General Guidelines on Feedback

Best Practices on Giving and Receiving Feedback

Laura Davis

Learning to give and receive feedback is an art form. Here are some basic guidelines for giving and receiving feedback on work-in-progress. These guidelines are written for people meeting with other writers in a group setting, but you can adapt them for one-on-one peer feedback as well.

Guidelines for the Person Asking for Feedback:

  1. Before you ask for feedback, be attentive to how you’re feeling about your piece. Are you feeling vulnerable about it (as if the writing and you are connected at the hip)? Do you have enough distance to approach the piece objectively as the “editor” and not just as the “creator?” Or are you somewhere in-between?
  2. Consider the kind of feedback that would move you forward and keep you working on the piece. Consider the kind of feedback that would shut you down and make you want to lock it in a drawer for 20 years. Ask yourself, “Do I want to check in about my process or do I want actual feedback on the piece?”
  3. If obstacles have gotten in the way of you doing what you said you would do (and very much wanted to do), it’s perfectly legitimate to take time in your writer’s group to talk about what got in your way. We’re here to help you not just when you are succeeding, but also when you’re falling short of your goals. Taking time to talk about writer’s blocks and monkey mind is important, too. 
  4. Ask for the kind of feedback that is appropriate for you at this moment in time. Resist the temptation to say, “I don’t know. I just want to hear everything.” Some examples (of the endless possibilities of things you might want from the group) might be:

·    “Tell me if this character feels believable and real to you.”

·     “I want to know when you felt the tension building in this scene and when your attention dragged.”

·     “What, if anything do you think is missing from this piece?”

·     “I don’t want any criticism. I just want to know what you like and what works for you.”

·    “I want to know when you realized that Josie was really my daughter.”

·     “Do you think this story starts in the right place? Why or why not?”

·    “Do you think this piece stands alone? If not, what’s missing?”

·    “I’d like you to go over with this with a fine-tooth comb. I’m getting ready to send it out for publication and want to make sure it’s just right.”

·    “It’s really scary for me to share this. I just want you to hear me, tell me I’m courageous and that it’s okay for me to keep going.”

·               “I’d like a recall after I read…let me know what phrases, images or words jumped out at you and were memorable.”

·    Or you can bring up a topic like, “I’m terrified. Every time I sit down to write, I jump up and find ten other things to do. Has anyone else here ever experienced that? What did you do?”

  1. Stay present and in your body as the group responds. Sometimes we think we want one kind of feedback, but misjudge what we’re ready for. Stay present while you listen, paying attention to the feelings, physical sensations, and thoughts that arise. If you start feeling overwhelmed or disheartened, or that too much information is coming at you too quickly, say so, so we can stop and/or have a do-over.

  1. Ask for clarification when you need it. And if you’re not getting the feedback you want, tell us.

  1. Be honest with yourself and with us about whether the feedback you’re getting is working. If it doesn’t work for you, let the group know the following week so we can do better the next time.

  1. Learn from any mistakes you make in asking for what you want.

  1. Try again soon.

  1. Don’t be afraid to bring in multiple drafts of the same piece. All writing is rewriting. Your writing companions WANT to see your piece as it progresses, morphs, changes. Over and over and over again is OKAY! They will not be bored; they will be fascinated and educated by your process of editing and revision. Please bring your piece in over and over until it’s finished. Each time you will get a different level of feedback. Don’t let monkey mind tell you it will be boring or that only new work counts. 

 Guidelines for Giving Feedback

 The most important prerequisite to giving good feedback is to pay complete attention when another writer has the floor. Developing your ability to listen fully (rather than doodling, thinking about the piece you’re about to share or just got feedback on) is essential to giving meaningful, useful feedback. When another writer is sharing his/her work, give that writer the respect to listen deeply. It’s your part in creating an effective, flourishing writing group 

Listening is a necessary skill for serious writers. A lot of our best material comes from the world around us. If we don’t pay attention because our mind is always racing or we are planning for the future, we miss out on a lot of great source material.

 As my colleague Ellen Bass always says, the most valuable feedback recognizes a writer’s deepest intentions and positively supports her in moving toward those goals, not just in this piece, but in future pieces. To accomplish this goal, I suggest the following:

  1. Stay mindful of each writer’s goals when giving feedback–someone who is writing a family history for her grandchildren does not need to be held to the same standard as someone submitting a 1200-word opinion piece for the back of Time Magazine.
  2. Respond specifically with the kind of feedback the writer is asking for. Bear in mind that what another writer needs may be different than what you need (or are ready for) at this point in your development. Sometimes writers only want to talk about their process and don’t want direct feedback on their pieces. Sometimes a writer just needs encouragement to continue. Be responsive to each writer’s requests and process, even if a writer can’t always articulate his/her needs. And if a writer asks for specific line editing, jump right in if you feel able to contribute.
  3. Make sure your feedback (both written and in person) begins with what you liked about the piece, what was strong about it. Be as specific in your positive feedback as you are with your suggestions for change.
  4. Make your suggestions using positive language. Instead of saying, “I had no idea what you were talking about in this piece,” try instead, “I think this section could really be strengthened by more concrete language and specific examples.” 
  5. Resist the temptation to say everything you think. Focus on the one or two things that will help the writer move this piece—and her/his writing—forward.
  6. State your feedback succinctly. Say what you have to say once and say it clearly. Don’t hammer in your feedback by repeating it over and over in different words.
  7. Don’t lose sight of the writer as you respond to the piece. Always couple criticism with kindness.
  8.  Stay mindful of the fact that you are one of many people responding. Be attentive to the cumulative effect of the feedback, not just your own. Pay attention to each writer’s body language and facial expressions as the group responds. Consider whether enough has been said for one day before you jump in with more. You don’t have to respond to every piece, every time.
  9. When you give feedback, your job is to only talk about the writing on the page in front of you. It is not appropriate to give your opinion about the issue in the writer’s life that may have been the seed of the story…or your personal relationship to that issue. It is a not a time to discuss your life at all–or how the story made you feel about your life. It’s fine to say you were moved by a piece or deeply affected…but please don’t then launch into a story of how the issue is personally relevant to you or people close to you. What you say about yourself should be 1% of your feedback, if that; 99% should focus on the written words on the page.
  10. Please let each person have his/her say completely, before someone else jumps in with a complementary or contradictory opinion. Particular pieces of writing will affect us differently and we will not always agree with the feedback someone else gives, but let’s listen respectfully and wait for our turn to share our perspective. Let’s avoid any sense of there being a competition between whose opinion is "right" and whose opinion is "wrong." It’s up to the writer to sort out what is being said and to decide what is or isn’t relevant for her in the evolution of the piece.
  11. If you feel triggered and very negative about a piece (which will happen from time to time), it may have more to do with you than with the piece. In this case, please refrain from speaking until you understand your response. And maybe not even then.
  12. Even if a piece of writing is partly autobiographical, don’t make the assumption that everything a writer puts on paper represents the factual truth of her/his life. A writer may be making up what she/he doesn’t remember or exploring the realm of fiction.
  13. A writing group benefits from everyone’s feedback. If you are naturally reticent in a group, stretch yourself to participate more. If you always jump in and have something to say, try holding back to make room for someone else to speak. 

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