I am the itch.

Give Feedback, Don't Workshop

As someone who has attended a lot of writing groups over the past five years or so, I’ve begun to notice a pattern.

There is such a thing as good feedback and bad feedback. And the tricky part is being able to tell the difference between the two. A novice writer might immediately strive to incorporate every comment and tiny suggestion for revision or editing they receive after bringing their piece to a group to share.

I’ve found that this is a very bad idea. Everyone is going to have different opinions, and, I’m sorry to say - just as some people are better at the craft of writing, some people are also better at giving feedback than others. The important thing is being able to recognize valid, constructive suggestions and only incorporate those that will improve your work and help you escape the slush pile.

Along these lines, the pattern I’ve started to notice in some of the many writing group meetings I’ve attended (and held) is that the discussion can often start to veer into workshopping territory and it is this author’s opinion that this is a bad thing. As one of the screenwriters in the group said: if you’re coming away with “studio notes” something has gone very wrong.

There is such a thing as good feedback and bad feedback. And the tricky part is being able to tell the difference between the two.

Let me give you an example to show what I mean. What’s the key difference between the two pieces of feedback below?

  • I found the second paragraph at the top of the third page felt really out of place - it should be revised and come later, or be removed entirely.

  • I really liked this story and it’s a super interesting piece of Dystopian fiction! I want to see more about the protagonist’s emotional side, though… what if they had a love interest?

Can you see how these two things are very different? Besides the first one being very low-level and executional, the second is very different in that it is suggesting changing the piece into a different story entirely.

The story of the Dystopian fiction with a love interest is not the same story as the one the author brought to the group and read. It is a different story. Maybe not the story the author wants to tell. Remember - it’s your work, and the reason you’re getting feedback is to help make it better, not to tell a different one.

If you’re not good at line editing and revising or suggesting structural edits without leaving the author’s original intentions intact, you can always safeguard against falling into workshopping territory by offering feedback in the manner below (thanks Michael in the SFF group for these sage words of advice).

Instead of saying something like:
“I wanted the main character to be warmer and sentimental. What about giving him a pet robot?”

Just describe how you feel and ask the author if that was their intent.

Say something like this instead:
“The main character seemed cold and indifferent to me. Is this what you were going for?”

See, isn’t that better? You’re letting the author know how there work is coming across and the impact it is having without telling them what to do, or suggesting they write the story that you’d rather read (which may not be the story that they want to write!).

So, to conclude, as an author - don’t be afraid to reject feedback, or be selective about what to include and not to include. Identifying valid feedback that will make your piece stronger from that which won’t is a skill in itself, just like giving good constructive criticism is.

As a reader - resist the urge to make suggestions that would turn the author’s story into a different one. Giving constructive feedback which is focused on the writer and not upon yourself can sometimes be challenging, but remember when you’re not reading, it’s not about you, it’s about the person who you’re helping to craft their piece into the best it can possible be.

Keep on writing, and let’s all get better together!

- the itch