I used to dread receiving feedback about my writing. Being in a writing workshop stressed me out, and there were times when I dissociated and missed what was said or asked about my writing. Some writers react defensively to feedback. Others become angry as well. I finally learned from a screenwriting teacher under what conditions feedback is best received and how I could learn from it and improve my writing.
Years ago, I took a screenwriting class in order to learn how to write a screenplay of a novel I’d written. The teacher, Steven Larson, had extensive experience writing screenplays and had won awards. From the first day, he created a positive atmosphere in the class by focusing on the writing, and insisting that when we gave feedback, we talk about things the writer did right as well as the things that needed work. So, there were no comments about a writer’s intelligence, a writer’s talent, a writer’s personality or anything else about the writer personally. I learned a lot in that class that has helped me in writing all kinds of prose, not just screenplays.
I also learned how best to receive feedback, at least for me. Over the years, I’ve developed my own list of things I need to do in preparation and while receiving the feedback. Having this list keeps me calm and focused so I can take in what the readers of my writing have to say.
- When I give out my writing to be read and critiqued, I include a list of things that I want the readers to watch for as they read. I make some of it specific, but I also include requests for general thoughts on structure, character, etc. By doing this, I have an idea what the readers will talk about during the critique as well as finding out what I want to know from them.
- When I prepare for the group critique, or one by an individual reader in person, I first make certain that I have a full pad of paper and at least 2 pens to take notes.
- I re-read what I’ve submitted for critique, noting any problems that I’ve spotted on each page. It really helps to refresh my mind with what I wrote.
- At the beginning of the critique, I let the reader(s) know that I will not be talking during their critique, except to ask questions for clarification. I tell them that I’ll be taking notes and listening closely to what they have to say. Then I thank them for their feedback.
- During the critique, I take notes. I do not react in any way, keeping my expression open but dispassionate. If I don’t understand a comment, I’ll ask for clarification. Staying silent can be the most difficult part of a critique. Of course, I want to clarify things, except, it’s important to know that the readers didn’t understand something. That’s a clue that I need to make that part clearer. This is also not an appropriate time to defend anything. It is the time to listen well, make notes, and plan for the revision process.
- When the critique is done, I thank my readers for their time and thoughtful reading, and for their helpful, constructive feedback about my writing. I’ll ask them if they have any questions at this time. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I try to answer honestly but without going into a lot of detail about my notes or my plans for revision.
- After the critique, when I’m home and at my desk, I’ll go through my notes once, sometimes write more notes, then I put them away for at least a week before going through them again with the writing that was critiqued. I wait at least a week to let my imagination mull over what was said during the critique. I’ve learned that if I don’t wait, I’ll get stuck during the revision process. If I wait, my mind is ready and eager to get to work, and the revision process will go better.
It’s important to go into a critique truly believing that the people you’ve trusted with your writing will want to help you make your writing better. Approaching the process from the beginning with a positive framework and then refusing to be defensive or get angry will go a long way toward insuring that you’ll be able to accept the feedback in the spirit that it was given, and to use it to help you improve your writing. I’ve used this process while working with the editor of Perceval’s Secret before its e-publication.
Remember, the goal of a critique is to have fresh, intelligent eyes read your writing and for a reader to provide feedback to help you make your writing better.