Monday, February 27, 2012

Giving Good Feedback

One of my favorite parts of writing is giving feedback to other people's work.

A lot of people view writing as a solitary craft, but I don't think that's wholly accurate. Look at the Acknowledgments page of any published book and you'll find an army of people who gave it their blood, sweat, tears, and most costly of all, their time. Writers are not mad scientists locked in a tower, mashing together their creation with pieces from fevered nightmares and dark experiments, their only true collaboration with a hunchbacked assistant who flips the switch and publishes their book.

Even God, when creating the earth and the heavens, had Adam name the animals. Your manuscript could probably use help, too.

But you don't join a writing group just for the sake of getting critiques. You also have to give them. This helps me in the following ways:

- It forces me to objectively define my idea of good storytelling
- It forces me to understand where and how stories fall below their potential
- It forces me to practice a problem-solving process I can apply to my own writing

But that only happens when I try to give good feedback. So, what is good feedback? In this post, good feedback doesn't mean telling someone their story was good. I mean quality feedback.

A review is not constructive, quality feedback. Giving a story a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down is the most primitive, base reaction you can give anything. They have old high school friends and extended family for this--you are a writer, and should be expected to offer more useful information.

Here's what I think a good critique involves, or at least what I try to do. First I give it a read-through without making any notes, trying to read it as any reader would. When I'm done, I think back to the parts I liked and didn't like, and whether I enjoyed the story overall.

After that, I start asking questions. If I didn't like it, why not? Was there a part of the story where I stopped caring as much? Was there a part where I stopped hating it as severely? Keep asking questions until you can isolate the problem.

Just as important as identifying what doesn't work is identifying what does work. A car mechanic doesn't just know what makes a car break down, but what makes it run. This isn't just for ego-stroking; if you don't know why a story works where it does, you can't build off of it as effectively as possible. What pulled you through the story? Good character, the style, the premise, etc.?

Then I read it again, looking more closely. I list the individual things that worked (good lines, great use of theme, etc.) as well as the individual things that need fixing (this paragraph is confusing, you switch tenses here, this description could be stronger).

Then I try to offer solutions. Pointing out story problems is useful, but it's not nearly as useful as offering ideas as to how the writer can deal with the problems. Problem-finding is not nearly the same thing as problem-solving. This is the hardest part of giving a critique, in my opinion, because you have to take some ownership of the story and invest more of yourself into it. A lot of times, solutions will be drastic changes or involve throwing different parts of the story every which way. You may have to step back and think well outside the bounds of the text on the page in front you.

But don't give lame solutions, like "I enjoyed the snarky intro but not the confusing middle. Just have more snark there, instead." Attempt to figure out what the author's vision was for that confusing middle, and help them reach their vision; or understand better why the snarky intro worked so the writer can build on it instead of just copying it.

I find that a crucial piece of giving good criticism involves not asking the writer any questions. Too often the writer will try to justify or defend their decisions, even when you're fine with them. And you may pull back on your criticism if you're worried they'll be defensive about it.

A final, important note about quality feedback: the point is to help the writer improve the story. Don't spend twenty minutes debating word usage or tenses or punctuation, or minor story decisions. You should spend most of your time discussing the big issues. And since your goal is the help the writer improve the story, be aware of what will actually motivate the writer to improve it. If you make no effort to try to understand the potential of a story or where an author was trying to take it and simply point out all its problems and why you didn't like it, you're not helping them.

At my last writing group's meeting, we workshopped a piece that had a lot of stylistic errors that bogged it down severely. We identified examples and bemoaned our confusion and boredom at reading the piece, but the best advice someone gave was to simply not sweat it and just move forward with their story. Too often a lot of stuff we say in critiques are simple fixes for a rewrite, while the really crucial direction that a writer needs is more related to the story.

So give good feedback! Not only will you get better feedback in return, but you're really helping somebody out, and we can all use any help we can get. And you'll refine your understanding of your craft along the way.


Josh Hoyt said...

Good feedback is important for growth. Nice post.

J. A. Bennett said...

My thoughts exactly, in fact I wrote post stating basically the same thing in fewer words. I like problem solvers -- great post!

Michael Horvath said...

I really like your thoughts here. Great suggestions in each area.

Jayrod Garrett said...

Thanks Carl. I don't think we can hear this advice enough. Cause we so often forget that we need to be not only kind and supportive, but give meaningful feedback to build each others worlds of fiction.

Schmetterling said...

So how long does this process take you? If, say, a certain hypothetical friend sent you, say, a couple of short stories totaling, oh, something less than 20 pages, when might such a friend hypothetically expect to receive some quality feedback?

Oh. And while we're on the subject--have you had a chance to read those stories I sent you? :)

Carl Duzett said...

Heh, heh, eh heh...

I plan on sitting down with your stories on Friday or Saturday, so probably around then or Monday.