Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Giving “It's Not Quite There” Feedback

(Or, You Have Something Stuck in Your Teeth)  

We've all been there: when someone has—er—something ooky stuck in their teeth. And you? You're the only one courageous enough to even think about telling them. Because if you don't, who knows how long they'll go around talking to other people before they realize for themselves that it's been there, in plain view, since their last meal? They'll know you saw it and didn't tell them. Sure, maybe you'll feel a little uncomfortable, especially if you don't really know them very well. But you have to. You do.

Even so, you probably wouldn't say, Eww. You have something gross right there. Probably spinach. Did you have spinach today?

Wouldn't it be easier if they just came right out and asked you if they had something stuck in their teeth? The pressure is way reduced. Why yes, yes you do have a little something.

When a writer asks for feedback on their project, they're—stay with me here—asking if they have something stuck in their teeth. The writer may feel somewhat exposed in opening their art to criticism, but they'd like the critiquer to tell them about any spinach issues before someone else sees their work.

And yet, the deft critiquer would never say, Ewww. You do! It's spinach. Never eat spinach while you write. No, the skilled critiquer hands the writer a mirror and helps the person find their own spinach. (*dramatic pause, as if the preceding sentence has deep, proverbial meaning*)

Here's a list that will help you determine your critiquerly deftness.

  1. Cite Grammar Rules: It's rarely helpful to edit a grammar transgression each time it happens when it happens over and over—the writer then relies on the critiquer to find these mistakes every time. A quick google search will return a reputable grammar-rules website for almost any grammatical situation a critiquer might need. Is it lay or lie? Grammar Girl knows. Possessive Pronouns? Not to worry. The Basics are explained. To comma or not to comma? GrammarBook provides rules and examples. With critiquerly feedback mostly e-mailed or online, providing links to these rules is easy and it does two things. Thing the first: it takes the critiquer out of the middle. The critiquer didn't make up the rule, doesn't own the rule, and isn't throwing it at the writer to pick on them. The critiquer is just the person who noticed the possible grammar spinach mistake. Thing the second: a link to the rule provides the writer with a more complete explanation, and most writers—when discovering a tool to help them improve their art—will read more than just that one rule. Therefore, the critiquer has provided the writer with yet another way to improve on their own.

  2. Cite Common Writing Improvement Suggestions: The same concept for grammar rules applies to writing tips, for the same reasons—the critiquer is there to help the writer grow, and not to take out the red cyber pen and light up the page. Feel free to recommend writing craft books that you've read to your critique partner. The best gifts I've gotten from critiquerly writers are referrals to writing craft books. Is the prose too purple or adjective-ridden? The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman may serve as a fantastic reference for your critique partner. Does their plot fall short? Refer them to Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Can't pinpoint the overall theme? Have them try Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks. As with grammar rules, writing rules are also easily found online as well. The upper echelon of critiquers share the best tools in their belts with other writers.

  3. State Reactions as Reactions, Not Fact: Opinions are commonly disguised as fact every day, everywhere. When it happens in the critiquerly feedback realm, it can unfortunately come across as judgmental and perplexing. For example,"This section is confusing" is an opinion disguised as fact. And really, what does it mean? "I'm confused in the dialogue section because I'm not sure who is speaking" or "I couldn't get into the scene at first; consider working a transition sentence just before it," are statements that are clear, non-judgmental, and much more helpful. Here's another caveat to this rule: positive opinions stated as fact, while uplifting, are also not as helpful as they could be. "This is so great! You're a genius!" sounds wonderful, but if the critiquer wants to be more helpful to the writer, they'll add why the section is great. "The emotional build really works and the peak in this section brought me to tears; well done" is more clearly stated and it tells the writer exactly what they're doing right.

  4. Re-read Critiquerly Comments for Tone: After working in the Americana business realm for ten plus years, I've learned that every business email has to be re-read for tone, and the necessity for this step is the same—if not amplified—in the writerly/critiquerly realm. The best critiquers re-read their comments to make sure that the tone is helpful, friendly, and approachable. How do you know if your notes are tone-appropriate? Pretend you're in a bad mood and read your comments to see if the person on the receiving end can misconstrue the tone or message, and tweak as necessary. Throw in some personality—it renders the tone amicable (see 3 Feedback Traits I Adore).

  5. Ask the Writer: "My goal is to provide helpful feedback. Let me know what worked and what didn't work for you." This last step helps ensure that all the work the critiquer has done has helped the writer, and it closes a loop. You may not get a response if your feedback hasn't been helpful or if the writer has had a Negative Reaction* to it. However, you'll always get a response when you've helped the writer improve.
*A critiquer cannot control every Negative Reaction by a writer. However, if a critiquer frequently receives Negative Reactions from writers, then the above five tips might help.


Amber said...

I felt compelled to comment because I disagree with most of these. All of these, perhaps.

The first two say similar things: when something is wrong, point the writer to a generic resource. No, please don't. I read plenty of blogs and books about writing. I have endless resources of generic writing advice. The reason why I'm asking for YOU to critique this for me is to get your knowledge as it applies to my writing. I am a big girl - I can infer the grammar rule or narrative technique all by myself. And it's so much more helpful to be SHOWN said rule by you editing my work than it is it to be linked to an essay about it. As a side note, I do always appreciate a good book recommendation, but that's not why I'm asking for when I ask for a critique of my work.

One of the things that my crit partners and I do is a highlight with "Good line." or "Great." We do that for funny lines or emotional ones or disturbing ones. It doesn't matter. What we're really saying is: "What you were trying to do there? Yeah, I got it. And it was done well, too." But shorter. I did something with my writing. You understood it. I don't need you to repeat it back to me with a "the emotional build up was..." It's just a waste of both of our time.

So anyways. Perhaps this disagreement was just a matter of me not understanding your post or semantics or something. Or perhaps our critting styles are drastically different. Just wanted to throw in my 2 cents.

Marybk said...

Amber--love that you commented. I also love that short-hand that you've got going with your CPs. I have a few that I've known for years where we do the same kind of thing.

I think I'm talking more about newer writer/critiquer relationships, where you're not quite sure how the person will respond.

Citing other works or rules is something I do when something is widespread--I give a short explanation myself, but provide the link as well in case the writer is compelled to see more. Something smaller, or just one instance of a grammar issue is easily handled with a quick comment.

Thanks again for your thoughts and comments.

cherie said...

The problem is when you do all those things and the revised product still contains the same mistakes. Critiquing and receiving crits are both hard. This is a good post, Mary.

Some people may have a different way of giving crits and that's fine. If it works for them-->wonderful! :) We all have to find wayiron levels of giving and receiving crits that we are comfortable with.

Marybk said...

Thanks, Cherie. Well put. Big hearts on the retweets.

Anita Grace Howard said...

Ooh, this is a good one! And your spinach in the teeth metaphor is AWESOME. LOL.

When I crit, I like to use the track changes tool, because I can highlight distinct sentences/sections and say exactly what I like about them, or what might need polished in them. This helps me incorporate both steps 2 and 3. Great info, dear lady!

Marewolf said...

I love this post! It can be difficult to be diplomatic when giving out writerly advice (we writers are so sensitive about the spinach in our teeth!) You give great tips, Mary. :)

Marybk said...

Anita: That tracking tool works so good!

Marewolf: Thanks. Yes, the spinach. Oy, the spinach. :)

cherie said...

Ok, so funny but I just saw the autocorrect typo my phone made: wayiron? What the heck is that? LOL!

Marybk said...

Cherie--That autocorrect gets me every time. *shakes fist*

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