On Writing – Constructive Feedback

The following is a guest post by Scribes instructor, Annette Yourk. To see more from Annette, visit The Scribes, Comprehensive Writing Services at www.thescribes.ca

Peer Review and Feedback – What’s it all about?

Writing powerful well-crafted stories is a life’s work. Like any demanding job with high standards, sometimes we need some help from the side. Guided peer review can provide that helping hand. However, trepidation around receiving perceived criticism can prevent writers from participating in peer review.

Sandra Doran, Tim Murray, Lee Ann Weigold, Wendy Burke review each other's writing.

Some students cannot let go of their original words. Others never feel ready:
“One more rewrite of chapter three…” “The ending still needs work…”
Writer trepidation is sometimes rooted in a past critique experience that was painful, embarrassing and damaging to the writer’s confidence. When peer review and feedback is unguided people can and do get hurt. Grizzled veterans of the process might say, “Suck it up, buttercup. If you wanna to be a writer you gotta take the flack.”
But “flack” isn’t a necessary ingredient in solid, honest, constructive feedback.

Try thinking of the process as “opportunity” rather than “criticism”. Writers have an opportunity to see their work through different lenses; an opportunity to hear readers puzzle over meaning or ponder solutions to a confusing passage. Peers on both sides of the process have an opportunity to stretch their literary muscles and their minds in service to the work under discussion. Here are some tips and cautions for getting it right.

As a Reviewer: Choose Your Words.

“I” statements are usually preferable to “you” statements, which tend to feel personal. Compare: “You really need to fix the beginning” with “I would introduce the conflict sooner. I think it would increase reader engagement.”
The first statement is vague and reaction based – not at all helpful. The second is thoughtful and specific. Vague value judgements do not help the author; a more specific analysis does. Feedback should contribute to the revision process.

Focus either on your own response: “The prose felt a bit awkward in this section.” or your analysis based on technique: “This passage would be more effective if it was dramatized rather than explained through exposition.” Or your questions about the story: I wondered about the protagonists wife. Her character is thinly drawn. Is this intentional? Will her character develop with the narrative?”

Listen to yourself as a reader. If something’s putting you off of a story or you feel bored, pay attention. Try to figure out why you’re having that reaction. Maybe the story is not to your taste, but if you look closely, you will see where you can offer ideas that may illuminate and aid the author’s progress.

Every peer review is a chance to test your understanding of the elements of story, craft and technique. Are there problems with character, situation, or the structure or the writing itself? Is there too much exposition, are there gaps in the narrative? Does the narrative provide opportunities to show character growth?

The Gold is in the Details.

I use this statement regarding the craft of descriptive prose and figurative language. But there can also be gold in the details of peer feedback. It comes in the form of carefully considered comments based on what the story is trying to become. Example:

“ You tell us the children are afraid, but the situation doesn’t feel as threatening as the narrator suggests. Could you develop this scene by showing increased tension – add more fire under the simmering pot? Then the reader an see what’s at stake.”

“You introduced Amy’s father issues on pg 1 and built on them in pg 4 and 12. Impressive character development!! My concern is the gap between pg 4 and 12. I lost the thread. Can you bring the father back sooner after page 4? He provides an excellent parallel to her troubled relationship with her boyfriend.”

As for my own experiences with peer feedback – I’ve been stung before. It’s not easy, but it’s not fatal. I have had many good experiences with the process and that has far outweighed the few reactive, inconsiderate judgments.

…The thing to remember is that everyone is in the same boat. It’s a learning process and it takes time, effort, study and practice to write prose that sings and narratives that absorb readers. Peer review is one method of helping that process along.

Keep writing (and reading, and studying)

Annette Yourk.

One thought on “On Writing – Constructive Feedback

  1. Williams

    Everything is very open with a really clear clarification of the challenges.

    It was truly informative. Your site is very useful. Thank you
    for sharing!

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