8 Things to Remember When Giving Writing Feedback

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Over the next two weeks, I’m going to cover topics about giving and taking feedback about writing. While I’m going to talk specifically about writing, I think some of my tips could come in handy for other creative pursuits as well.

The topics I’m going to cover are:

How To Give Writing Feedback

How To Take Writing Feedback

Myths About Critiquing

Things I’ve Learned From My Critique Group

So… lets jump in, shall we?

Giving and getting feedback on writing (or any creative pursuit, I imagine) is an intimidating endeavor. We writers pour our hearts into our stories and getting critiqued feels a little like sitting in one of those dunking booths. For this reason, it can be difficult to know how to give (or take) feedback.

1. Know your relationship with the person you’re critiquing.

I’ve been in online writing groups and small groups where the same people meet every week. I know larger writing groups with changing attendees also exist. I’ll give different feedback to a stranger than to a friend, and I’ll give even different feedback to a sensitive friend vs. someone who’s fine with blunt criticism. In one of my writing groups, a friend critiques me in such a harsh manner that we’ve had to assure new members that he won’t critique them like that. While it may bother other people, we’ve negotiated a particular way of critiquing one another.

2. Be open to feedback about your critiquing.

This means both verbal feedback and non-verbal cues. Sometimes when I’m critiquing someone with the best of intentions, I notice them start to get uncomfortable. They shift around or they start to look hurt. At that point, I’ll edit my review on the fly, trying to soften criticisms and pointing out more positives. In one group, I was told that I was “too mean,” and I appreciated the feedback. After further discussion, we identified things I could do better when giving critiques.

3. Use the sandwich technique.

People tend to best remember first and last comments, so it’s important to start and end with a positive. People can hear criticism better when it comes packaged in a way where they don’t feel attacked. Plus, if you’re using the sandwich technique, it makes you focus on the positives as well as the negatives.

4. Remember that your goal is to be helpful.

This is such an important one. Your goal is not to make the work perfect. It’s not to make it something you’d want to read (especially if the story is romance and you only read science fiction). Your goal is to help the writer reach their goals, not yours.

5. Find something to criticize.

This is seriously so important. The worst critiques I’ve ever gotten are not the ones that made me cry (and there have been one or two of those). The worst critiques are the ones that get a lukewarm, “It was good.” I’ve actually had one critique in my entire life where the person had nothing to say, but it was still an effective critique because they were so moved by the piece that they couldn’t talk about it. Other than that single instance, I’ve never had a “praise only” critique be useful. If you can’t find anything to criticize (and don’t just pick on something for the sake of being contrary), then react. “This part makes me think you’re foreshadowing something.” “I didn’t expect this character to do this!” “This made me gasp.” And so on. Sometimes it can be helpful for a writer to know how you’re reacting so that they can tell if it was what they intended or not.

6. Keep it impersonal.

Especially if you don’t really know the person. This is one area where passive voice works well. Instead of “You didn’t capture my interest right away,” try “My interest wasn’t caught right away.” It can soften hard to hear information.

7. Make sure to mention when you’re critiquing outside of your interest area.

It’s fine to critique something outside of your preferred genre, but be aware that different genres have different norms. I belong to a critique group with a bunch of guys who read mostly science fiction and/or literary fiction. So, when I bring in horror stories, they’re sometimes a bit out of their realm. I still get great feedback most of the time, but the one frustrating comment I often get is “This isn’t horror” because it has more real world than speculative elements. Obviously, the person saying that isn’t familiar with The Lottery or We Have Always Lived in The Castle, by Shirley Jackson (to name two examples). If something doesn’t work for you, absolutely note it, but it’s best to also say something like, “I don’t know what the convention is in Nordic Noir because I mostly read Bildungsroman stories, but when Sven said…”

8. Remember to say if you liked a story, even if you’ve said it before.

This is so important. I told the tale of a writer who left my group because she got a difficult critique (I imagine). I still think about it, even though it happened a year ago. I can’t remember if, the last night she was with us, I told her how much I loved her story. I had a ton of critique for it, but that’s not because I thought it was bad; it just needed a lot of work. I truly believe she had something special, and I know I’d said it before, but I can’t remember if I said it in that last group or not. In my mind, when you love a story, you can’t tell the author that too many times.

Do you have anything you’d add to this list?

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Collecting Rejections

Stack of books

Some famous “rejects.”

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a post about dealing with criticism. Which is hard enough, but in some ways, dealing with rejection is worse.

I “collect” rejection stories. Carrie, by Stephen King, was rejected 30 times. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling, was rejected 12 times. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, was rejected 38 times. And on and on and on.

I pull these stories out whenever I need to remind myself that a rejection doesn’t mean the story is bad; it just means that it didn’t find its match. It’s kind of like dating that way. I’ve abandoned many books that other people loved, and loved books other people hate. Unless a book is actually poorly written, whether or not it’s “good” is more about the taste of the reader than the actual story. And even then, I like some “poorly written” stories.

Recently, I had a tough rejection. I have a goal to get a story into a particular online magazine. I read it, I follow it, and I know what type of stories they take. My story is better than some of the stories I read there. Not better than all of them, but better than some. (This is, of course, my extremely biased opinion.)

Usually, this magazine rejects within 30 days, so when a month came and went, my excitement built. And built. I tried to tell myself that it didn’t mean they’d accept my story, but of course, I didn’t listen.

When they had the story 75 days, I got a form rejection back with the usual, “Thank you but this wasn’t a good fit for us.” My heart plummeted. But on the bottom was a “PS,” the email equivalent of a handwritten note. It said: “PS We enjoyed this story, but it didn’t make our final cut.”

(insert screaming face)

Truthfully though, I really appreciated that feedback, because it told me what I believed; it was a good story. Just not quite good enough? Too similar to another story that’s being published soon? Drew the short straw? I don’t know. But since a publication I respect liked it (even if they didn’t publish it), someone else probably will too.

I recently read a story about how someone, inspired by Stephen King’s tale of collecting rejection slips on a nail on his wall, has made it a goal to get 100 rejections this year. Because, with rejections, come acceptances. I think that’s a pretty great attitude.

So, instead of being upset by this latest rejection, I’m just going to add it to my collection, and see how many I can get this year. Last year I got 15 rejections and 1 acceptance on short stories. This year, so far, I’m at 14 rejections and 1 acceptance. Considering we’re only at halfway through the year, I’ve done 100% better than last year.

Now I just need to keep up the good work.

Related posts: Being Perfect, Accepting Criticism, and Generally Getting Over Myself

Life Lessons

On Wellness Wednesdays, I post about a topic related to wellness.

“I have learned silence form the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind, yet strange, I am ungrateful for those teachers.”

-Khalil Gibran

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Arizona Photo Credit: Doree Weller

San Tan Mountain Regional Park, Arizona
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

I believe that we’re all presented with the same lesson in life, over and over, until we learn it.  People and situations may annoy or upset us, but the truth is that everything can be a learning experience.

It’s difficult because we don’t get letter grades for these experiences.  No one marks up our experience with a red pen, showing us exactly what we need to improve.  Instead, we have to figure it out.

The best way to figure out how you’re doing in learning about something in particular is by how it makes you feel.  If it upsets, angers, frustrates, or makes you afraid, you may have more to learn from it.  The more intensely you feel, the more important the lesson.

People who won’t shut up irritate me.  They talk and talk, repeating themselves, and usually end up saying very little.  I recently had yet another encounter with one of these individuals.  He was a member of my writer’s critique group, and he gave good feedback, but it was buried within a speech to rival the length of War and Peace.  I tried to let him know, gently, that it was difficult for me to hear what he was trying to tell me when he repeated the same thing over and over.  I think I hurt his feelings, and soon after, he dropped out of the group.  I still feel bad about that, wondering if what I said made him want to leave.

I have two lessons to learn here.  I’m honestly not sure what the first lesson is; I’m still trying to figure it out.  Perhaps that I need to listen, even when I don’t want to?  Or perhaps how to give better feedback?  The second lesson is most definitely that the world doesn’t revolve around me, and if he chose to drop out of group, that was his choice, and I didn’t “cause” it.

If I insulted him, he could have spoken to me about it.  He could have ignored me or told me to go to hell.  I’m not responsible for the choices he made, and likely his choice to leave group didn’t have anything to do with me at all.

What lessons are you still working through?