Discussing Feedback

Writing is a long, drawn out process; a journey from the vaguest of ideas to something so real and concrete that it can almost feel like memory. Through countless drafts the author refines their work, carefully evaluating the pacing, the characters, word choices, and sentence structure. Until at long last, it’s done. Time to show it to someone, but who?  Writing is a long, drawn out process; a journey from the vaguest of ideas to something so real and concrete that it can almost feel like memory. Through countless drafts the author refines their work, carefully evaluating the pacing, the characters, word choices, and sentence structure. Until at long last, it’s done. Time to show it to someone, but who?

Different Types of Readers

Showing a new story to someone else can be very difficult. On the one hand there’s an eagerness to share it, a hunger for feedback. But what kind of feedback?

The Kind Reader

When I first finish a story, I’m very nervous. “What if it was all for naught? What if I wasted my time with nothing to show for my effort? Deep down I know it’s not perfect, but is it good enough to warrant the extra effort to polish it up?” So I start off with a kind reader; someone who isn’t aspiring to write themselves, they just like to read for fun.

They may offer some constructive criticism, particularly if something doesn’t make sense, but most of their remarks will be praise. They’ll focus on what I did right, and in the beginning that is exactly what I need.

Safely reassured that I haven’t completely blundered, I’ll move on to my next reader, the constructive critic.

The Constructive Critic

With my doubts resolved, I take another look at the story. I know what I’ve done right, it’s time to figure out where I need to shore things up. I turn to serious writers and ambitious readers; people who want to be challenged, who can love a story but still find fault with it. I try to use a wide sample, emailing between 4 and 6 at a time, saving a few for the second round of constructive criticism.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult types of feedback to receive. Positive remarks are often brief and vague: “yes”, “wow”, or “well done”. Constructive criticism, by its very nature, is much more extensive and specific. It’s not enough to simply say “this doesn’t work”. Writers need to know how and why it’s not working. This means constructive criticism will dominate the feedback. And that’s exactly how it should be, but it’s not always easy to recognize those remarks for what they are, an honest and earnest effort to help the writer become stronger.

This is one reason why I try to submit simultaneously to multiple individuals. If I disagree with someone’s feedback, I compare it to the others, or contact someone else who has already submitted their feedback. But avoid leading questions. Instead of “Do you think it’s clear that Paul’s motive is X?” ask “What do you think Paul’s motives are?” What, how, and why are great questions to ask.

Don’t defend your story, don’t tell readers the answers to their questions. The fact that they asked shows that the story doesn’t have the answers. Ask follow up questions, but don’t respond to theirs. When a reader tells you something isn’t working, they’re right. Of course sometimes the reader may not represent your target audience, but if there’s a way to address their concerns without compromising the story, that can only strengthen the story.

The Shredder

This is my last reader, the one who will find every weak point, whether it’s the content and meaning of the story, or the word usage, sentence structure, and grammar. This is the one who will tear a story apart, but afterwards it will be much stronger. Professional editors would also fall under this category.

The reason I save this reader for last is because they are so sharp, so good at what they do, and they know it. They have little patience for mistakes, and if they find too many, they will stop and tell you to go back and try again. The exception, of course, is an editor you hire, though you still want to save them for last, to keep the cost down.

Finding & Choosing Your Readers

Finding readers is usually not too difficult. You can ask family and friends, join a writer’s group (online or in person), or look for online forums and blogs where others are asking for readers (and then you might ask them to return the favor). But that’s only the beginning.

The immediate goal may be to get feedback for your latest writing piece, but the real goal in all of this is to establish an ongoing relationship with your readers. Understand that not everyone may be open to reading your work regularly, and that’s okay. Gradually you’ll realize who is open to it, and how much time they are willing to offer.

As an author, it’s important to let the reader govern much of the relationship. Learn who is a kind reader, a constructive critic, or a shredder. Learn who wants to provide their feedback and be done with it, as well as who is willing to continue the dialogue after their initial response. Once you understand what kind of reader someone is, you can choose when to send them a story.

Providing Feedback

As a writer you can’t ask if you’re not willing to give, and often people will ask you to give first. The problem is that in any relationship, there’s room for misunderstanding. You don’t know what the writer is hoping to get out of this. Fortunately there’s a simple solution, ask. Ask them what they’re looking for.

  • Is this a story they wrote for fun, something they’re sharing with friends, or a professional piece they hope to submit somewhere?
  • Do they want you to read the whole story through and then offer a general response, or would they prefer notes throughout the story?
  • Should you simply note places that feel strong or weak, or cite specifics?
  • Are there specific aspects of the story (setting, plot, pacing, sentence structure) that they want you to pay attention to?
  • Are there specific questions they want you to answer after reading the story?

When in doubt, be gentle. Ask them if they have any questions for you, but let them ask for more, and remember, just because someone asked you for feedback in the past, doesn’t mean they want feedback every time they show you something they’ve written. Sometimes we need a critic, other times we just need a friend.

What do you think?

What do you look for in a first reader?

18 thoughts on “Discussing Feedback

  1. Well, for my job I give a lot of training and as such always have to give a lot of feedback as well. The point in giving feedback is to make the other individual learn something and not to completely tear them down. No matter how you look at it, no matter how bad something is, there is always something good to find as well. So, I always believe in giving some positive feedback first, and then offer suggestions in how things could be done better. It usually works, but for some people a more direct approach works. Great post! 😀

    • Mmm. And sometimes it’s necessary to temper one’s feedback. If I have a lot if constructive criticism i may hold some back, so that I don’t overwhelm them.
      There’s definitely something to be said for a light touch, just enough to reignite their creative spark, and then step back and see where they take it.

  2. I think feedback definitely needs to highlight the positives as well as the problems. Just identifying problems doesn’t really help as sometimes, in fixing those, something that was really good might get lost or taken away unless the person knows that it was something that had to stay. So, a balance and being pretty specific are probably good qualities when you ask someone to provide feedback on work.

    • Agreed. Many times, in the process of addressing a weak point, I’ve gone too far, and removed a strength of the story. That’s one reason I tend to save a new version every time I revise, using numbers and decimals to distinguish between them.
      And, in the end, the author has to make their own decisions. I firmly believe listening to the feedback of others, but ultimately must rely on my own judgement. Sometimes it helps to reread old versions and compare them to the latest; see if there’s anything I love that’s missing from the new versions. After all, writing is an act of love, love of the story we’re creating.

    • Mmm. One reason I always like to ask someone what their writing goals are. A person writing letters to friends or family, or journals to grandchildren, doesn’t need the same intense polish as someone trying to get published.

  3. I’m not a writer but a beta reader for some authors I love. I dare say I’m mostly a constructive critic and with some authors I know really well a shredder because that’s what they ask me. Being overtly nice won’t help to improve the book. On the other hand I constantly remind them that it is only one personal opinion and they should ask others. I also say they are in the writing seat not me. 😉

    • Mmm. And as you say, they asked you to provide that kind of feedback. It’s all a matter of clearly communicating what the expectations are. :-).

  4. This is great advice: “Don’t defend your story, don’t tell readers the answers to their questions. The fact that they asked shows that the story doesn’t have the answers.” Often I have writers explain to me what they MEANT to say. That’s all well and good, I reply, but you can’t sit down and explain what you meant to every reader! You have to state what you mean in your text! 😀

  5. Just want to say thank you all for commenting and making this a rich conversation.
    I’m already getting ideas for how I might expand the topic into a pair of writing posts.

  6. Using different readers to assess one’s writing is a good idea. I think everyone prefers the kind ones as they boost your ego. Someone who can take the flack can however improve by listening to what they other kinds remark.

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