WEbook Guide to Feedback, Part 2: The 5 Rules of Great Feedback09:19
At last! The
much-anticipated second installment of WEbook’s
3-part blog covering the ins and outs of giving and receiving feedback on WEbook. The first
entry in the series dealt with the golden rule of feedback: Give, and you shall receive. Today’s post teaches you how to give great
feedback. Part 3 will tackle the tricky business of how to respond to the
feedback you get.
The 5 Rules of Giving
I took my first creative writing class in college, way back
in the 1990s. Since then, I’ve taken
more writing workshops than there are volumes in Proust’s epic novel Remembrance of
Things Past. (That’s seven
volumes, for anyone who forgot to major in English.) There were the Writing Salon classes in San
Francisco, the Natalie
Goldberg workshops in Taos, two years of grad school in Columbia
University’s MFA program (plus two more years finishing my thesis) – not to
mention the writing workshops I’ve taught over the years, and the thousands of
pages of writing I’ve read and critiqued here at WEbook.
All this study taught me something about writing, sure, but
it taught me even more about the value of feedback – and about what
distinguishes good feedback from bad. WEbook is all about community, and that means
reading and critiquing each other’s work. But how can we be sure that the comments we leave for our fellow WEbookers’ poems, stories,
articles, and novels are worth the (metaphorical) paper they’re printed on?
Follow these guidelines and you’ll be well on your way.
Rule #1: Identify the writer’s goals.
The fundamental point of giving feedback is to improve a
piece of writing – and that means helping the writer get closer to achieving what
he or she set out to do. You can assume
that Mr. Generic Writer wants his work to be enjoyable. He wants to draw his readers in, and make them
care about what he has to say. He wants
his writing to be understood.
Beyond that, different writers might want to achieve
different things. Mr. Generic Writer
might want to make you cry, whereas Ms. Universal Writer wants to make you
laugh. If you can’t tell what a writer
is trying to do, that’s a problem, and your feedback should focus on that. (“I can’t tell if I’m supposed to laugh or
cry when Jimmy’s dog drowns in the kiddie pool. It would help if I knew what Jimmy’s reaction is – maybe you could show
him burying the dog afterwards.”)
Once you think you know what Ms. Universal Writer is trying
to achieve with her work, your feedback should be designed to help her achieve that
goal. If you don’t care about what Ms.
Universal Writer is trying to do, don’t leave feedback. This rule is as much for your protection as
Ms. Universal Writer’s – with so much writing out there to care about, why
spend your time and effort on anything you don’t believe in?
Rule #2: It’s not about what you like. It’s about what works.
If I had my druthers, the words “I like” and “I don’t like”
would be eliminated from all writing feedback. (Unlike the word druthers.) Good feedbackers look for
things that work and things that don’t work. Once you’ve identified a writer’s goals, find
elements of the writing that work towards those goals, and elements that keep
the writing from being all that it can be. Maybe the dialogue effectively creates suspense, but the setting isn’t
fully realized enough to add atmosphere. Maybe Jimmy is intriguing, compelling, and realistic, but Jane could use
more development. Remember: If you care enough about the writing to spend
your time giving feedback, you should be able to find at least a few things
that work, even if there’s a lot that
doesn’t work so well.
(Note: There’s a
difference between feedback and praise. Dedicated writers need and deserve both. If
you want to praise a writer’s work by telling him or her how much you liked it,
by all means go ahead! But keep in mind
that, if praise is silver, feedback is gold. If you do have insights about what works in a piece and why, as well as
how to improve the parts that don’t work so well, don’t keep them to yourself!)
Rule #3: Be specific. Be specific. Be specific.
I’ll say it one more time: Be specific.
When you tell a writer what works and what doesn’t work, give
specific examples from the text. Instead
of saying, “The dialogue creates suspense,” say, “The dialogue is suspenseful
because Jimmy doesn’t know that his dog drowned in the kiddie pool yet, but
Jane does. Every time Jimmy says the dog’s
name, my heart leaps into my throat because I wonder if Jane’s going to tell
him, or if she’s going to wait for him to go around the back of the house.”
Instead of saying, “Jane isn’t believable,” say, “Jane doesn’t
ring true. She’s supposed to be a teenage
rebel, but in this chapter she’s shopping at Nordstrom while holding a
Starbucks latte, which makes her seem more like a yuppie.”
Rule #4: Give suggestions for improvement.
In an ideal feedback world, every time you identify
something that doesn’t work, you’ll give the writer one or more absolutely
brilliant suggestions for how to improve it. In the real world, sometimes we can tell that something’s wrong, but we
don’t know how to fix it. That’s fine –
maybe the writer, or another person giving feedback, will find an ingenious way
to address the problem once you’ve been kind enough to point it out. But to take your feedback from good to amazing, give the writer some ideas about
how to strengthen the weak parts of his or her work.
“Jane doesn’t ring true. Maybe, instead of shopping at Nordstrom while holding a Starbucks latte,
you could have her crash her mom’s car through the window of Nordstrom’s while
drinking Windex. Then I’d get a sense of
how angry and out of control she is, and it will be more believable when she
drowns Jimmy’s dog in the kiddie pool.”
Rule #5: Know the elements of the craft.
Rules 1-4 are pretty great rules, if I do say so
myself. But it’s awfully hard to
identify what works and what doesn’t, and give specific examples and
suggestions for improvement, if you’re not sure what elements make up a story,
poem, or non-fiction article.
The list of elements you might look at when critiquing a
piece of writing is far too long to cover exhaustively here. Luckily, there are a few universal starting
points for prose, both fiction and non-fiction. (Critiquing poetry is a different animal. Rules 1-4 will serve you well with poetry,
but the specific elements of craft that go into a poem are outside my area of
expertise, so this will have to be covered another time.)
Language and word
choice. Does the writing make
sense? Is it grammatically sound? Is it pleasant to read, or awkward and difficult? Leaving the subject matter or storyline
aside, is the writing interesting or boring? Believe it or not, good feedbackers can identify exactly what makes
writing “boring” – often, the writer uses the same sentence structure over and
over, or sticks to very plain, literal language.
Characters. Whether the writing is fiction or
non-fiction, if it has people in it, it has characters. Characters should “come to life” on the
page. They should be people we want to
read about, people we can see and hear in our heads. This is accomplished through the judicious
use of dialogue, interior monologue (the character’s thoughts), physical
actions, and description. When
critiquing writing that has characters, take a look at how the elements of
characterization work together.
Setting. Setting includes all the physical details of
place included in a story – the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile feelings. Some settings may be too detailed, so that
the story gets bogged down in what color the walls are, or how many steps it
takes to get from the front porch to the car. Other settings might not have enough detail, robbing the reader of the
chance to fully experience the world of the story.
Story or plot. This is, quite simply, what happens in a
piece of writing. It may seem like the
easiest thing to critique, but it can be difficult to separate from other
elements of craft, especially structure. (See below.) Story or plot includes that all-important aspect of writing good prose
(especially fiction and creative non-fiction) – conflict. When giving feedback about story or plot, consider
whether the events that take place in the piece of writing are compelling,
believable, and interesting.
Structure. Whereas story
or plot is what happens in a piece of writing, structure is how the writer presents those events. The structure of a story (even a true story)
is one of the most important things to consider
when giving feedback. When you read a
story, consider how it’s told. Does it
start at the beginning, move to the middle, and end at the end? Or does it start at the end, jump back to the
beginning, and segue into the middle before circling back around to the
end? There are many valid ways to structure
a story – as a feedbacker, you are concerned with whether the structural
choices the author has made work or don’t work. Structure also includes things like pacing – does the author reveal events just
as they happen in real life – one after the other, after the other? (Real-life pacing can be surprisingly
boring.) Or does he or she slow things down
or speed them up at appropriate moments?
As you practice giving feedback, you’ll get better and
better at identifying how different elements of craft contribute to the reading
experience. You’ll be able to help a
writer improve his or her work by focusing on specific parts of the writing
that can be improved to meet the writer’s goals.
And the absolute number one coolest thing about learning how
to give good feedback?
If you can do all this for another writer, you can do it for
yourself. You’ll learn how to edit and
revise your own work, and your skills as a writer will improve
Still to come: Part
3: What to do with the feedback you