by Jennie Jarvis
This month at 5writers.com, we are going to be talking about one of the most important things we can do for our writing community – giving feedback.
Let’s face it. If we were stuck in our own minds and never got any feedback from the outside world, our writing would never grow or get better. And we need to get better. No master writer ever started as the genius they eventually became. They had to start at the beginning and get better. Yes, natural talent can take us so far, but at some point, we need feedback to get better.
And giving feedback is just as essential for us as writers. When we read the work of our peers, we aren’t quite as emotionally attached to it as we are to our own writings, and so we have the ability to analyze the work from a much more objective stance. By breaking down the work of others, we learn more about how to write ourselves. We start to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t work in a story, and as a result, we can apply that to our own works in progress.
HOW we give that feedback to others, however, requires us to think beyond just what we will gain from the experience. We can’t just think about how we will learn and grow, but we need to be sensitive to how the person we are helping will learn and grow as well.
In a 2012 Writer’s Digest post, guest bloggers Donna Cooner detailed the Top 10 Worst Types of Critique Partners. On the list, she brought up many great points, but one of the aspects that I always like to discuss with my students is what she has to say about the “Harsh Critic” and the “Nicey Piecey.”
The Harsh Critic is the person who only focuses on “What’s Wrong” in a piece of writing, while the Nicey Piecey is the person who only focuses on the “What’s Working.” While the Harsh Critic points out all the bad; the Nicey Piecey points out all the good. And Donna Cooner is quick to say that these two go together and are equally as dangerous.
If you are a Harsh Critic, you probably see yourself as the critic who is “just trying to help your writing group get better.” You know the importance of how feedback can make a piece of writing ready for market, and you want to challenge your peers to get better and better. The problem here, however, is that the person receiving your notes – regardless of how good they are at accepting feedback – is only hearing that his or her stuff is bad.
Think about it this way: If you made a dinner for friends, and all they said was “This needs more salt, “you really should use brown rice instead of white,” “I think this recipe would work better with pork,” or “this side dish doesn’t really go with this entrée,” then you might start to wonder if you should have cooked for them at all.
Feedback like this is difficult to digest because it can feel like NOTHING in your writing is working. Why bother continue with it at all?
For beginning writers, harsh feedback can make someone quit right away. For more advanced writers, this kind of self-doubt may not come as quickly, but hearing nothing but “this needs work…” “this isn’t effective…” “you need to change this…” can wear you down over time.
On the flip side, if you are a Nicey Piecey, you may be the kind of reader who doesn’t want to “hurt the feelings” of the other person. You may be the kind of writing group member who believes that the process of writing is sacred and artistic, and you don’t want to spoil the process of the writer’s exploration into their story.
I agree that giving harsher notes when a work is really new and fresh can be detrimental to the writing process. I’ve actually learned not to show my own work to my writing group if it is too raw. But if all I receive from someone is positive notes, then it’s going to give me an unrealistic expectation of the quality of my work.
I can’t speak for other writers, but I know that I write because I want that work to eventually be published. If I show my work to my writing group, and they give me nothing but positive feedback because they don’t want to “hurt my feelings”, then I’m going to assume that my writing is AWESOME and ready to be sold. Then, if I take that writing to my agent, she will rip it apart, telling me it’s not ready, and that can be crushing because I thought it was great. And if I was a writer without an agent, then I just wouldn’t be able to secure an agent with that lesser manuscript.
Had I known there were issues before sending it over to my agent/potential agent, then I could have fixed it. But if my critique partners were too busy worrying about my feelings, then I didn’t get the notes I needed in order to be successful. Obviously, if an author simply wants to write for themselves, then this really doesn’t matter, but then that author shouldn’t be asking for feedback anyway.
The purpose of a writing group isn’t to inflate the egos of the writers involved or to rip their work to shreds – it’s to help them grow and get better as writers. This means pointing out BOTH what’s working and what needs work (not what’s “wrong”) in any works in progress brought to the table. The “What Needs Work” feedback is needed to help the writer get better, and the “What’s Working” feedback gives the writer the support and encouragement to keep writing.
In my writing group, we give both of these kinds of notes to make sure that we are supporting each other completely. As a result, from the time we started working together until now, we have all grown immensely. Each of us has been published in some way, and we guard our sessions religiously. Our time together isn’t just about what we are writing now, but also how we can help each other’s artistic growth as well. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, and we’ve celebrated each other’s achievements.
Are you in a writing group? How do you support each other?