Giving Helpful Feedback

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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.

11 comments :

kathleen said...

Sharon,Thanks so much for the mention and for reinforcing the importance of delivering feedback in meaningful,respectful, helpful ways. Your ground rules are excellent. We all can grow and benefit in an environment that nurtures our uniqueness and humanness. I also think that learning to take feedback constructively rather than personally is an important part of the equation. I appreciate this discussion!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Kathy, thank YOU for starting the discussion. The comments following your post are also important.

SuziCate said...

Very good points. So often (myself included) people take criticism to heart and never bother to learn the craft and build from there. Most of us forget that often what we take for criticism is opinion, not fact. We need to learn our strengths, use them to our advantage, and work on our weak areas. One thing I've learned is I have much to learn.

Rebekah said...

Fantastic points. We work with a non-profit who heavily relies on feedback. They want to grow people, not produce work. They teach the sandwich method for daily feedback. Good, something to work on, good. It really does work. When you start with the positive, they're more likely to hear the negative in a positive mindset.

Sherrey said...

Sharon, thanks for sharing the ground rules! A small group in our church has just begun a writing group. In our first session, we were developing our own set of rules. I've taken the liberty of sharing yours with our leader -- they are such good ones!

Linda said...

Excellent points! And if we follow them, they work well. I appreciate feedback because other people catch what I missed or never would have thought of by myself. In the end, my critique partners make me look better! I must be thick-skinned because I welcome critique, and I suspect that because of that I need to be extra-careful in the presence of those who don't have tough skin.

In one of our groups, no matter how many times I explained your final point (about not telling stories of our own), each week one man inevitably leaned back in his chair and said, "Your story reminds me of a time back in 1952 when...." Arrgh. Oh, well.

Thanks for your helpful post.

Linda

Sharon Lippincott said...

Hmm, I wrote an earlier comment, but it must have gotten lost in cyberspace. I'm glad people are finding the ground rules helpful.

Linda, you have to be firm with people like that man. It's not easy, but if you set aside a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting to review the rules -- hand out copies to each person to read along -- then when he starts "telling" you interrupt him, and remind him to put it on his list. You probably don't have time for his story TELLING if everyone is going to read.

But I know. We have a woman like that in our group. It's not easy. She's learned to keep her gabbing really short!

Arlee Bird said...

These are such excellent points that when practiced lead to constructive outcome for the author and for the dialog about the piece being discussed.

Too bad more professional critics in media don't heed all of these tips.


Lee
Memoirist Ann Carbine Best visits Wrote By Rote on Saturday 11/12/11

Sharon Lippincott said...

Arlee,

I hope you can find a group to use the guidelines with. Thanks for stopping by.

GRACE PETERSON said...

Great post, Sharon. For me, I haven't gotten enough constructive criticism. Too many friends just say something nice and that's it. I want the nitty gritty. This is where other writers can help for sure.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Grace,

The fact is that most readers are not very discerning. For the most part, this is comforting, because we can get away with quite a lot. But we should always strive for our personal best, and not rely on easy-reader friends for feedback. It's a challenge to find a writing group with high-level help. Keep looking. Keep talking to people and finding out who writes. Take a class now and then -- that's a good way to meet other writers. Ask the librarians who writes and start a writer's group at the library. You'll get there.