Giving feedback in a creative writing workshop or writing group is a tricky business. The biggest problem I’ve encountered, as both workshop attendee and facilitators, is that people are afraid to do it. They think, “What right have I to critique someone else’s writing?” So they just murmur “That was lovely” and move on.
At first, when a writer hears that their piece is lovely, they feel pleased. But five minutes later, the glow has gone. Think about what happens when you eat a chocolate bar – you feel great at first, but go into a slump five minutes later.
But feedback that’s specific, whether positive or negative, has the same effect as a slow-releasing carbohydrate – a steady glow that lasts long enough to bring lasting change to your writing.
The American choreographer Liz Lerman identified this problem 20 years ago among her dancers, who would either give vague praise or tear each other limb from limb. She created a critiquing process that creative people can use as a template for giving each other worthwhile criticism.
I’m going to outline the basic principles for you now. Though aimed at writers, they apply to any art form.
Say what you liked.
Writers make a brave move when they share their work with others. But while it’s a statement of confidence in their work, they’re also pretty vulnerable. So recognise that bravery by telling them what you admired about their work. Mention something concrete that you liked, such as ‘Your main character is so interesting and lifelike’, or ‘I really admire your poetic use of language.’
Writer Controls Feedback
Accepting negative feedback, no matter how well-worded, is never easy. But it is easier to swallow if they get to decide what feedback they want. They’ll probably have struggled with a particular issue when creating the piece; for example characterisation or plot. Because they know they’re struggling, they’ll be receptive to what the group has to say and you know they’ll genuinely benefit from the critique you give.
Questions and Opinions
Now the ground has been prepared, the group can give more solid suggestions and opinions. Start with a question about an aspect of the writing that confused you or didn’t gel with you. Then give a solid opinion, without resorting to saying you didn’t like the piece. For example, you could say: ‘I felt the dialogue didn’t quite ring true here. Maybe you could add in some slang to show that the character is young.’
Beware of Theme
The next stage of the Lerman method is discussions of the theme of the piece. This can be fascinating, but be careful that you don’t allow discussions about the theme to override discussions about the actual structure of the piece and the quality of the writing. You must always think about how you can be of benefit to the writer.
So why is constructive feedback a good idea?
Because it shows that you care. The worst reaction any writer can get is a non-reaction. By taking the time to give specific feedback, you’re showing them that their writing is of value, that it’s worth developing further. You’ll be helping to make their writing stronger, and maybe even achieve their goal of publication.