A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on the importance of feedback. It was a whistle stop tour of how to go about getting, giving and using feedback without being able to delve in too deep on any particular aspect. Since the first edition of the Lucent Dreaming podcast (Somniloquy) focused on the language of feedback, I’ve written a follow-up to my initial post as a companion piece. In the podcast, Jannat, Joachim and Jonas discuss an article by Helen Betya Rubenstein entitled “Toward Changing the Language of Creative Writing Classrooms” and so I’ve picked up some of the points raised in this article and weaved them together with my own thoughts.
Should we be leaving our personal preference prejudices behind when we give feedback?
The easy answer to this question is an emphatic ‘yes’. There is no piece of writing that is universally acclaimed as perfect, after all. Each of us has our own tastes in terms of the stories we like reading and the way we like stories to be told. And it’s important that voices from different backgrounds or political points of view are allowed to flourish. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do things. Different approaches are simply… different.
When I’m giving feedback, I try as much as possible to leave my preferences behind. I read the whole piece first to get an idea of what the writer is trying to achieve and then attempt to frame my feedback against that. I look for inconsistencies of tone/word choice/style rather than simply pointing out passages that I, personally, haven’t enjoyed. I judge pacing based on the overall tempo. When indicating things like superfluous words or repetitive sentence structures, I first attempt to unpack the writer’s reason behind using them – a superfluous word might be to improve rhythm; repetitive sentences might be an attempt to build a sort of literary crescendo.
On the other hand, I’m aware that most of the feedback that I give is for writers who are aiming for specific competitions or publications. Through my own experience of receiving rejections, I know that there are certain hard-and-fast rules that most editors uphold – punctuation of dialogue, avoiding over-cumbersome sentence structures etc. Therefore, when giving feedback it can be helpful to keep the whims of the market in mind. And this can often go against the grain of framing critique purely on the basis of a writer’s aims.
TAKEAWAY: Don’t impose your preferences on other writers but keep conventional wisdoms in mind if a writer’s ambition warrants it.
Is there value in removing value judgments, both positive and negative?
In her article, Betya Rubenstein suggests that using value language (good, bad, improve etc.) gets in the way of artistic endeavour. She suggests that ‘even praise […] will eventually poison art.’ This, to me, seems very worthy but, ultimately, I think it is difficult to remove value judgement from the picture. And I’m not sure I agree that positive feedback (where merited) is a bad thing. Instead, I would always promote a system of “two stars and a wish” – i.e. what were two aspects you enjoyed about the story and what was one thing that might have improved your reading experience? The word ‘might’ in the middle of that question is key. It challenges the writer to consider if there is a better way of doing things; it doesn’t assert that there definitely is one.
If a writer is seeking feedback, it is implicit that they want to improve their writing. Simply giving them glowing praise will either inflate their ego or make them question the worth of the feedback. On the other hand, it’s important not to be destructive in the way you frame your observations. Consider the following:
- This sentence is too long and quite verbose.
- Is there a way that this sentence could benefit from being simplified or divided up to improve readability?
The first is quite destructive in tone. It suggests that the critique-giver is correct, the writer is wrong. The second is much softer in tone and challenges the writer to make improvements whilst admitting that it may not be possible/preferable. According to Betya Rubenstein, we should be going even further with something like ‘I wonder whether there was something behind your choice of long sentence here…’ but I think that there is a danger that the actual point might become entangled within a sort of stepping-on-eggshells pseudo-speak.
A critique-giver should also (as much as possible) adhere to how the writer would like them to go about giving feedback. If a writer specifically wants someone to tell them what they like/don’t like then it shouldn’t be for the critique-giver to suggest that this isn’t the best way of doing things. Everyone learns/improves/evolves in different ways and what works in one critique partnership will not work in another.
TAKEAWAY: Don’t eschew positivity in feedback but make sure praise is tempered. Frame critique in a way that challenges the writer to think about their writing rather than saying what is right or wrong. Be guided by the writer in terms of what they want from your critique.
Do we need to focus more on emotive response rather than the nitty gritty?
Betya Rubenstein talks about ‘shifting away from what “works” toward what actually happens when we read. Does your heart race? Do you cry? Think? Forget that you’re reading? […] Which elements of the text, and of the world the text inhabits, determine your response?’ This definitely got me nodding my head. Something that is “badly written” but makes you cry because of its heartfelt message has a lot of value. Making the language more conventionally pleasing might cause it to lose some of its emotional edge and this needs to be considered when giving feedback. Any technical suggestions about how the piece could be improved need to enhance things without detracting from the emotional core.
Elsewhere in her article, Betya Rubenstein touches on the importance of experimentation. In my opinion, anyone who is trying to forge their own voice or to push boundaries of how things have been done in the past should be applauded. Writers who merely copy the work of those they admire are in danger of becoming derivative and critique-givers should be alive to this. The best stories are those that reflect the writer’s unique perspective on the world but there is a danger (as Betya Rubenstein suggests) that all writers are corralled towards producing work that fits neatly in a specific box. The best critique-givers should not only concentrate on emotive response but on encouraging the writer to be themselves when they write.
TAKEAWAY: How a story makes you feel is as important (if not more so) as how it is written. Any technical suggestions should complement the emotional core and help the writer to find their unique voice.
For further thoughts on the language of feedback as well as on why we write and how Lucent Dreaming go about deciding what to publish, why not listen to the Somniloquy podcast?