So, as writers, we are expected to be the paragons of all that is writing and editing, yes? Goodness, I hope not. Many of us have the same trouble editing another’s work as we do our own. Here is an article by Rebecca Swift about how to give good feedback, whether you are a reader or a writer, editing your own work or a friend’s. She mentions how your mood can change your feedback, how feedback is an absolute must, and more. Take a gander, tell me what you think.
Giving Good Feedback
by Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy, former editor at ViragoRisking a Reader
So, you have written a piece of fiction. So far, you only have your own opinion on the work. On the one hand, you may be so delighted to have finished anything at all you think it’s brilliant and wonderful and be patting yourself on the back, even running around telling your friends you think you’re a genius.
On the other hand, if you’re a different kind of person, or indeed the same person in a different mood, you may be punishing yourself because you don’t think what you have written is quite what you hoped it would be. In fact, is it rubbish? What is it? I think that most people, when they have finished a work of writing, are not quite sure what they really think of it. You may also be worried that whatever you yourself think of your writing personally, another reader may not feel the same. Part of you may be dying to know what other people feel, and part of you is probably incredibly anxious about showing your work to anybody. What if they hate it? Will it put you off writing forever? Of course the degree to which you feel any of this will be altered by what you have written, and with what end in mind. For example, if you have written a short story for the BBC site you may feel differently than if you have spent five years on a novel. Either way, you will have had some hope for your work and it’s time to find out what will, if anything, happen to it.
At some point, unless you put your work in a cupboard and never let it see the light of day (which is not at all unheard of), you will decide to show your work to a reader to check out what someone else thinks of what you have done. Will it tally with what you think? Or what you fear? Or what you hope? There is an old similie which has much truth in it, that producing a creative work is like producing a child. You may feel protective of your writing; that your offspring is tender and perfect. You may want to lock them in a cupboard away from criticism. If you feel this way, then save yourself the trouble of reading further. But if you want your writing to be as good as it can be, either for private or public consumption, then you’ll need to work with editors, even if the editor is you. You’ll be a better writer. You’ll be a better parent.
The Right Kind of Reader
Who will you ask to read your work? This question is worth thinking about very carefully. This is particularly true in the early developmental stages of a work as criticism can knock you for six and set you back if you’re lacking in confidence. Whoever you show it to, be discerning and remember that all feedback is to some degree subjective. Every reader reads in a different way. Think for example how some people love Jane Austen finding her profound, but others find her merely superficial. It may be obvious, but don’t show your writing to somebody whose opinion you don’t respect or who you feel simply won’t understand your work. Protect yourself. At the same time, it’s vital as a general rule to thicken your skin too, as you have to get used to what other people think at some stage or other.
It’s one thing giving your work out to read, and a different kind of issue being given a piece of work by somebody else to read, be it a friend, or colleague, or family member. Part of you may be flattered to be asked to look at something. The chances are you will also be very curious to see what somebody else has written. What have they said? Will it tell you more about them? Will they reveal their inner soul? How good is it? Could you have done something as well as they could?
Alternatively, often depending on your relationship to the writer, you may also feel a sense of dread, a sense of responsibility. This sense can be heightened, especially if the person who hands you the work has high hopes for it and makes it clear your opinion really matters to them. What if you disagree? Will you destroy their hopes forever? You don’t want to hurt their feelings but on the other hand you don’t want to lie, either. You might really want to love it, but how often, in all honesty, can you – hand-on-heart – say you really love a piece of writing? This is true even when the work is good. The more you look in to it, the more complex and potentially difficult is the business of giving and receiving feedback.
Why Getting Feedback is Good
Without feedback we’re writing in a bubble and you can lose perspective if you’re not careful. This may be fine as long as you really don’t care what the rest of the world thinks. However, most writers want other people to enjoy their work if possible.
Most people writing don’t write ‘perfect’ pieces of fiction at a technical level. Feedback from others is the only way you can learn about how effective you have been as a writer. Feedback should help you to hone your craft and help you work out the relationship between what it is you think you have written and what you might in fact have achieved.
When it comes to sending work to the publishing industry it’s vital that you know how ‘good’ a piece of work is before you ask a professional editor to look at your work.
Why Giving Feedback is Good
Reading other people’s work can be helpful in letting you see where other writers are ‘at’ and trying to think about the ways in which they are going either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Critiquing other people’s work can make you better at receiving criticism, as you learn what a sensitive and tricky business it really is.
A writer needs to be ready to receive feedback in an open spirit and to try not to over invest in any feedback they might receive. A certain kind of writer will experience any negative comment as an attack, and this is not in the writer’s best interest and neither is it kind on the reader whom you have asked for their opinion. It’s important, as far as is possible, to receive criticism of any kind in a balanced way.
What is Good Feedback?
So what is good, constructive feedback and where can you find it? As we’ve seen, people will respond differently to a piece of fiction. If you’re just starting out it may be that you want particularly gentle criticism, for example from someone you know, the aim of which is to help you experiment and build up your confidence. After that, you might want to approach people you don’t know, but who are engaged in a similar struggle, in a writing group or on a course. Then if you’re serious about publication, you might want to send your work out to a skilled editor. There are an increasing number editorial consulting companies.
Each of these stages will provide a different level and style of feedback, but in essence, good constructive feedback will help the writer think more carefully about what they have written.
- Requires basic sense of care for the writer as person. Having creative empathy as a starting point is important to try to see what that individual is trying to achieve from their point of view.
- Puts the positives first. I do think as a rule all good criticism should begin with acknowledging the effort behind any piece of writing and to list any good points first.
- Avoids imposing the reader’s idea of what a piece of work should be.
- Admits it cannot help when it cannot help and perhaps suggests a different reader.
- Explains why a piece of writing is not working. Really knowing what is not working with a piece of fiction can require a high degree of technical skill, time and experience.
If you’re going to try to go into detailed feedback, you need to ask yourself certain questions as you read such as: are you fascinated by the opening sentences or are you bored? Are you driven to read on or is it a struggle? Are you feeling clear about what is happening? Is a sentence cluttered? If you feel confusion as you read, or have any strong positive response to a particular phrase, sequence or character, make a written note of it, so that you’ll be able to pin-point these moments precisely for the writer’s benefit.
Your response will probably fall into two stages: an emotional response, then a technically critical response. An emotional response might consist of anything from ‘wow, that’s exciting’ or and ‘what’s going to happen next?’; to a feeling of boredom, disconnection or even irritation. You should use your emotional response (checking out that it’s not simply due to the fact that we’re tired or would rather be watching the football) to guide you as to what you feel might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with a piece of writing.
- Is often delivered to a writer thoughtlessly or spontaneously as a reaction without a pause or due reflection. For example, if somebody reads some work in a writing group, somebody else calls out ‘that’s rubbish’. A comment delivered like this can hurt a writer for a long time. If you find yourself in a group with people who are thoughtless, I suggest you think twice about going back again.
- Concentrates on the negatives, without balancing these out with positives or being diplomatically handled. Most writers want to know the ‘truth’ about their work, but don’t want to be made to feel foolish for failing to have achieved what they had wanted to or hoped they had. It’s a matter of simple politeness.
- Fails to back up its emotional responses. It’s important to try to show somebody why you think something isn’t working if you can, rather than just say ‘I don’t like it’ or even ‘it isn’t working’. On the other hand, a skilled writer can use a negative emotional response from a reader if they’re not too upset by it.
- Can be too kind. It’s important to be polite and diplomatic but this is not the same as fobbing somebody off with an over-sympathetic, false response. This can be almost as unkind as a thoughtless response. It can make somebody feel they are doing better than they are. The publishing industry is flooded with work by authors who have been deluded into thinking their work is ‘publishable’ by a friend who has not dared to be more honest or who simply does not know the market. Many people think critics should be tougher – they believe there is too much bad writing in the world already. The current fascination around Pop Idol’s Simon Cowell, suggests that the public themselves are wising up to the dangers of excessive softness.
- Imposes technical changes which aren’t in tune with the author’s ability or intentions.
- Moralizes without being in a position of authority over a piece and able to call the shots. There is a difference between good, clear, strong editorial advice and superiority.
Common Problem Areas
Whether you are being your own first reader, or you are a reader for someone else’s work, make sure you examine the piece for the following pitfalls:
- A lack of variety in the use of vocabulary. Are writers over-using the same words and grammatical structures? This tendency can account for a certain ‘flatness’ in the text or writing that does not ‘jump of the page’. The over-use of a bland word like ‘nice’, for example, or of an adjective like ‘tall’, can account for this. For example, sentences like ‘John was tall and handsome and very nice. His sister Betty was also tall and very nice. His tall mother Rosa was not very nice.’ are dull. It’s also important to look out for people who start too many sentences with ‘He’ or ‘She’, as this can become very tedious.
- The use of cliche. For example, sentences like ‘His words cut in to her like a knife’ or ‘she was as happy as a summer’s day’ should be avoided, as these comparisons are made too often to be interesting. Occasionally cliches can be put to good use (perhaps ironically), and it’s difficult to avoid the use of them altogether, but a work should not be built on them. It could be argued that an orginal and quality text will manage to create its own way of mixing words and avoid the use of cliche entirely.
- Too many adjectives and adverbs. ‘Over-writing’ is also common. New writers can fail to realise that ‘less is more’ when it comes to prose style. A nervous writer will over-egg the pudding, for example, creating a sentence like: ‘Smilingly, the brave boy intrepidly and courageously set about saving the red-haired, athletic girl who approached him knowingly and with a singular, expressive look in her large, blue-green, beautiful eye’. It’s better to keep it simple.
- The characters, do they interest you? Do you care about what happens to them next?
- The situations the characters find themselves in, do they fascinate you or leave you indifferent?
- The plot development. Does all of it make good sense? Are there enough suprises to make you want to keep reading?
The denouement and ending. Does it satisfy you or make you feel let down?
- The effect of the whole work. Has it made you think? Has it entertained you? Has it done its job as well as could be?
Agents and Publishers
Once you do submit your work to an agent or publisher, they will give their own feedback. It could take various forms. If there is nothing in particular that makes the reader excited, you will receive a short letter or card saying something like ‘we enjoyed your writing but do not think it is right for our list’, or ‘I am sorry but our list is full.’ The reader might make this decision having read only a few pages of text. You might argue that they make mistakes, and the answer is that they do. Harry Potter was rejected fifteen times before being taken on by Bloomsbury. There are always stories like this, but in general a publisher can afford to miss the odd more unusual gem at the expense of the main stream of commercial books it buys.
If on the other hand you receive a letter which seems genuinely personalised from an editor or agent directly, you should feel very pleased with yourself, as somehow you have managed to make your work stand out. If you’re told they have asked two readers to look at a work, this is also a good sign as it demonstrates your work warranted a second opinion.
The feedback in this case may consist of one, two or three paragraphs making a combination of praising and critical general comments. Ideally an editor will make one or two valid points about the shortcomings of your work which will chime with you. Once you have got over the initial shock that they do not think your work is yet perfect, you should be able to use these comments towards a rewrite. Before rewriting however,
a) be sure you agree with what is being said, and
b) give yourself a reasonable period of time to absorb what changes you might make.
Often people rewrite too quickly. Good writing can take a good deal of time. Alternatively, if an editor thinks you show real promise but does not ‘go for this particular project’, they may say that they would like to see anything else you write.
If an editor thinks a project may be nearly publishable, they may ask you to do some specific work on it and resubmit the same project to them when you have made changes. The level of changes they suggest probably reflect their interest. In other words, if you have a long letter from an editor guiding you closely, then it’s certainly worth rewriting the piece for that editor as long as you agree with their assessment and can see where it’s coming from.
It can be difficult if you don’t agree with an editor’s feedback. You can either rewrite or keep trying different companies as J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter. If you rewrite against a direction you believe in, there is still no guarantee of being taken on and your writing can become misdirected. I firmly believe it’s worth testing the waters as far as you can with feedback first, so that you can ‘toughen up’ and keep a firm sense of where it is you want to go with your work.
Vital Questions for Readers (and Writers)
1. At the beginning: ‘So What? Why should I bother?’ – does the writer give you a reason to keep reading?
2. Getting into the story: ‘Oh yeah? What do you know about it?’ – Does the writer make you care?
3. In the middle: ‘Huh? Where is this going?’ – Is there confusion or lack of clarity?
Article found http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/getwriting/module6p.