Giving and Receiving Feedback or Critiques

I facilitate a writer’s group as part of my job as a librarian, a very enjoyable part that I’m grateful to have.  It has helped keep me thinking about my writing when other things in life were intent on distracting me.  The wonderful, and difficult thing, about writing groups is the ability to share your writing with others and receive feedback.

It is immensely helpful to a writer trying to improve their work to hear what other people think and heard about a piece of writing.  (It’s also wonderful for the author to get to hear someone else read it out loud.  Is that really what I wrote?)  It can also be terribly difficult to hear the suggestions for improvement for something you’ve already put so much time and effort into.  The most important thing that I think people giving or receiving feedback/critiques need to remember is that it is the writer’s story.

For the writer receiving feedback, it can be disheartening to have people tear apart your writing.  I think it’s a good idea not to share a piece of writing until you have a clear vision of what you want it to be.  Then you can listen to the feedback, decide what applies and discard the rest.

This past week at our writer’s group I was both the person giving feedback to another and on the receiving end of feedback.

I admit I was slightly annoyed by the feedback I received.  It was based on a short free write that I had done a couple weeks before and shared, something we do at the beginning of every group to put us in the right frame of mind.  The person giving me feedback knew that it was part of a novel I was working on and proceeded to tell me how I should develop the story, in detail.  He forgot that it was my story.  He was developing a different story in his mind based on my initial free write but it wasn’t my story.  He was trying to help but it wasn’t help I had asked for, wanted or that was useful.  I politely said that the work had developed far beyond what I had done in the free write, by about 40,000 words, and that I would be sharing it with the group soon.   I could tell he wasn’t happy with that but I remembered that it was my story and held firm.

Another author shared a short story that we gave feedback on.  We tried to be specific and helpful but it seemed to me that she was feeling a little overwhelmed by what we gave her.  Afterward I reminded her of the caveat to take what is useful and discard the rest because it is her story, but it also reminded me of a technique for writer’s workshop that I learned when I was taking my English degree.

The idea is simply to tell the author two things you liked about the work and give them two things that you think could be improved upon.  Because we often only give feedback once in our group, due to time constraints and deadlines, the second half of the advice, which is predicated on the writer working on their story and bringing it back to the group, often doesn’t quite work.  We need to give all our notes in one sitting.  But the first part of the advice is still applicable.

No matter how problematic a piece of writing is, you can almost always find two things to complement the author on.  This helps cushion the blows they are about to receive with the critique.  It gives them something to cling to before you throw the other comments at them.  It’s a good practice, a kind one, that helps make it easier for the author to really hear the critical comments instead of curling up into a defensive ball.

I intend to remind the group, and myself, of it before the next meeting.

Writing getting better… or worse?

A fellow writer sent me a link to an online discussion today.  The topic was whether the writers felt like their writing had gotten better over time, or whether they’d lost something along the way as they learned craft – lost some of their creativity and spontaneity.  Most of the reactions fell into one of two groups – those that felt their writing had lost something and those that felt their writing was better in the end, even if the initial draft wasn’t as creative.

The idea is that as we learn craft, skills and techniques, we internalize them so that they come out in our writing without having to think about it.  That doesn’t happen quickly for most of us, if it ever does.  I think this is where something like NaNoWriMo can come in handy.  Because of the time constraints, you’re forced to just write without editing or too much planning.   Then we can go back and apply the things we haven’t internalized yet when we edit. 

Maybe this is the long way around the barn, but it’s the way I have to work right now in order to preserve my creativity.  I want the best of both worlds.

To MFA or not to MFA?

I recently had my tarot read while visiting Salem, MA.  (How could I not?)  The reader told me he saw me going back to school in the next year.  Yikes!  Don’t I have enough debt?  But, I must admit, I’ve been considering taking a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing recently.   I’ve heard one side of the argument say that all you really need to improve your writing… is to write.  The other side of the argument is that having people really critique and direct you helps you grow, accelerates the process.  Since I’ll be turning 35 next month, accelerating the growth process sounds good to me. 

So, I took another look online at MFA programs and, lo and behold, Cornell University, which is reasonably nearby, has an MFA program in creative writing that actually doesn’t cost anything if you get in.  This is, of course, because you do things like edit the literary mag which means a very big outlay of time.  Sounds intriguing.  However, the way they describe the program makes it sound like the only reason you would enter the program is to become a college professor.  Well, that’s not what I want at all.  I like my job.  The only reason I would leave it would be to write full time. 

So, for the time being, I think I’ll try applying for a grant that would enable me to take a little time off to write more and focus on other methods of improving my craft.  I know it needs improving.  I just want an editor to work with me one on one.  LOL