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Giving feedback: how to do it, how to make it really useful

I blogged a few years back about how to process feedback, but the funny thing is that many writers find giving feedback more difficult than receiving it. Often, they're some of the nicest people: they're worried about hurting their fellow thin-skinned writers' feelings and know that hurting their confidence can be be genuinely damaging. Sometimes they're some of the most self-centred people: they can't be bothered to put in the mental work to understand what another writer is trying to do, and can only "correct" in terms of how they'd do it themselves.

I've also given general tips about how to give feedback. Do click through when you get a moment but, meanwhile, in that post I suggested the following:

  • have a bit of humility
  • keep it specific
  • be specific about what works as well as what doesn't
  • think twice before crossing out and re-writing someone else's work
  • know that brutality isn't necessarily right and brave, it may just be because you're thick-skinned
  • let the writer demur

In the nature of blogging that post was of its moment, triggered by my anger at a particularly "if it ain't hurting it ain't working" discussion on a forum, so it's a bit slanted that way. More widely, since I wrote those posts I've done a lot more teaching, appraising and mentoring and have some new thoughts, so here goes.

First, honour the intention, however much the result falls short. Acknowledge what kind of thing the writer seems to be trying to do. If you really can't tell, make your best guess and acknowledge that you might be wrong - which in itself offers the writer the chance of learning something.

Second, acknowledge what works, however few and small those bits are. There's always something: some effective phrases, or the fact that a setting, or a character, is one that lots of readers would warm to (or be astonished by). Be specific applies just as much here as it does in discussing the not-successes, if the writer is to learn anything useful from this bit. And for an excellent discussion of how to move the conversation on from the bland "it flows very well", towards something actually useful, click here

I think you should start with those two not because I'm a soppy amateur, believing in a namby-pamby sweetening of the pill that real writers would swallow in all its bitterness without so much as unstiffening their upper lip, but because it's just sheer good feedback practice:

  • First, it forces you to think about what the writer might be trying to do, so you're then judging what they've actually done by a measure that makes sense to them.
  • Second, being specific on someone else's work is always good for your own writing, whether they're Nabokov or your ten-year-old niece.
  • Third, if a pill is bitter, the human animal has evolved to be defensive because this pill might be poisonous: we gag, then spit it out. And the more nervous the writer (perhaps inside an iron-clad exterior), the quicker, fiercer and more absolute the gag reflex. Writing is personal in the same way, so feedback is personal, and good, experienced feeders-back do what they can to supply the pill in a form which the patient can and will swallow.

Third, tackle what doesn't work with specifics. Yes, real problem-finding of this kind is harder work: you need to feel your instinctive stumbling or unconvincedness, and then do your best to work out why you stumbled or aren't convinced. If you really can't work out why don't fake a reason: "I'm not sure why, but I stumbled over phrase X/found thought Y unconvincing," is still very useful feedback.

4) Your job is a tentative kind of problem-finding: problem-solving is the writer's job. That's not to say you shouldn't suggest solutions after you've explained what you've found, if only to illustrate what you've found. But in the nature of things they are your writerly solutions, not the writer's. Having said that, one result of having first focused on the the intention, in order to honour it, is that your suggestions are more likely to be useful, because you will be better tuned-in the writer's purpose. Still, keep in mind that these seem like problems and solutions to you, not necessarily to the writer.

5) Recognise what kind of comments the writer wants, but don't be bound by them. Often what they're worried about isn't the main thing which isn't working. Lots of beginners say they're worried about "grammar" when what they really mean is that they sense that their writing is flat and unexciting, or doesn't convey the story clearly. And most of us want to know how a piece strikes the "innocent" reader, and don't say what we want, while also wanting to steer feedback towards certain topics. This kind of steering-after-the-initial-event is easier in a conversational setup such as a forum or a tutorial.

6) Be careful you don't just nit-pick, but also talk about the bigger things. You may be perfectly right about those commas, or that King St is much shorter than that, and the writer will thank you for spotting the typos, but please make the mental effort to think about the larger issues: structure, pace, theme, ideas, characters and tone. It isn't easy because it requires first submitting enough to the piece to know what the reader's trying to do, and then stepping back and working out when/where/why they're not doing it. Just like writing your own stuff, come to that, so it's good practice for yourself.

7) Keep "correct/right", and "incorrect/wrong", and "incorrect/right" in play as you read or listen. Just because it's correct for your Year Ten (or Lower Fifth) English teacher doesn't mean it'll have the effect on the reader that the writer wants it to have. Just because a non-standard word or grammar is authentic to the writer doesn't mean it's right for the piece: it may still jar on the reader or confuse the meaning. 

8) Think about how to show your comments. Obviously in many setups that's pre-determined, but in others it isn't, and the decision is a mixture of how you work best, what kind of comments the writer wants, and their "learning style". Longhand comments on a manuscript? Inline comments on a forum post, using strikethroughs, [brackets] and italics? Go gently though: it can be an efficient way to demonstrate a point you're making, but things like strikethroughs and re-writings feel quite aggressive to many recipients. Track changes? Paragraph(s) at the end of an online post? Will a written comment or report work through the MS point by point, or collect things under headings of "plot", "character", "voice" and so on? What should those headings be? What order should they be in?

9) Think about how to convey your comments. Will you meet, in person or on the phone, on Skype as halfway between the two, or post or email the comments? In a conversation writer and feeder-back can work collaboratively towards a solution: the feeder-back is more sure they're being useful, and the discussion will reach places that a one-way communication never will. On the other hand, things written down are more likely to stay focused, and the writer can mull over and work them through in an organised, thorough way. This is one reason online forums (and, indeed, courses) can work so well in creative writing: they combine the conversational with the written: try The World Cloud, or Scribophile, or start your own with some friends. But written comments do hit harder than oral ones, so bear that in mind: there's a reason the online world has evolved emoticons.

10) Live, off-the-cuff feedback sessions, such as a writer's circle meeting or a workshop, take more practice. If the work isn't circulated beforehand, or has only just been written, then it's very easy to fall back on "it flows" and nit-picks. Again, holding onto specifics helps. If you're listening to someone reading, jot specific words down as you feel your reactions, to use as prompts for your feedback when it's your turn. Do the same if someone else's comment makes you think a bit further. Also jot down questions: the well-posed question can be as useful a form of feedback as any other, (although you, or the chair/facilitator may need to stop the writer when it's been answered, since most of us will talk forever, sometimes defensively, about our own work).

11) Remember that your job is not to persuade the writer to your point of view. Yes, discussion is good and can go further than a single chunk of feedback, and yes, you may need to expand and re-phrase your point before it makes sense to the writer. But your job is not to win the argument. Once you've tried to explain what you mean, even if they don't seem to take it on board let alone agree, the ball is now in their court and you must leave them in peace to deal with it.

Finally, the move from "what you experience" to the specifics of "what causes that experience" isn't always easy, whether you're reading your own reactions, or you're decoding someone else's feedback. Here's some help: