On Giving Feedback

Imagine you’re a child in a swimming pool playing Marco Polo.

Burlington Writers Workshop

You’re blind-folded and every time you shout “Marco!” the other kids in the pool respond by shouting “Polo!” Using sound alone, you begin to build a mental map of all the kids in the pool and based on that map make a decision on which one to pursue and tag. You shout, they respond. You shout, they respond. You learn that Jane is close. Then you hear Johnny’s voice and you know where he is. You take into account volume, perceived distance, and what you already know about how quickly Jane and Johnny move. Pretty soon that mental map is filled out. Now that you’ve got an idea of where people are, you decide who to chase.

To me, every writer is like that kid wearing the blindfold. He issues his Marco—his story, his essay, his poems—and his test readers (friends, workshop colleagues, well-meaning family members) give him their Polos. Their Polo is the information he needs to choose his best direction, and the quality of this information can determine the writer’s success or failure.

Putting aside for a moment what success or failure means here, I’d like you to keep this image of the kid playing Marco Polo in your mind as we consider what it means to give and receive feedback. Having been through BFA and MFA programs and hosted hundreds of workshops with the Burlington Writers Workshop, I’ve given lots of feedback and I’ve received a lot, too. Some of it was helpful, some of it wasn’t, and in this brief window of time we have together, I’ll give some examples and talk about why this feedback was or was not helpful. I’ll do so first by presenting some strategies you can deploy when you’re providing feedback.

I want to stress that there are lots of circumstances under which you’ll be either the giver or receiver of feedback. I want to focus our attention today on one of the thorniest circumstances, and of course the one with which I have a great deal of experience, and that’s the process of giving feedback to a writer who is working on an early or late draft of an unpublished piece. I say it’s “thorny” because other such exchanges, while still thorny in their own ways, often come with clear objectives. For example, if an editor has already agreed to publish your piece, she may have suggestions to help you make the piece print-worthy according to a particular publication’s standards. When a friend asks you to read the first draft of his novel and tells you it’s for a “general audience,” what’s the objective? Is it for Random House? Is it for Harlequin? Is it for Amazon? Or is it for nobody in particular? My point is that in this circumstance, you’re about to read and respond to something using no standard but your own. Enforcing that standard with a heavy hand can get you in a lot of trouble (and it’s also not as helpful as you think).

Let’s get on to those strategies for being a better provider of feedback.

Response Strategy #1: Build Confidence

Your first job as a reader of someone’s work is to build their confidence. If they give up writing, they’re not going to get better, but if they keep going, they have a chance of success. Confidence is what will keep the writer moving through lousy draft after lousy draft until, one day, the piece becomes something beautiful.

Here’s a story about why confidence matters. In my first semester of graduate school, I signed up for a short fiction workshop with a famous southern writer. Let’s call him Dr. B. Dr. B had published many novels, some of which were quite successful as novels, and a few were successful as movies, so he came to this class as something of an “expert.”

One of the first short stories I wrote in his workshop was about a man who wakes up dead in his coffin, buried six feet below the surface. He hollows out the ground underneath the cemetery, where he engages in fun social activities with all the other dead people who have been waiting for someone to hollow out a space for them. Dr. B, like so many MFA program professors, did not like science fiction or magical realism or horror, or anything resembling it. After the workshop panned it, I reviewed my comments from Dr. B. He said, and I’m quoting directly, “This story, in my view, cannot be fixed.”

I wondered how he knew it couldn’t be fixed. Is he the ultimate arbiter of the potential artistic merit? I was pissed off. I told myself I’d keep working at the story until it was convincing, compelling, and fun to read. I imagined the day that I could slip a copy of whatever journal published it into his mailbox with a stickynote that said, “Fixed it!”

But what really happened was a little sadder: I never worked on the story again. I tried. I opened up the document. Looked at it for a little bit. Changed a word here, a sentence there. But I never gave it the overhaul it deserved. Whenever I tried, all I could hear was: Can’t be fixed. Can’t be fixed.

You might say: no big deal. Writers abandon bad ideas all the time. Just toughen up and move on. But it is a big deal, and here’s why.

After that comment, I lacked confidence to continue, and I abandoned it without ever learning the lessons locked away inside this mess of a story.

Consider this second scenario. Before I attended graduate school, I was studying writing at U-Maine Farmington and putting together my MFA portfolio. I wanted to include a story called “Pay Attention to Me,” and some of my professors may still remember this story, and not because it was good, but because I was annoyingly persistent about it. I must have written nine or ten drafts of this story, and each time, my professors said that the story seemed to have a nugget of heart inside it, but such-and-such didn’t seem quite right. One professor commented, for example, “The substance is not living up to the style.”

In other words: My words seemed to flow pretty well and the images were clear, but the story those images told seemed overly simplistic. One character seemed too “perfect” to be a real human being. With each draft, I learned something new.

  • I learned what heavy-handed symbolism was.
  • I learned about how boring those morally perfect characters can be.
  • I learned that grumpy characters, without some kind of vulnerability, have trouble gaining the reader’s sympathy.
  • In short, I learned a lot,

…and I learned it because I was encouraged by some folks I trusted that, once I fought through the storytelling issues, I’d have a beautiful story on my hands.

Imagine if they had said, “Give up, stop wrestling with this one, move on to something more promising.” I did discover that “Pay Attention to Me” wasn’t working, but all those lessons would have been lost had I not taken the time to find out for myself.

Think of confidence as the fuel the writer needs to burn to wrestle with the parts of the piece that aren’t working so well. No fuel, no lesson.

You may say, “That’s fine, but what if I’m reading a story or a poem by a friend and it’s just got no redeeming value and needs to be scrapped?”

To that, I’d say: “You’re not there to judge what’s worth redeeming. You’re there to tell the writer exactly what you see.”

It’s also helpful to note that neither Dr. B nor the professors at U-Maine told me lies about how good the story was. The difference was that the U-Maine professors told me what they saw, and Dr. B told me what to do. He told me to give up. But my U-Maine professors gave me reasons to believe that I should keep going. They pointed to places that were more like opportunities than failures.

And that’s what I’ll suggest you do: point out the opportunities for growth. Perhaps you see a character that could blossom as soon as you knew a little more about her. Ask a question about the character’s personality that maybe the author hadn’t considered yet. Perhaps there’s a line in the poem that has a little mystery that seems intriguing and makes you want to continue reading.

Inspiring confidence here is perhaps a matter of tone and focus—kindly turning your attention to what works well and what works less well. This works best when you make every effort to remove all judgments from your response, and that’s the key part of the next strategy I’d like to offer to you.

Response Strategy #2: Respond, Don’t Judge

Let’s go back to the pool for a moment. In that metaphor, the word Polo is meant to represent the perfect workshop response. It is a reaction or response. If you’re the writer, you want someone to shout Polo! because it gives you the information you need to make decisions.

Now imagine that, outside the pool, there’s a parent, shouting to the kid who’s already shouting Marco! Let’s enlist Dr. B to play the part of the parent. Dr. B is shouting: “You should go straight. Just lunge forward really quickly. Oh, and now you need to move left. Every time you get to this point in the pool, you need to turn left.” Then, just to torture you, Dr. B adds: “Now just follow your instinct.”

I think you see where I’m going with this. It’s the old saw about teaching a man to fish. Tell a writer how to write, he’ll write one decent story. Show a writer what he’s already doing, and he stands a chance at writing great stories someday.

Your responses, both written and verbal, should to allow the writer to see the piece through your eyes, but without all the quality assessments. Eliminate judgments, because at this stage, we’re talking about a draft. The writer is still trying to figure things out, and it’s not ready to be judged. The piece is fair game for judgment when it’s published and the writer has said to the world, “This is the best I can do.”

The problem is that it’s hard to eliminate judgments. Writers are judgmental people. We are critical of ourselves and others. This tendency toward criticism gets more pronounced when we’re asked to read a work-in-progress. It’s natural to approach a piece as if it’s our job to find flaws.

It’s not. If we’re on the look-out for flaws, we’re clearly measuring someone else’s artistic work by our own artistic yardstick. In other words, the writer asked you to hold up a mirror so they could see themselves, but instead you’ve shown them a picture of yourself.

It’s hard to say this better than John Gardiner did in The Art of Fiction. He wrote:

…on the whole the search for aesthetic absolutes is a misapplication of the writer’s energy. When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition. Every true work of art—and thus every attempt at art (since things meant to be similar must submit to one standard)—must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws.

A shortcut to a judgment-free response is to avoid certain words, and the big two I avoid at Burlington Writers Workshop meetings are “need” and “should.” They aren’t often used, but when they come up, they’re used casually, often kindly. “A story should always start with action.” “A poem needs to have a shift somewhere near the last stanza.” “You need to give us more detail.” “You should cut this first line.” “You need to rename this character.”

When you use these words in a response, or when you, in some other way, attempt to force your artistic vision onto someone’s work, you turn yourself into the equivalent of Dr. B, standing outside the pool, shouting instructions.

I cringe whenever I hear someone in workshop say, “I loved it. I didn’t find anything wrong with it.” The statement itself is meant to make the writer feel good, but it is so unhelpful that saying nothing would most likely be better. What did you love? Why? Did the turn of phrase in this line make your heart jump? Did this character’s way with words win you over? When something doesn’t work, why not? Did something seem implausible? Did something confuse you?

Response Strategy #3: Abandon the Traditional Teacher/Student Relationship

A few nights ago, I was speaking with a few BWW colleagues about the possibility of inviting established authors and accomplished teachers of writing to host a series of workshops. One of the writers in the group said, “It sounds like a good idea, but I won’t go to those.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I’ve spent years getting my professors’ voices out of my head, and I can’t write while they’re in there,” he said.

What he was saying reminded me a lot of my experience with Dr. B. There were so many rules, so many implied and explicit references to an objective “good” and “bad”—I could understand where he was coming from.

We’ve talked about encouragement and judgment already, so it’s worth mentioning the demographic that’s most likely to eschew encouragement and lay judgments: professors.

Before the professors in the room rise up as one and slay me, let me say that not all professors are arrogant, discouraging, power-hungry masochists. My U-Maine Farmington professors and some of my UNC-Wilmington professors were excellent, and some of my closest friends now are professors. I’m simply saying that the authority professors carry is so enormous that they are more likely than the rest of us to deliver crushing blows to the psyches of developing writers, even if they don’t mean to, and therefore they ought to be extremely careful.

My aversion to the words “need” and “should” is likely to be unpopular with professional teachers. These words add emphasis to a lesson, which is what they are paid to deliver. But too many needs and shoulds can paralyze a writer. And having the position of professor—or even adjunct instructor—is seductive enough to lead some to believe that they know what objective good or bad is in every circumstance, and they don’t. So they spout rules, explicitly or implicitly, and we who are not professors are inclined to trust them. This, in my opinion, describes the emergence of the “MFA story,”  a story that so perfectly executes the well-worn Freytag Pyramid that it’s sterile, predictable, and forgettable.

Freytag's Pyramid

Freytag Pyramid

David Foster Wallace described the writing as…

…fiction for which the highest praise involves the word “competent,” “finished,” “problem-free,” fiction of which Writing-Program pre- and proscriptions loom with the enclosing force of horizons: no character without Freudian trauma in accessible past, without near-diagnostic physical description; no image undissolved into regulation Updikean metaphor; no overture without a dramatized scene to “show” what’s “told”; no denouement prior to an epiphany whose approach can be charted by any Freitag on any Macintosh.

Wallace wrote this in 1987 (“Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”), when there were significantly fewer academic writing programs. Now they’re everywhere, and fiction like the kind Wallace describes is everywhere, too. Poetry has its equivalent. Donald Hall calls it “The McPoem,” which is produced quickly and served up cheaply—the kind of thing submitted to a magazine the day it’s written.

My point here is that there’s no shortage of folks out there who will tell you that there’s a right way to “Find Your Voice”—and I’m quoting MFA program advertisements here—and the right way is to ask a published writer how to fix what you’ve drafted. Please note that this isn’t an indictment of all MFA programs. Some do a fine job of nurturing their students in the way I’m describing. Sadly, some do not.

To blindly follow someone’s advice—whether it’s a professor or a well-meaning workshop friend or a family member—is to opt out of an artistic struggle that could yield something new and beautiful. Do not allow the person you’re reading for to opt out of this struggle. Don’t be the professor. Don’t be the “editor.” Be a reader. Respond. Make them work for it.

Perhaps the education model that most closely resembles what I’m advocating is the Jesuit education model. My father and I attended the same Catholic high school in Massachusetts, but when he attended it, in the late 60s, it was a Jesuit institution. Brother this, Father that. And the Jesuits were famous for answering questions with questions. “Is there a God?” “Well, do you think there’s a God?”

The relentless pursuit of knowledge, the Jesuits reminded my father, began with inquiry, not ready-made answers.

By the time I came through that same high school, there were only a few Jesuits remaining. One was Brother Daniel Caron. He taught chemistry. He was also my father’s teacher and he called me by my father’s name by mistake every now and then.

One day, Brother Dan brought a two-gallon jug of water to class, filled it with water in the big lab sink, and said, “I will give bonus points to the person who can empty this full jug the fastest.” He chose five contestants at random, and the first student stood up. Brother Dan handed the jug to the student, who held it over the sink and shook up and down as hard as he could. Brother Dan just stood there with his stopwatch. The water sloshed and bubbled out. Brother Dan refilled it and the second student did the same thing and was a little bit faster. Brother Dan was silent, smiling a little. We’d get no hints. The third student tried same thing. Meanwhile, we’re all thinking: there’s got to be a better way to do this. By now there was one student who had done it the fastest, but only by a few tenths of a second. The fourth student came and repeated the procedure but didn’t beat the best time. Then, the final student came to the front of the class, took the bottle, and then, began to swirl the water around until it twisted out of the narrow spout, with the air coming up through the middle. The jug emptied in half the time.

Would Brother Dan have helped us if he told us the secret? Or, by withholding that information, did he teach us something more than just how to empty a jug?

Response Strategy #4: Go Easy on the “Tough Guys”

What do I mean by this? A “tough guy” can be male or female. It’s any writer who hands you his manuscript and says, “Really rip into it. Tear it apart. You won’t hurt my feelings.”

In our pool metaphor, this would be the equivalent of the blind-folded kid shouting “Marco!” and the other kids shouting, “You stupid jackass, you’re too far away!”

Some writers pride themselves on having thick skin. Some prefer—and perhaps with good reason—to be criticized as harshly as possible before a piece of work is published to avoid a scathing review in the New York Times Review of Books. Some may even measure the quality of an MFA program based on how mercilessly the professors and students rip into each piece. Maybe after receiving the punches they’ve requested, they’re perfectly capable of sitting down to write. Good for them.

I’m here to argue that despite what the writer tells you about how tough he is, he’s just like every writer in this room: self-conscious about whether he’s written something truly, dare I say objectively, good.

writersnarcLet me dig into your psyches for a moment. By a show of hands, who here attaches at least a little bit of your self worth to how good a writer you think you are? (Nearly everyone’s hand goes up.) Writers are notoriously sensitive and self-aware. Perhaps this is best exemplified in a Venn Diagram that you may have seen on the net. The two intersecting circles in this diagram were labeled “Narcissism” and “Self-Loathing” and inside the space where they intersected was the word “Writer.” Its popularity speaks to its truth.

The tough guy is just as sensitive as anyone else—perhaps even more so. Giving this “tough guy” what he’s asking for is risky business. If you let loose with every negative judgment that occurs to you when you read, there will likely be some kind of anger or sadness (or both). He may lash out at you for making comments he feels are dead wrong, or worse: he’ll talk trash behind your back about what a shitty reader you are. And of course, he’s asking you to tell him what to do.

Overall, though, the “tough guy” is giving you permission to be a jerk. Don’t be a jerk. There is never, ever, ever any reason to be cruel in your comments.

Response Strategy #5: Be Mindful of Your Relationships

Less than a year ago, I was asked to read a friend’s novel. This person and I were friendly, so when I read her novel, I felt like I was able to use a little shorthand. This person knows me, she knows how I speak, and most importantly, she knows that I believe she’s a good writer. If she knows this, she won’t be insulted by anything I have to say.

I was wrong.

I returned her manuscript with notes in the margins and a careful response to some of the major elements of the story, and then I didn’t hear from her for awhile. I checked in with her later and learned that some of the comments I’d left in the margins seemed uncharacteristically mean. She reminded me that at one point, I wrote, “This character is whining too much.” At another point, I wrote, “This made me cringe!” and I pointed to the cringe-worthy comment.

Because I had offended this person I respected, I had to reevaluate my own process. What went wrong? Why did I say those things in the way that I said them? I came to the conclusion that I said them because she was my friend, because I had assumed she knew how high my opinion of her already was. I learned the hard way. And my penance: I read the entire novel again and gave better, more objective, judgment-free responses.

But in my response to her, while I apologized for the style of my responses, I didn’t apologize for the content. My responses were honest, but the tone needed work. The second time around, I kept in mind that even my friends can be offended if I’m not careful. The lesson: Don’t get too comfortable, even with your friends—perhaps especially with your friends.

However, every now and then, you’ll find that you have followed all the strategies I’ve talked about, and you’ll still offend your friends. I’ll be the last person to dictate to you how you should handle your close personal relationships. But I’ll tell you one story about how I handled one friend of mine.

A few years ago, a friend asked me to give him some feedback on a short piece of fiction. He sent me the story by email, and I sent him back some comments. The comments were as objective as they possibly could have been. I pointed out what worked well, what confused me, what I thought the story was about, and a few opportunities for growth. He came back at me with a pithy remark about how I just “didn’t get it.” Maybe I didn’t, but he wasn’t nice to me about it. I didn’t respond, and eventually he asked me if I wanted to get a beer, and we went out and had a beer and didn’t talk about it.

Then, a few months later, he sent me another story and asked for comments. Again, I sent him my response, pointing out what worked well and what worked less well. And again, I received a few cutting comments in an email from him, followed by weeks of silence. Then, we went out again for beer and talked about everything but that story. Finally, he sends me another story. And this time I wrote very little, and all of it was positive. This is great, really liked this part, this character was awesome. His response: nothing. On the third try, I had figured it out. He didn’t really want a response. He wanted praise.

In this particular case, I felt having a friendship with him was more important than providing what I considered to be the most helpful kind of feedback—an honest response to the key elements of a piece of writing. Instead, I gave him half of the story—I gave him the parts that I thought worked well.

As far as I know, he has not published that piece.

This leads me to my last strategy for giving feedback.

Strategy #6: Let Go

After you give good feedback, let it go. Trust that the writer will make good use of it. The writer may never read those five hundred words you write. You have to be okay with that. It’s the writer’s decision to use or not use your comments.

This strategy is meant to preserve your mental health, and I include it only because I’ve seen many writers put unrealistic demands on their fellow writers after having reviewed their work. Here’s an example:

Once upon a time, a man turned up at the BWW and he submitted his story for review. Everyone read the story in advance and came prepared to discuss it in front of him, while he sat back and observed the conversation, MFA-style. Most of the time the writer “being workshopped” at the BWW will take notes during the discussion. But this man didn’t. He sat, listened, and when the discussion was over, said, “Well, I just wanted to see what people thought of it.”

A few members of the workshop came to me afterwards and said, “What are we even doing at the workshop if this guy isn’t writing down what we say?”

There are a few good answers to this question. The first is that a good discussion about a piece of writing benefits all the participants, because we all learn something from this example, whether it’s good or bad. But the second answer is that we don’t know that the man isn’t considering the comments. And it turns out, this guy was. He brought another story to the workshop a few months later, and people said many of the same things about his prose, which hadn’t changed all that much. By the third time this man brought a story to workshop, he was taking notes and writing down what folks said.

My point here: You can’t control how or whether people respond to your feedback. Provide it and let it go.

Conclusion

All of these strategies ask you to approach the work we read with a hefty dose of humility. When you write a response to a fellow writer, you are saying more about who you are as a reader than you are about the talents of the writer. To remember that is to hop into the swimming pool and shout Polo! and watch as your blind-folded friend slowly but surely finds his way to you.

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