Kathy Pooler’s Memoir Writer’s Journey blog post, “The Art of Constructive Feedback in Writing and in Life”, blew me away. Everyone who works with children in any capacity should read her account of the way her grandson’s soccer coach interacts with his team. Everyone who works with people should read the post and pay close attention to the juxtaposition of that style with the feedback she got on an early writing assignment that shut her down for decades.
Her post especially hit the spot because I’ve been deeply reminded lately that strong writing – deep, meaningful writing – generally benefits from feedback of one sort or another, and yet awkwardly given feedback can do more harm than good. In an attempt to prevent such a negative outcome, writing classes I teach, I always give each student a copy of the follow Feedback Ground Rules:
- Stories you hear in this room stay in this room! This is crucially important for classes and writing groups to ensure people feel safe enough to share honestly and openly. This caution is not just about story content, it’s about writing skills. Who wants to run the risk that a fellow writer or student might blab to others the sort of thing your own Inner Critic is screaming? You need to respect everything about the writing process. If you want to share an amazing story, ask the author. Most likely the answer will be yes.
- Be care-fully honest. Don’t white wash your feedback, but strive for compassion and tenderness when you point out aspects of a story that don’t work for you.
- State at least two or three strong points for each piece. This may include memorable (velcro) words and phrases, a feature of the story structure, great description, moving content, anything at all.
- Limit comments about needed improvements to the two or three most compelling ones. Respect each person’s need to grow writing skills gradually.
- Avoid opinion — I like it, I didn’t like it, that was a great story. Opinion isn’t inherently bad, it’s just too easy to fall back on opinion rather than exert the mental effort to quantify why you liked or disliked a piece.
- Tell how you felt about it — how it affected you. Were you inspired, amused, touched, saddened … ?
- What worked especially well?
- Did the story seem to be missing anything?
- What one or two things can you suggest to make it even better?
- Avoid the temptation to start telling related stories — make a note of them on your story idea list.
That last item is not specifically related to feedback, but it is a frequent sidetrack in classes and writing groups. I encourage people to keep paper handy to write these ideas down while they’re fresh so they can go home and write the stories.These same rules work with one-on-one critiquing, although in this case, you may do more line-editing. Find out from the author just what information he or she needs and wants. If it’s an early draft, there’s no point in pointing out every missing comma. Stick with conceptual and structural comments.
Should you find yourself in an unenlightened group and be subjected to a barrage of negativity, have a firm talk with your Inner Critic. Tell her something like “Consider the source. Some of those comments were valid, but I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I’m' not going to assume their mean spirits meant anything other than that they don’t know much about how to be helpful. I’ll keep writing.” You may bring this up with the group and suggest some ground rules (you are welcome to copy the ones above), or you may just find a new group.
Be kind with yourself and others, be patient with all concerned, and remember that neither writing nor feedback skills are mastered in a single sitting.
Write now: jot down some thoughts about feedback experiences you’ve had. Were they negative or positive? If they were negative, use the “Is it true” technique to explore the implications.