Giving Feedback

I am the managing editor of an on-campus literary magazine here at Northwestern, and we’ve just finished accepting submissions for our spring issue. It’s the first issue under our new leadership, so we’re all trying to figure out what exactly we want to do with the magazine. One conversation we recently had was whether to give feedback to writers or not.

My suggestion was to return each submission with editorial comments, even if we are rejecting it. However, some of the other people on our staff were concerned that this might be salt on the wound for the rejections. Not only are we telling you we’re not going to publish it, but we’re also telling you what we think is wrong with the piece.

As someone who has been rejected, I both understand and don’t understand this point of view. Rejection is hard, no matter what, and it always stings to hear that someone doesn’t like something you have written. But most people I know immediately start to parse the rejection and look for clues about why it was rejected. What did they do wrong? If you read any agent blog, you see justifications for why they can’t give feedback on every single query or submission: writers are craving explanations.

This is not just because writers are masochists. One of the ways to learn writing is to learn how readers react to your writing–in fact, my favorite kind of critique is to find out how the readers reacted to a certain part of the story and why. After all, writing is about getting a reaction, be it emotional, physical, spiritual, or intellectual. The most valuable thing to learn, then, is how to evoke certain reactions.

Many beginning writers dread workshops or revisions because they hate finding out what is wrong with their book. Many experienced writers have the same fear. But I think once you’ve been around the block a few times, you learn that after the pain comes revelations and better work. I recently had a long talk with a fellow writer about our work (I was critiquing hers and she was critiquing mine). We spent nearly an hour going back and forth about our projects. Sure, it hurt a little to hear which parts didn’t work. It always will. But at the same time, I was generating ideas of how to fix it, and I know my writing will be better for the revision. Feedback is essential to becoming a better writer, so I say give it whenever you can.

Lessons on an Effective Workshop

The fiction class I am in this quarter is the seventh workshop group I have been in since I started learning writer at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in 2007. I remember when I first had a story workshopped, I was nearly shaking with nerves. I might as well have been bearing my soul for fifteen people to pick apart, analyze, and critique. But I fell in love with the workshopping process that first time, and I’ve loved it ever since. That said, I have learned a few things about what is effective and what is not.

Most of the workshops I have been in have had the participants read the stories ahead of time and come in with comments prepared, but some try to save time for the participants by reading the stories then and there. There are pros and cons to both methods. The negatives of the first is that it requires extra time preparing before the critique, and often there will be members who haven’t quite finished the story (especially when the group is not a class). Those are the main reasons why some workshops use the second method. However, reading the stories at the workshop means that precious critique time is lost reading, and you have to comment write then and there. Personally, I find my comments can be much more insightful when I have had time to put the story down, take a walk, and think about what is going on and what needs to be fixed.

Another important decision made when workshopping is just what material will be examined. Some of the workshops I’ve been in (classes and extracurricular groups alike) have focused on fiction, but others accept all genres. Obviously an only-fiction workshop means that it will exclude writers who are not interested in fiction. Depending on the number of writers available, this can mean a small group. However, just because a group accepts all genres does not mean valuable critique will be available for all genres. For example, prior to taking my poetry class this quarter, I had no idea how to critique poems. Any poet being workshopped likely found my comments – mostly gut reactions – to be unenlightened at best. Finding people who understand the writing you aspire to will make any critique more valuable.

Finally, some workshops allow the author to participate in the discussion, and some make the author such a silent participant that he or she must pretend not even to be there. I find the latter to ultimately be much more useful. As the writer, it is tempting to jump into the discussion and explain what it is the readers are getting wrong or why their point isn’t valid or give the back story that excuses the character. However, the point of the critique is not for the writer to explain the story. The point is for the writer to find out what it is the readers experience from the story, and to locate what points need better explanation in the story. If you have to explain it in the workshop, then it needs to be revised. A silent author eliminates this option of explanation and forces the author to listen to what the readers say. I will add a caveat to this to say that I believe the author should have no opportunity of explanation. The reason I say this is that in my current class, at the end of the workshop the author is given the opportunity to explain. What usually happens is this is when the author explains away every single comment, leaving the entire critique a moot point. As a friend of mine said: the writer is never right in a workshop. Therefore, there should be no opportunity for explanation. What should be welcomed are questions because often a writer will know of a weak spot in the story, and if it hasn’t been addressed in the critique, the author can often start a valuable discussion.