell about the culture / society / environment?
  • This is a new idea, very early days - only the good stuff, please!

Specifying what feedback you want helps you immediately, even before the group has said anything. When you choose a few key questions about your writing, you clarify for yourself where its strengths and weaknesses might lie and what you need to keep an eye on.

Everyone's shocked when I tell them they're allowed to ask for positive feedback only. At first, nobody took that offer up. They couldn't see how that would ever help. As the writing course progressed and they knew and trusted each other more, they realised that they could ask for that and sometimes it does help. The first growth of an idea needs some warmth, in which to grow. We don't put seedlings out in the snow and demand that they prove themselves by growing anyway; we keep them on warm windowsills. The same goes for stories. Writers also need some warmth and protection, sometimes. If you're low and despondent, and you've lost the ability to see anything good in your own work, you don't need other people to point out the flaws: you can see those already; they're all you can see. What you can't see is what's good. We underestimate the value of positive feedback.

2. Start with the positive

Every teacher knows the value of giving praise, even bookending negative feedback with praise. (We could get more specific here about the type of praise, in teaching: praise the effort and the work, not the person's inherent talent. A "growth mindset" helps people do better than a belief in their inherent skill.) Positive feedback still has a bad reputation, though: fluffy, indulgent, unhelpful, everyone's-a-winner nonsense, out in the real world, blah blah blah. All nonsense, of course.  This is why giving positive feedback is important, for everyone in the group:

It hones your own skills more. As the person giving feedback, spotting flaws is much easier than spotting what someone's doing right. Flaws stand out more. We're trained to look for the negatives. And we spot the flaws in areas we're already good at. If your dialogue is effortless, you see in an instant that theirs is clunky. But spin it round. If your dialogue is poor, can you spot good dialogue? Seeing what other people are doing well teaches you far more than seeing where they're not as good as you.

You have to earn the right to criticise. I firmly believe this: if someone doesn't have the skill to see what's good in a piece, they don't have the right to criticise what's bad.

We don't already know what we're doing right. The most common argument against positive feedback is, "It's not useful, because you already know how to do that. It doesn't teach you anything." But writers don't always know if something is working, if an image glitters for the reader as it does for them, that they have a fantastic sense of place, whether the character is as interesting to the reader as it is to them... We need to know what we're doing right, so that we know it's working and so that we can keep doing that.

Encouragement and enthusiasm matter. Part of the joy of writing groups is the motivation and encouragement they bring - but that can wither away quickly if no-one ever says anything good about your writing. We're human: we learn what to do by the positive and negative responses of people around us. If we only get negative responses, we'll probably stop doing the thing. So yes, we need to encourage each other. We've been schooled to think that only negative feedback is useful, so we need to make a conscious, deliberate effort to identify the positives, and say them.

3. The author stays silent at first

When someone's writing is being discussed, the writer isn't allowed to say anything: they just sit and listen. I learnt this approach on a postgraduate writing course with JM Coetzee and found it invaluable. First, it means everyone can discuss what's actually there, on the page, not what the author intended to be there. When the author keeps leaping in to say "What I meant to do is... The reason that's there is...", you're not discussing the writing anymore, just a cloud of possibility. Second, it helps the author listen, without getting defensive. Getting positive feedback first already helps with that: if people can see what's good, you trust them more to show what's not working. Even so, critical feedback can be difficult. The first thing we need to do is stop: not react, not leap in, just listen. That pause allows us to think about the feedback.  After an agreed length of time, the author comes back into the discussion, says thank you, and can ask any questions about the feedback.  (This LifeHacker article explores the same principles of taking constructive criticism: pause, listen, say thank you, ask questions.)

Those are the three most important things about feedback.  A couple more tips which I think are also useful, though they don't make the grade for the holy trinity, are...
  • encourage disagreement: the group doesn't need to reach consensus about a piece of writing. If half the group love a character and half hate him, that's fine: you don't need to pursue the argument. It's useful to know that this a divisive character and what everyone loves / hates about him. People's tastes vary and you don't want to develop group-think in your writers' group.
  • set a time limit: feedback can go on endlessly, becoming gradually more nitpicky and less useful, if it's left unrestrained. 15-20 minutes is usually enough to cover the main points.
  • think separately then compare: group feedback is most valuable when it comes from multiple sources. If the group is working together as a group, you're actually only getting one source. (Crowdsourcing works best when people think independently.) If someone's struggling with their characters, for instance, we'll often stop the discussion and each write down three adjectives for each character. Then we compare the adjectives we've come up with.
If you have any sacred commandments or useful tips on giving and receiving feedback, do add them in the comments.  And I'll leave you with this snippet on learning one's craft, from a very raw first-draft work-in-progress, so no comments on style please (or the very long sentences!) though I'd be keen to know what you think of the feel of the voice:
The nib-maker isn’t Oxford-born, she apprenticed in the Eastern isles, but when her trade teacher saw how good she was, he stipulated as how he wouldn't teach her another thing unless she signed not just to set up elsewhere, but on the other side of Devil’s Cauldron, cos he figured quite accurately that otherwise his own trade would never stand the competition.  She didn’t need him to teach her another thing, she’d already seen enough of the work to figure out the rest for herself, but she’s an agreeable sort, as tall people must learn to be if they’re not to terrify everyone they meet, and she had no wish to put her teacher out of business.
          So she left her home town as soon as she’d made her crafter’s piece, which was a pen as made her trade teacher weep, cos from one dip it would write steady and even for half an hour together.  She’d have made him one too, as a goodbye present, but no nib-maker would write with a pen as they didn’t make themselves and to give him one better than he could make would be salt in the wound, besides which, then people who saw it would want him to make them one the same, which he couldn’t do.  She was careful, though, to accidentally leave some drawings and plans for it behind, carefully forged after she’d made the pen, cos she works best without such plans as say “this is how it will work regardless of how the work actually goes”, because though he didn’t want his apprentice to teach him, he did want to learn what she knew, only he was too ashamed to do it the straightforward way.  And there you have already a significant part of why she was better than him, cos he counted his crafter’s pride higher than his crafting, which puts a terrible obstacle in the way of getting better, cos getting better necessarily means doing things as you can’t already do and if you’re going to do what you can’t do yet, you’re bound to make mistakes.  And if your pride can’t take that, you’ve no way of learning anything at all.  Any of the really good crafters could tell you that, and for every excellent piece of work they have half a dozen shocking failures as must be melted down or fed to the fire.  Which is not to say you should take pride in your mistakes, only to put pride aside altogether and get on with the crafting for its own sake, not for yours.

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