Asking for, giving and receiving feedback

scrabble tiles spelling the word "Feedback"
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I have started back teaching the creative writing this year in Caroline Springs and have added in a group in Kensington. While the Kensington group is a new for me as a facilitator, it’s not new for me altogether. It was here that I honed my love of writing when I had only two little children before pursuing it more seriously at RMIT.  It was so lovely to see my Caroline Springs writers again to hear about how their summer has gone, and what they’ve been reading and writing. It was equally lovely to reacquaint myself with some familiar faces in Kensington, and to meet new ones and hear about what everyone’s writing plans are.

I started both of the groups with a session on feedback as this is one of the most crucial things as a writer. Asking for, giving and receiving feedback are a crucial part of being a writer. The more you do it, the better your writing becomes. There was a time when I would hear feedback on my writing from others and it would sting so hard. One of the things about doing it more is that I get better at removing myself from the words and take the feedback on as just that – feedback. However, I (like most creative people) suffer from a terrible case of the imposter syndrome).

The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.

—Neil Gaiman, author (Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012)

There are three sides to feedback:

  • asking for feedback
  • giving feedback
  • receiving feedback.

1. Asking for feedback

Who to ask

It’s important to think about who you are asking for feedback. It is incredibly exciting writing words that become sentences, that then make up paragraphs until there is a body of work. Then there is the temptation to grab the nearest person and ask them to read it. You wait (while wringing your hands) while they read each word (Do they love it? What are they thinking?). They frown and your heart drops. They smile and you dance around the room. They put it down and say, “Oh, yeah. That was okay.” Yes! Fist bump the air. Then they add, “But I don’t understand it. And I reckon it would be better if this character was nicer, and …” And they go on until it’s a completely different story. (Yes, this did happen to me in my very early days.)

Don’t ask just anyone. Ask someone who you trust, preferably a writer as they will have the language to use about narrative feedback. Showing your writing to someone is a very vulnerable thing, like opening up and baring your soul.

What to ask

Tell them what you are looking for i.e.:

  • general feedback
  • structural feedback
  • specific feedback about a character/scene/sense of place
  • plotting feedback.

The more specific you are when you ask, the better feedback you will get.

Keep in mind that it takes time for good feedback; make sure that you make yourself available to do the same for them. 

2. Giving feedback

So, you’ve been asked to have a look at someone’s writing and give them some feedback. What a privilege. This writer trusts you with their precious words. A few things to remember:

  • most creative people have an imposter syndrome – being too critical can crush them
  • don’t say yes if you don’t have time
  • take your time reading it so that you can give useful feedback
  • your feedback is about helping them to improve their writing, not to make you feel like you’re a better writer.

When you first receive it, ask the writer if there is any specific feedback they would like. Prompt them if they are not sure with questions like:

  • Is there anything I need to know before I read it?
  • Is there anything you want me to look out for?
  • Is this an early draft?
  • What are you wanting to achieve with this piece of writing?
  • When do you need it back?

Answers to these will assist you in providing useful feedback.

Now it’s time to read it and give your feedback. Think about how your feedback can help their writing, rather than making them feel bad about it. On the first read through make quick notes using a pencil to tick what works, and a few words to remind you of what you were thinking about when you come back to it.

Things to note:

  1. How does the writing make you feel?
  2. When do you laugh/cry/feel an emotion strongly?
  3. When don’t you understand what is going on?
  4. When do you love something?

Other things to keep in mind:

  1. Has the writer has accomplished what they have set out to do?
  2. You don’t have to like, read or write in the same genre. You are being asked to provide feedback on the writing, not whether or not you like this kind of story.
  3. You need to look for the flaws in the writing, but you also need to look for where you can encourage and support them.
  4. Use constructive comments, but also be wary of empty compliments. The feedback sandwich with empty compliments on either side of harsh criticism isn’t helpful. Take the time to give useful feedback. Don’t sugarcoat, but also don’t trash the writing.
  5. Ask questions that can lead the writer in the right direction to solving the issues. i.e. I stumbled here. Shorter sentences could help. Have you tried reading it aloud to hear where the words stick? 
  6. Don’t nitpick. Instead of pointing out each time you see a repeated problem with the writing, make a note that you have seen it, and give a suggestion of how the writer could fix it. i.e. Consider using stronger verbs as too many ‘to be’ verbs can weaken the writing. e.g. “He was walking walked to the shops.”
  7. Don’t impose your writing style on theirs. Every writer, and every story has a unique voice. If you change word choice just because you like a word better, or change word patterns because you like it better, you jeopardise weakening their voice.
  8. Remember that it’s feedback, not a review. You are providing feedback on a work in progress. You have been asked to provide feedback because the writer is unsure of whether they are on the right track, or they need encouragement that they are. Take care with your comments that they are helping the writing to be the best it can be. Focus on what they can do to improve it.

3. Receiving feedback

Receiving feedback can be wonderful, or terrible, or both mixed together. This is the time to remind yourself that the feedback is about the words, not you. The story, not you. You might be ready to read their comments as soon as you get it back, or you may need to wait. I recently read over some comments from four years ago. At the time, I thought that the person just didn’t understand what I was doing. Now, with the passage of time, the feedback is wonderful and spot on.

Remind yourself that they are providing feedback about your words, not you. If they don’t understand, if it isn’t working, it is still about the words. Let their feedback sit. Let it breathe.

There are times that the feedback is unhelpful. If you make that assessment, then put it away and have a look at another time to just check in that it wasn’t your emotions or ego getting in the way of useful feedback.

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