Saturday, 24 January 2015

Do Feed the Writers (How to give feedback)

Feedback is vital for writers.  Like real food, feedback helps you grow.  The difficult question for people is how to deliver it.   A few days ago I saw a Facebook post asking advice on what to do when you don't like a friend's book.  Shortly after that, the topic came up at a SpecFicNZ get together.  It's a tricky thing - how do we give feedback in a way that is constructive and respectful?  A while back I wrote a blog post about getting negative or nasty feedback as a writer so it seems only fair to write one about how to deliver it.

The writer menagerie is full of delicate little creatures, all banging away at our keyboards like monkeys at a typewriter hoping to turn out Shakespeare.  It's very difficult to spot your own mistakes in the work and getting a fresh viewpoint from someone you trust is incredibly helpful. Feeding the writer-monkeys helps them get closer to their goals but you don't want to descend into an all out poo-flinging fest.  What you give them has to be nutritious.

Fill the order
If you're giving feedback, why are you doing so?  Was it asked for?  If so, what kind of feedback was asked for?  If you're giving feedback for the sake of saying "this stinks" then congratulations you're being a troll.  If you're trying to be helpful and constructive, then think about how you deliver that.

Add a little sugar
Mary Poppins was right - a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down.  Especially when that medicine is a critique of an artistic endeavour you've put your heart and soul into.  So if you want your critique to be heard, it makes sense to find something positive to say along with the suggestions for improvement.  Not to mention that it shows a respect for human dignity.  You don't want to be the literary equivalent of the bully parent yelling at their kid in little league about everything they're doing wrong.  You want to be the coach who praises achievement as well as helping to improve.
Nothing makes a writer happier than hearing good things about their work.  Find something good to say - no matter how small -  and mix it in with your other feedback.

Recognise your own tastes
Me, I like chocolate.  My partner likes salty chips.  That doesn't mean one is better than the other. 
The same is true for writing style.  When giving feedback, it's important to be aware of what actually needs to be improved and what is simply a factor of your own preferences.  You can state what you would like to change due to your preference but recognise and be open about why you want it changed.  There's a huge difference between saying "I don't like this story because it's not my sort of thing" vs "This is a bad piece of writing." 

Keep it about the work
Whatever feedback you give a writer needs to be about the work, not the person.  Remember that there is a person behind it who is deeply invested in the work but wants to make it better.  Personal comments about the writer do not help.  Focus on the work itself and what you like/dislike and what is good or needs to be improved. 

Be specific about the ingredients
A recipe with no clear instructions is no use at all.  Similarly, feedback without specifics is very little use to a writer.  Comments like "This sucks" or "badly written" are useless.  Be specific about what you don't like.  E.g. "The pace needs to be tighter and I found my attention wandering in the middle."  This gives the writer an understanding of the flaws and what to work on.  Even better would be a couple of suggestions for fixing the flaw - if you have them.

Taste test  it yourself
Before you send the feedback, take a moment to put yourself in the recipient's shoes.  How would it feel to have this feedback targeted at you?  Apply the Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Roughly translated - have your say, just don't be jerk about it!  

Remember you're only visiting the zoo
The writer owns the story.  Even if you think something should be changed, ultimately it is down to the writer whether they agree.  They may change it as a result of your feedback and suggestions, but they may not.  There's no need to be offended if they don't.

Writers want to improve their skills.  It's how they bring their visions to life.  Feedback helps them do this and giving feedback is a skill as well.  Keeping these things in mind will help you deliver it in a helpful way.  Please...DO feed(back) the writers!

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