With the latest release of Smut Marathon
stories to review, I figure I have put off my promised “constructive feedback” post for long enough. Since it is what I do on a regular basis at work, writing a post like this feels a bit like writing an educational manual, but I’ll try to keep it from sounding preachy or overly academic.
Most writer’s groups I have been a part of have created feedback/criticism “norms” so everyone in the group knows when and how to offer it (and how to take it). And in classrooms, there is usually a clear rubric attached to writing assignments that makes pointing out areas of strength and weakness much easier. But, in the case of the Smut Marathon, these norms are absent and I’m not sure the judges have access to any sort of actual rubric (and I know the writers do not). This means many readers are flailing, trying to figure out how to give feedback/criticism in a way that will help but not offend. Unfortunately, it leads to rather superficial suggestions for improvement (not all, mind you) that do little to help anyone actually write better.
First, it is important to know the difference (though arguably negligible) between feedback and criticism:
FEEDBACK: information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.
CRITICISM: the expression of approval or disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes; the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.
One could say that feedback and criticism are the same thing, but the connotation of each word is different. The word “feedback” has a more positive connotation than “criticism.” Because of this, “feedback” is the word I prefer to use.
Next, there is no one right way to provide feedback/criticism to a writer, but the type of feedback one gives has to line up with a few variables:
Variable One: The Relationship Between Reader and Writer
First of all, there is the relationship the reader has with the writer. If the reader doesn’t know the writer well, it’s important to keep things as professional as possible. That’s actually a good rule of thumb no matter what, but it’s especially important for writers with whom one has little/no personal connection or no way to gauge the writer’s emotional state. In the classroom or in a writing group, it is easy to see how my comments and feedback are affecting a student or peer, and I can revise my statements or reword them accordingly. in contrast, providing feedback online presents a special problem, because we have no way of reading the writer’s body language or facial expressions to see how the feedback is affecting him/her. I think this is why a lot of people avoid offering feedback at all. Most of us have been raised to keep our mouths shut if we have nothing nice to say (though, the internet proves this is happening less and less every day). Usually, I’d say that is good advice to follow. I avoid commenting on blogs and posts if I find nothing positive to say, and when I have constructive feedback to provide, I keep it to myself unless I am asked for it. There is a time and place, after all. Not everyone is seeking to improve, and not everyone wants to hear opinions on their writing. On the other hand, putting our writing out there for the world to see does open us up to criticism, and we need to be ready to deal with that.
Variable Two: The Knowledge of the Reader and Writer
Sometimes, one refrains from giving feedback because the writer is more of an expert on the topic. But if the reader knows something the reader does not or catches inaccuracies, it can be helpful for the reader to relay this type of feedback.
Variable Three: The Experience of the Reader and the Writer
Feedback provided from writer to writer is often of the “we’re in the same boat” variety (peer-feedback). But, if the reader has more experience writing than the writer does, offering specific advice for improvement (reasons, examples, suggestions) can be invaluable.
Finally, there are multiple ways to provide feedback. So without further ado…Let’s get to the crux of this post.
6 Ways to Provide Useful Writing Feedback
#1: I like this/I don’t like this
A lot of the “criticism” offered in the Smut Marathon has been of the “I liked this” or “I didn’t like that” variety, which is not about the writer at all, but rather the person giving the feedback. In general, this is not a great way to provide feedback. I’d never use it in my classroom, with students, because it isn’t helpful. What is the writer supposed to do with this criticism? All they can do is be happy or sad for the reader (“Great, I’m glad you liked it”…or…”Shit, you hated it, but how does that help me?”). In a contest like this, knowing what readers like or don’t like is helpful, but it is also very subjective. I don’t think readers (in a situation like this) should stop telling the writers what they like or don’t, but it is definitely more constructive to explain why you like something so the writer can keep doing that (or not, as they choose):
“I like this sentence because of the unexpected combination of adjectives and verbs and the simile at the end: She skittered to a toxic stop and angled her face upward like a fish eyeing the lure that would become her instrument of death.“
“I don’t like this sentence because I don’t understand how a stop can be toxic and the metaphor seems to be trying too hard to get attention.”
These statements extend a subjective statement by providing reason/support. I’m not a huge fan of opinion statements in feedback, but in the case of writing for an audience in a competition like this, the readers and judges are choosing pieces based on what they like and don’t like. Because of this, it makes sense to provide this sort of feedback.
#2: Blanket feedback
If several writers are in need of the same feedback, offering it as general advice can be a time-saver for everyone. I do this in the classroom often when my students are all struggling with the same concept. Let’s say they are all having difficulty writing believable dialogue. I’d do a lesson on this for the whole group. Or if they are all struggling with commas, there would be a mini-lesson, practice, and individual application to their own writing. This isn’t a realistic strategy for an online competition, but it is possible to modify it…if you notice several writers doing something specifically problematic, offering advice like, “Try starting your piece with something other than a person. It will make your writing more original, which will make it stand out.” This is an actual piece of advice that showed up as feedback during one of the Smut Marathon rounds. I took it to heart and applied it to my next piece, even though it wasn’t directly given to me.
#3: Don’t make it personal
I find it best to avoid words like “should,” “shouldn’t,” “bad,” or “good.” These are a value judgments that are based on personal opinion rather than evidence or reason. Directly relate all feedback to the writing, not the writer. Instead of “You need to check your commas,” identify an instance in which the comma usage is problematic and then show how changing it would make the writing better (i.e. show, instead of tell).
#4: Balance negative and positive
No one wants to hear that everything they do sucks. But, most of us can handle a negative piece of feedback if it is offset by something positive. I have heard this referred to as the “feedback sandwich” or “3 stars and a wish”: couching negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback or outweighing the negative with the positive. However, I think there is always the problem of that positive feedback being disingenuous and forced. I believe the key is to make even our constructive “criticism” feel positive (“If you did ______, this description would be stronger.)
#5: Keep it simple, focused, and specific
This is directly related to the previous concept. Since no one wants to hear that everything they do sucks, it is best to focus in on one or two things a writer can improve, rather than throwing a litany at them. That’s an excellent way to piss someone off or hurt their feelings and shut their ears to anything you have to say. In addition, don’t just point out what is wrong…suggest improvements when possible. The writer can decide whether to follow any of them or ignore them completely. After all, he/she is still in charge of the writing.
#6: Ask questions
When possible, ask open-ended questions that will push the writer to elaborate or improve the writing. For example, if you think a character needs to be developed more, rather than saying, “You need to develop character A,” you could ask, “Is character A the hero or villain in this piece?” or “What is your character thinking or feeling in this moment?”
The whole point of feedback is to help writers improve their writing. We all know that we writers can be sensitive souls. Our writing is our creation and has often taken our blood, sweat, and tears in the process. It’s hard not to take it personally when others say there is something wrong with it. Poorly given feedback can shut a writer down. But the fear of how feedback will be taken can also keep a reader from providing it. Neither situation is beneficial.
Some of us are better at accepting criticism than others, but (even when we are good at accepting criticism) we still need it to provide specific direction. As providers of feedback, we also need to remember that we are dealing with real people who have real feelings. While blunt statements like, “your characters are flat and emotionless” may be true, there are more thoughtful and sensitive ways to go about saying the same thing. This is especially important when we don’t have the benefit of face-to-face interaction or if we do not know a writer well.
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