Previous posts have identified inappropriate feedback as a cause of writer’s block (or other forms of resistance) and established that the writer should determine what level and type of feedback her/his writing receives.
What you need now is a common understanding of what to call different levels of feedback with other writers you exchange feedback with.
Use these seven levels as a starting point in a discussion of how your writer’s group or class will define feedback.
Respondents should always begin by offering congratulations for bringing the piece to the current state of completion. Let’s not forget how much work writing is, and let’s not be skimpy in our praise. One of the thrills of writing is finding an appreciative audience. Kudos are always in order.
Next, respondents identify what they most noticed. Because respondents use what therapists call “I language” (e.g. “I was struck by the sensory details,” or “I really understood and resonated with the dialogue in this section” or “I felt the character’s grief”), there is no judgment implied about the writing. Readers share their observations and responses to the writing; they do not evaluate the writing.
Respondents ask questions and let the writer know where they want more information or details. Sincere questions about a character’s background or motivation, for example, may help the writer develop that character.
Thinly disguised criticism such as “Do you intend to have your character’s dialogue sound stilted?” is obviously out-of-bounds. “Why did the character do that?” could be a sincere question or disguised criticism, depending on the intention and the tone of voice.
To highlight the strongest elements, respondents identify what they thought was particularly effective. Readers are encouraged to both repeat others’ responses to give greater emphasis and to disagree to reveal divergent opinions.
Respondents indicate the areas they think need refinement. “I think you need to improve the dialogue, especially in the third scene,” is legitimate at this level of feedback. Again, the use of “I language” makes it clear that these are opinions, not statements of fact. So, “Your dialogue is stilted,” is still out-of-bounds.
Respondents do not offer suggestions for how to revise in Level 5; they only identify what they think needs more attention.
Respondents are invited to make rewrite suggestions. These are most helpful when phrased as “What if?” questions. “What if you move the third scene to the beginning?”
Exercise care here. The most exciting writing conversations often occur at level 6. Our imaginations get sparked, and we start wondering how we’d tackle the challenge. Telling someone else how to write gives us all the satisfaction of solving the challenge without any of the hard work, so of course we want to do that. But we need to remember whose piece it is and rein in any tendency to take charge of another writer’s work.
Respondents are asked to read carefully and make line edits using standard proofreaders’ marks.
It is important to note that the seven levels are cumulative layers, not either-or choices. All feedback should begin with the Level 1, then continue through Level 2 and so on to the level requested.
If, for example, you’re ready to hear feedback about where your readers think the writing needs refinement (Level 5), respondents first offer congratulations (Level 1), tell you what they noticed and how they responded (Level 2), ask questions (Level 3), and highlight what they thought was effective (Level 4), before detailing where they think the writing needs work. And since you have not asked for Levels 6 or 7, they should not offer rewrite suggestions or provide line edits.
Who have you received good feedback from? Who would you never ask for feedback again? We’ll take a closer look at who to invite to and who to avoid at the feedback party in an upcoming post.