On Giving Feedback, September 2015

I have been involved in many writing groups over the years, looking at both poetry and fiction, and I’ve had a mixed experience of them. It takes a special blend of honesty, trust and empathy for them to work well, so that as a writer you feel challenged but supported at the same time. I’ve also been on a number of academic writing and literature courses, which again have varied in terms of how useful they were and how enjoyable. However, one thing I have noticed while attending all these groups is how little theorized the process of giving feedback on creative writing is.

The aim of these groups is always to provide constructive criticism, to comment on the successes and failures of any piece of writing in a way that allows the author to subsequently revise and improve it. The assumption, implied or stated, is that there is a set of rules that one must follow to produce good writing and that these rules are known by the group and are agreed upon. As anyone who has attended a writing group will know, this assumption is only imperfectly born out in practice. The alternative hypothesis, advanced by those who do not like or attend such groups, is that judging literature is essential subjective and what any individual is doing is simply saying what they personally do or do not like about a piece of writing and the points everyone or most people agree on are the ones that the author should listen to as that will give an indication of what most people will or will not like.

Neither of these positions – that there is a known, agreed upon set of rules or that it is essentially subjective – reflect my personal experience of either giving feedback or what I have observed is going on in creative writing workshops. In trying to think through what is happening, I found it useful to begin by imagining a deliberately naive scenario where someone is starting to read literature for the first time unencumbered by other people’s thoughts or views. What this imaginary person would do would be to start reading stories and poetry and react to them positively or negatively.

As they read more examples they would consciously and unconciously register things that they think are consistent about the good and bad bits of writing, in other words create ‘rules’.  After some time they would then use those rules to explain why they felt one piece of writing was good (because it followed the rules) and another piece of writing was bad (because it didn’t follow the rules).

Creating the rules

So, while this process accords with the first theory of what is going on, there is substantial room for differences in opinion at each step, which would provide grist to the mill for people backing the ‘literature is subjective’ theory:

Step 1 – Responding to a piece of writing positively or negatively

There are a few works of literature that are almost universally liked and admired, things like Hamlet and To Kill a Mocking Bird. However, there are often passionate disagreements about the vast majority of writing, including pieces of writing that are often described as ‘great literature’. These disagreements don’t seem to be just about taste, because people seem to find it quite easy to feel that something is well written but not to their taste and to differentiate that from feeling that a book is generally the kind of thing that they like but they don’t think this is a well written example. The fact that people have divergent views about what they consider good writing means that it is inevitable that any writing group to some extent will give different and contradictory feedback.

Step 2: Abstracting rules

The second step in the process is abstracting from good and poor pieces of writing the ‘rules’ or characteristics that make them good or bad. This is a complex process, and there is no guarantee that even if people agree on whether something is good or bad that they will agree on the reasons it is good or bad. We read literature as a whole, with the characterisation, images, structure, rhythm etc all working at the same time. We abstract from this whole, so that we have rules that relate to the different elements and that enable us to say things like ‘I think your imagery is good but the rhythm is wrong’ or ‘I think the characterisation is very good but the plot is weak’. However, it is perfectly feasible that a number of the different elements are consistent across the writing we think of as good or bad and that we ascribe its goodness or badness to one element when in fact it is a different element that is creating the effect. With each of us doing our own abstraction, we can come up with a different set of rules even if we agree on what is good and bad work.

One good example is the dictum ‘use concrete anglo-saxon words rather than abstract Latinate ones’. I generally agree with this rule but I also think the phrase ‘One holy, catholic and apostolic church’ is one of the most poetic in the English language – is it succeeding by breaking the rule, or is the rule wrong or only partially right? (I would argue the latter, but that is for a later blog.)

Step 3: Applying rules

The final step is to apply the rules to a new piece of writing. Even if we agreed on what is good and bad literature and agree on the rules we’ve abstracted from that literature, we can disagree about whether they have been applied in any particular case. Take the most famous writing rule of them all: show don’t tell. How does this apply to the sentence ‘The girl took her new bike to school’. Is this telling us about her actions in taking the bike to school rather than showing her getting it out, seeing how shiny it is, feeling the ground undulate under her as she rides etc? Or is it showing us that she was proud of her new bike and that the school was near enough for her to ride to and her parents trusted her to ride it to school, rather than telling us all that?

Implications

I think there are some implications of this analysis for both the givers and receivers of feedback and for writing groups as a whole. I would say it is useful for writing groups to have a group discussion about what work they think is good and bad writing and why. This would do two things. Firstly it would make people aware that we have different judgements about what we think is good and bad and secondly give each other some sense of what ‘rules’ each person is using and to what extent they differ. I would also recommend that the group reads and uses a reference point some writing guides, such as the Writer’s Digest series ‘Write Great Fiction’. For the reasons above, I don’t think any book provides a definitive set of rules, but the insights of experienced writers and writing tutors is invaluable and at least it is a known set of rules that can be shared and can make it clear where differences in opinion lie, ie whether it is in the rules themselves or the way the rules are applied in a particular instant.

For those giving feedback, I think the implication is not to rely too heavily on your set of rules. Try and start with paying attention to how the writing makes you feel and then try and analyse why you feel a certain way using ‘your’ rules. Certainly don’t let your rules prevent you from properly listening to a piece of writing just because it seems to break the rules from the start. The ultimate aim of any piece of writing is to move the reader; the point isn’t to follow the rules, the rules are there to help writers create moving fiction. If they do that but break the rules, its always the rules that are wrong (or at least not universally applicable).

For those receiving feedback, you have to remember that this is an active process that you need to work at, not something that you passively receive. When you get a piece of feedback you need to analyse to try and understand whether the writing is achieving the effect that you wanted but people don’t like the effect (meaning you have to decide whether that was the right effect or not) or whether it is not achieving the effect you intended. If it isn’t achieving your intended effect, you have to assess whether you agree with the reasons people give – do you agree with the rule they are applying and the way they have applied it. This is important because how you respond to improve the writing will depend on why you think it isn’t working. In the example above, if people don’t think the sentence ‘the girl rode her new bike to school’ is working, you could change the amount of concrete detail associated with it and/ or add more context to aid interpretation. As words are always at a premium, you want to be clear about what isn’t working in order to improve it with the fewest number of words.

A final word of warning about giving feedback. Whatever our rules and our applications of those rules, it is crucial to remember that one’s judgement changes over time. Mostly in writing groups there is a relatively brief period between reading or hearing a piece of writing and giving feedback. But we all know that our judgements about whether something is working change over time, both positively and negatively. Something you liked immediately may over time come to seem shallow and showy; something that you felt very so-so about or actively disliked initially, may turn out to be the best thing you think you’ve ever read. Or not – some things you like straight away and carry on liking, other things you dislike and carry on disliking. There’s no telling which it might be. Therefore as a giver and receiver of feedback, try and hold in your mind the possibility that the feedback isn’t definitive. It is a snapshot in time, something that can help guide the author but that doesn’t absolve her or him from the need to make their own decision about what they do with their own writing.

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