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Making the most of feedback, part one

· Advice,Writing

In my years as a writer and working with other writers, I have seen some of the best and worst of both feedback-giving and feedback-receiving practices. I have seen feedback-givers that immediately stop reading the moment they find something they don't like, or who speculate wildly about why the writer made the choices they did, trying to fix the writer instead of the writing. I have seen writers who argue with every comment and writers who implement the feedback as written without considering how each individual change impacts the greater whole.

Feedback is hard. Giving it, receiving it. The good news is, it's also a skill. You can be bad at giving feedback and you can be good at giving feedback, good at taking feedback and bad at it, but most importantly, you can learn how to do both better.

Tips for feedback givers

Here are some tips for giving high quality feedback. I'll cover tips for receiving and understanding feedback in part two.

1. Consider context: Are you giving this feedback as a manager, an editor, a peer, or a reader? Your relationship to the person whose work you're critiquing matters, not because you should be afraid to be critical, but because you should understand the weight your feedback carries and how it is perceived. 

If I'm giving feedback as a lead writer to other writers on a project, my role is often to steer the story vision and ensure its quality, but also in most cases, I am the writer's boss: this can create additional stress in the feedback process, especially if there is disagreement on or a misunderstanding of the vision. A writer might grow defensive simply because they are worried about their job, even if the feedback is otherwise well-presented and intended.

Giving feedback as a manager is its own can of worms, but for the purposes of this post, the key thing to keep in mind is that people do not receive feedback on their work well when they feel threatened or insecure. When I'm in this role, I try to focus on empowering my writers, by bringing them in to shape the story's vision (they will have an easier time delivering it if they believe in it), by documenting decisions and making sure the goals and guidelines of the project are clearly communicated, by asking open-ended questions that invite the writer to participate in finding solutions, and by offering suggestions primarily when asked, or when the writer is clearly struggling. As a manager, my focus is on whether the writer is growing and learning (and has the tools to grow and to learn) rather than on whether they get it "right" every time: after all, even in a situation where I am the vision-holder, "right" can still be highly subjective. But that is getting into another topic (coaching) which is beyond the scope of this post.

If I'm a feedback-giver in a workshop or acting as a beta reader, the expectations are different, and I'm not the vision-holder for the story. The first thing I want to know is whether there is anything in particular the writer wants me to look for. After that, I try to focus on feedback that reflects my experience as a reader: what resonated with me, what was I confused about, what did I find convincing or unconvincing about the characters or plot.

2. Critique the work, not the person: I wish this went without saying, but it doesn't. I have been told point-blank in a professional setting by someone with the power to greenlight one of my projects or stop it, "I don't know if we have the wrong story, or just the wrong writer." (The project in question turned out to be June's Journey, and the person in question later admitted they were wrong about both things, but they never admitted that they were wrong for framing their feedback in that particular way.) 

While most people wouldn't be tempted to be quite that insulting, the temptation to assume intentions behind choices is strong, and it often distracts from what's most important: the feedback itself. If I say, "This scene is full of errors and inconsistencies; I think you were being lazy or rushing," the writer is now thinking "I really struggled to get this scene right. I re-wrote it a dozen times. And now this person thinks I'm lazy." Instead of thinking about the issues in the work and how to fix them, they're turned inward, defending themselves against an accusation the feedback-giver had no business making because there's absolutely no way they could know. 

Point out the things you found confusing or inconsistent in the work, the places where it dragged, the places where it doesn't conform to established style guidelines and standards, the places where characters fell flat. Don't make assumptions about why these elements turned out that way. If the writer approaches you with the question of how they can avoid introducing such errors in the future, then is a good time to ask questions about their process and to get them to reflect on where these issues come from, so that you can suggest possible solutions. Likewise, if you're their manager, your job is to coach them, but keep the coaching separate from the critique of the work. In either case, the diagnosis should come from the writer, and the decision about what solutions to adopt is theirs, even if you help propose ideas.

3. Focus on the story that's being told: I think of "the story" as those few non-negotiable things that must work for the story to work. Broadly speaking, these can be very basic plot elements (the two romantic leads must fall in love, and it must be convincing) or themes (finding a way to balance personal independence with familial love and obligation.) 

Depending on your role as feedback-giver, some of these things will be known to you, but others not. If you are the lead writer on the project, you should have discussed themes extensively with your team and there should be agreement on what you're trying to communicate, so you can be more on-point when you give feedback: "I'm missing the key themes we've discussed in this part of the story." 

But many times you won't know the vision, you only know what you experience as a reader or player. Generally speaking, you want to focus on that experience. Say, "I didn't understand why character did X" rather than "Character would never do X. They should do Y instead." It may be that the solution is to change what the character does, but it may be that the writer knows exactly why character did X and simply didn't convey it clearly enough, or that they have no idea, but now they know they need to develop that aspect of the character further. But when you start giving overly prescriptive feedback, you might address symptoms but not the real problem. In a worst case, you might be imposing your own vision of what the story should be instead of helping the writer realize theirs. (*Note: There are cases where this might be necessary--if for example, you're doing work for hire in an existing IP, or producing work with a specific audience in mind, it could be that the writer's vision is off-the-mark, but this is not most cases for most people.)

4. Learn how to highlight strengths, not just critiques: Writers are bad at accepting praise, but they need it. The number of writers I have interviewed over the years who have said "Don't give me a feedback sandwich; I just want the critique" has been staggering. And from this I conclude that people are just generally bad at giving good, positive feedback. Because why else wouldn't you want to learn what you're doing right? Why else wouldn't you want a reminder of why you're slogging through fixing all of the broken parts of your story? 

The feedback sandwich concept is bad, not because people don't need positive reinforcement, but because the idea of a feedback formula makes that feedback seem perfunctory, and it often is. Most writers hear: "Welp, I have to come up with two good things to say so that I can tell you how much your story sucks in the middle." But a good feedback sandwich isn't two pieces of bland, stale bread with shit slathered in between. A well-constructed feedback sandwich can take a number of different forms, but it helps the writer see their work better, so that they can diagnose and solve the things that aren't yet working. If all you can see is the bad, how do you know what good looks like or how to get there?

Positive feedback's role is to help the writer see the path forward through the critique. So good positive feedback shouldn't be an arbitrary list of items designed to fill in a feedback formula. It should relate to the critique and highlight the writer's strengths. "This character really resonates with me because of X, Y, and Z, but I'm struggling to understand the motivations of this other character." In this example, the writer can see that perhaps the solution to fixing what's not working with the second character is to look at what worked with the first. If the twist in the story is really compelling, but isn't quite working in practice, highlight that fact. 

Writing is a bold, stupid, reckless, hopeful journey. Whether we're setting out to write a novel, or a screenplay, or a 200-chapter episodic video game, it all begins with the outrageous idea that we have a story worth telling and the ability to tell it in a way that entertains and even moves people. We write and research and revise all in the hope of taking the worlds that exist only in our imagination and making them real for others. Good-faith critique can only help us on our way. But there's always the danger that in the midst of that, we lose sight of the end, or worse, we lose faith in our ability to get there. The purpose of positive feedback isn't to blow up someone's ego, but to remind them that they have the tools to get where they're going, even if they're not there yet, and therefore, it is absolutely essential.

Bonus: To suggest or not to suggest: Different writers have different opinions on when or whether they want suggestions. Lately, I err on the side of focusing on my experience of the work and only offering specific suggestions on how to resolve issues when asked. Naturally, it's different if you're acting as an editor/copyeditor whose role is to improve the text on a granular level. There, suggestions are not only valuable, but necessary. But at the story level, I would rather provide answers to follow-up questions and help the writer find their solution than offer one up, in part because there may be aspects of the work I'm not familiar with or considering when I'm giving feedback, and I don't want the writer either implementing my suggestion unquestioningly (as if I have all of the authority on their story) or focusing on how wrongheaded the suggestion is instead of addressing the critique itself. That said, sometimes when you're in a lead role, time constraints mean that you need to prescribe solutions; invariably, though, you reach a better outcome if you can set aside some time to discuss why this specific solution is needed and help the writer understand the problem space.

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