Monday, September 7, 2009

The Complicated Art of Giving Feedback

After reading this Salon article, reposted by Moonrat, I started thinking about feedback, which honestly, I think about a lot between my final year in University of Minnesota’s MFA program, two writer’s groups, teaching, and doctoring manuscripts (i.e. manuscript consulting). The question the writer’s friend has in the Salon article is, basically, how do I keep a friend and still give honest feedback. Unasked, I’m chiming in.

Of course, all friendships are different, but I do think friends should strive to be honest. But be honest about everything: strengths and weaknesses both.

So, if you're gracious enough to read for a writer, then here are my tips for giving feedback:

1) Telling the author she’s pretty.

Okay. Not literally. This is a phrase that my writer's group came up with to indicate that every piece has it's good points. You need to tell her what works, and not just to protect the ego before ripping her work (not her) apart. The value is simple: pedagogical studies indicate that we learn better from our strengths than our weaknesses.

And here's the hard part: You should try to tell her WHY it worked. And you thought giving compliments was simple.

2) Be a mirror.

Writers get lost in our own work and worlds. On the 5th draft of my novel, Split, my agent asked me something about a character’s history. I was shocked to discover that her history was not only absent in the 5th draft, it wasn’t in any draft; it was still in my head. So, tell the writer what you see. For instance: 'Jenny is a 15 year old girl who likes to take chances.' Sure, it makes you sound a little simpler than you are. It’s a 'well, duh' kind of thing. But as writers we don’t know what is on the page and what is still in our heads.

Mirrors also help because the mirror contains no value judgement. The value judgement is all up to the person looking at the reflection. It's true that sometimes, as writers, we're trying to do something you don't like. Like make you hate a character right from the start, or frustrate you with a character's choices. My editor wrote a question in my manuscript that went something along this lines of, 'why doesn't she just ...?' I asked her about whether my character's motivation was unclear and she said no, she was just so frustrated by my character's choices she had to write something. I count that as one of my best compliments ever; I knew I had what I was trying to do.

Very useful feedback, indeed. Do tell the writer your responses.

You guessed it; mirroring is actually the hard stuff.

3) Tell her what needs more attention.

Whether it’s sloppy sentence structure of characters whose arcs are flat, writers come to critiquers to know what they can do better. So, with care, tell her what parts you didn’t believe or thought the writing was weak or whatever your concerns are.

Surprisingly, this is the easy part.

One caveat though: If the manuscript is solid, don’t make up something to sound smart. More on that in another post when I discuss some of the perils of workshopping.

4) Trust the writer.

As writers, we’re told to trust the reader. As critiquers, trust the writer. Give her some time, expect she’ll figure out what to do, and know that she appreciates the hard work you’ve done for her.

5) Finally, thank her.

Exposing our work to a reader is a little like posing naked for a photograph and then asking what you think about the lighting and the composition. If she's willing to show it to you, she trusts you. Value the compliment.

I know we're asking a lot when we ask for a critique, but writers could not produce the fantastic works they have without the help of their friends/editors/readers. Just look at Maxwell Perkins’ writers. Thomas Wolfe is no slouch, but I’m equally impressed by the person who reigned him in.

1 comment:

  1. It's a tricky business critiquing someone else's work. Most blog posts address the need for having a battery of readers to critique your work, but they don't tell them how to go about it. Thanks so much for such a useful post!