In a writing workshop or critique group, a writer hands out pages that represent her heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams. As fellow students or group members, our job is to provide feedback and constructive criticism that will support the writer and improve the final product.
We often turn to fellow writers to receive honest critiques of our work within an atmosphere of support and respect.
But what if we don’t like the work? What if we can’t find anything redeeming in the main character or anything in the story we can relate to? Actually, that doesn’t matter. It's not about us or even the writer; it's about the words on the page—the movement of the story, the development of the characters, etc.
Here’s how to give useful feedback, whether or not a particular written work is your cup of tea:First, read the story without regard to critical thought; just read it through like any story or article you might pick up. Then sit with it for a few moments. What impressions are you left with? How has the story made you feel? What are you still curious about? Nothing? Well, that is important also.
Now reread the story and jot down comments as you go. (Use any color ink but red.) Write comments in the margins and use the spaces between lines for recommended language. What should you write about? You can discuss any number of aspects of the writing—plot, dialogue, scene, summary, the balance of scene and summary, character development, timing, cadence, pace, transitions, technique, point of view, perspective, humor, seriousness, emotional impact or language.
If you really don’t know where to begin, start with time. What is the chronological pace of the piece? Does it make sense or is it confusing? Why? (Get used to answering why—why is a big part of what works or what doesn’t work, regardless of what aspect you write about when providing feedback.)Look at language. Which phrases stand out? Which lines pull you into the piece, and which lines pull you out of the story? Highlight, underline or circle lines and specific words that strike you as bold, chilling, hot, fevered, delicious, enticing, inciting, etc.
Look critically not personally. What didn’t work for you? What made you uncomfortable? Why? Consider that what makes you uncomfortable may be the gem of the piece. Don’t worry about copy editing at this stage. Overlook spelling and grammatical mistakes, and concentrate on the content of the story.
Remember what your mother said: Watch your language. A writer has privileged you with the honor of helping hone his craft. Take that seriously. Be nice. Be truthful. Be honest. Give feedback in a manner that you hope feedback will come to you. Use real words, not labels, such as politically incorrect, clichéd or trite. Take the time to explain how the piece made you feel. While you will write comments along the margins, you will provide most of your feedback at the end of the piece (or on a separate page). Keep in mind this four-part formula:
Start with positive comments. Explain what works well—strong character development or solid pacing, for example. Give specific examples from the work.
The simple truth of taking part in a writers group or workshop is that some readers will supply helpful feedback and others will not. Some readers just want to hear themselves talk or to show off their “wisdom and experience.”
Next, ask questions. For example: “I felt shocked at this part; is that what you wanted to create?” In the third section, give constructive feedback for what didn’t work. Did you encounter any obstacles as a reader?
Finally, leave the writer feeling good about her work by summing up something positive about the piece overall. Then sign your name, because when you do, you are showing that you stand by what you are saying.
As a writer, you will learn over time which members will offer worthwhile comments and which members won’t, which comments are worth reading and which to disregard. As a reader, be one of the members the other writers want to hear from.