I have been singing about writer’s groups for a while now, encouraging writers to expand their ability and reach out for valuable feedback. Recently, I have been invited to moderate just such a group, beginning in September. I have experience with two other writers groups I attend every week, and I plan to pull from that experience to establish a procedure for my new group.
So the topic at the front of my mind lately is feedback. How to give it, how to accept it, and how to use it to your benefit.
Giving feedback can be delicate. You don’t want to be mean, but your fellow writer’s latest chapter is very confusing, and you can’t figure out what he/she is trying to say with this piece. Not telling the writer about the confusion is a disservice. Chances are, if you are confused other readers will be too. And if a reader is confused, they may not finish reading. The best way to approach this is to ask the writer questions about the portion that you can’t follow. Try not to phrase things in a confrontational way, and be detailed with your criticism. If you don’t understand a character’s reaction to something, ask why the character feels that way. If the author has an answer for you, then tell them to include that in the story. Let them know it would make more sense with the explanation. Feel free to share ideas and suggestions. The other members of your writers group will probably start piping up with more suggestions and comments once you do, which will help the writer improve his/her piece. Don’t be afraid to be the person breaking the ice. Everyone benefits from an open discussion on plot, characters, themes, settings, etc. Catching a flaw in someone else’s work will also help you catch those same mistakes in your own work.
Giving feedback only works if the person getting the feedback is open to it. It is no easy thing to hear something negative about work you put your heart into. It’s hard not to get defensive, and feel attacked. Just remember that you asked for the feedback (why else would you attend a group?) and listen very carefully to what your fellow writer is saying. If they are confused about something, it is because you did not give the reader all of the story. Remember that the reader is not in your head, so you have to give the details of your idea within your piece. And if you didn’t, and the reader is asking questions, then you need a re-write. Sometimes a re-write can inspire even more details that were not in your first draft, so there are a multitude of benefits from other people’s input.
So you get home, and you have three pages of notes from 30 people on your latest chapter. You’ve been given multiple different conflicting ideas. Now what? This is your piece, so ultimately what you do with it from here is 100%your choice. You already listened and took note of the helpful tips from your group. Take the spelling and grammar tips and fix those (goodness knows I always have to) to get them out of the way. Then you can focus on the storyline and character development ideas. Be careful not to lose your voice in the voices of others. If someone suggested a word change that is a synonym to the one already there, be sure it’s something you like, and a word you would actually use yourself. Pick the ideas that work with your story, and make it clearer and easier to read. Use the ideas that help move your story along.
Re-writing a re-write for the third time is part of the process. With the help of your peers you will get it where you want it to go, and hopefully on to being published.