Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Giving feedback

You may have noticed that I waited a week between my post on receiving feedback and giving it.  That's because I had to make sure there was space between them, lest I go on a rant about all the bad ways I've had feedback given to me.  I'm allowing myself a paragraph.

You see, in college, I majored in creative writing.  That meant taking a lot of workshop classes, which failed to help me grow thicker skin.  All they taught me was that readers are idiots, aspiring writers are idiots, and people will praise a piece to high heaven if it's too artsy to be understood.  I will refrain from naming names or pointing fingers at any specific instances, and say only that it was an excellent lesson in what not to do when critiquing a piece:  when I offer feedback, I will not insult the writer personally.  I will not grammar/spelling snark (unless specifically asked to).  I will not argue that my interpretation is the One True Interpretation, even though everyone else offering critique read it a different way.  I will refrain from making suggestions longer than a sentence.

What I will do is give the writer the benefit of the doubt.  I will try to find why the person might have written the piece.  Is there a really good voice throughout?  Is the main character delightful, and trapped in a too-dark tale?  Is the dialogue snappy and fun?  I've heard the suggestion that negative statements should be couched between two compliments, because it softens the blow, and makes it sink in better.  Maybe compliments are useless for the purpose of a critique, but it does make the process less painful.

When I critique, I will ask questions, rather than making bold proclamations about what I think the story needs. "I'm intrigued by X; does that come up in a later chapter?" Or, "Do you have an answer for this thing we're wondering, and is there a way to give the answer to sharp readers?" Or, "Is this supposed to have a funny tone, or a darker one?"

I will look at the overall piece, and ignore spelling and/or grammar errors.  If the writer is about to submit it to a publisher, I might offer to look it over for those types of mistakes, but, if I notice them for a regular critique, I mentally correct and move on.  In a printed work, poor spelling and grammar detract.  In a critique, it can be overwhelming, and quickly overtake the overall picture.  What does it matter if a name is spelled three different ways in the text, if the character is deleted in a rewrite?

I will listen to others offering their critique.  If I read something differently, I'll briefly note my perspective, and move on.

I'll keep my suggestions down to a sentence.  The writer knows best which way the piece is going.  Critique is not writing by committee.  It's drawing the writer out of his or her own head long enough to look at the piece through another's eyes.  I can suggest a sentence to clear up the confusion, or a way to depict what the writer is trying to say that might be more to the point, but, if I'm verbally rewriting scenes, I need to go write my own dang story.

Ideally, I will have learned from my own negative experiences.  Like everything else, it's a work in progress.  I can't very well do it correctly, though, if I don't know what to keep in mind.

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