Giving Feedback—Providing the What and the Why in Order to Help a Writer Fully Realize His or Her Story by Brad Windhauser
Writers need feedback. This input helps us discover what is working and not working in a particular story. Feedback also allows us to understand how they are evolving as a writer—are they handling scene structure better than they used to, for example? Are their characters more vivid, realistic? That said, writers also need informed feedback. The best way to provide this feedback is to be as specific as possible with what you have to say.
Start by providing a summary of the plot
When you provide an author a brief, 3-4 sentence summary of what you think the story is about, the author knows how you understand the story. This comes first for several reasons. As a reviewer, this allows you to get the story straight in your head and you identify the important elements of story and plot. This informs your comments on every level—how well does the story execute this particular story arc? Your summary might sound like this: here we have a story about Ben, who robs banks and falls in love with one of the bank tellers and then decides to give up a life of crime. The story follows the would-be couple as he courts her during increasingly awkward moments. The comments you provide are designed to help that story.
However, the author might have intended to tell a story about Ben, who, due to his autism, walks into a bank in order to try and commit suicide and decides he can’t go through with it. This is a much different story, and if your comments are designed to enhance the love story, they will likely not aid in the author’s original vision but rather guide it into a different direction.
Does this means your comments are not valid? Not at all. Right away, they tell the author that his story is not coming across—at least to you. He will have to revise in order to clarify what he intends—or pursue what you see, for he might not have ever considered that angle.
Focus on particular areas—one at a time
Consider the integral parts of any story. Character is a good place to start. Who do we care about? What do you know about these characters? The writer might benefit from knowing if you like the person/people; however, he needs to know what impression the character is making—Charlie’s motivation of becoming a ball player is clear. I really rooted for him during the tryout scene because I could see how important this was to him.
This type of feedback is useful because it recognizes a strength and it conveys why it is effective. If you say: yeah, Sally is cool. This doesn’t help, in part because what you identify as cool might be counter to the author’s intention.
You should explore the same thing with use of scene, dialogue, setting, pacing, and plot.
Sure, all writers enjoy praise; however, we like to earn it. To that end, the best thing you can do for us is be honest and provide the reasons for your reactions. The reasons allow us to understand where the feedback is coming from and then process how (or if) the comments will allow us to revise effectively. Remember: you’re helping the author write a better story as he or she envisions it, not write the story you would write. So if you think that the baseball player story should really be about basketball, you might keep that to yourself—unless there’s a really good reason to make that change.
Oh, and type your feedback.
Sure, oral feedback in a writing group can be easier, but written feedback helps the author go back over the comments—some might get lost in conversation.
Lastly: comment on the strengths as well as the weaknesses—let the writer know what is working and why. This feedback helps us strengthen other areas along the same lines as what is working. Positive feedback goes a long way to boost confidence just as critical feedback allows us to work on problem areas. Both are important for writers at all levels.