How to Give Feedback
Embarrassing situations, we’ve all had them. And if we were to be honest, how often feedback, the proverbial “being called out”, or the reverse, the lack of feedback, lurks behind those uncomfortable circumstances.
Feedback, love it or hate it, you can’t live without it. We all have blind spots, secrets in our psyche that not even we are aware of. This is especially true with our writing; we are too close to our work to see the spelling and grammar errors or gaping holes in our story’s plot.
An embarrassing episode often involves an exposition of one of our blind spots where feedback plays a part. For instance, walking around all day at the office with your fly undone and the absence of feedback makes the realisation of the fact so much more embarrassing. If only someone was brave enough to point out your state of undress.
So, the point: Feedback is important for your health, well-being, and growth as a person. And feedback is important for honing your craft of writing. In this article, I’ll focus on giving feedback for writers, but we can use it in most life, art, and work situations.
The way a person gives feedback is vital, which is why we tend to avoid it and avoid giving it truthfully. Nobody wants to be the “Arnold J. Rimmer” in the television series Red Dwarf, who has to tell “Dave Lister” that he has absolutely no talent when it comes to playing the guitar, even though Dave loves playing the guitar and thinks he’s a star. And of course, Rimmer being Arnold J Rimmer, enjoys putting Dave Lister down. I think most of us would admit to leaving honest feedback up to someone else at times for fear of causing embarrassment.
But if we want our writing to improve and our writers’ community to be more than a mutual admiration society, then we need to learn to tackle the skill of giving feedback in a way that makes the recipient feel validated and safe.
So how do we give helpful feedback?
We want our communities, whether it be a writers’ group or other sorts of groups, to be safe places where participants can be themselves, share who they are and excel in their endeavours. So below are examples of feedback that builds up the person and us as writers:
1. Honest and open, given while caring for the recipient’s worth and dignity.
2. Positive—keep tone light and pleasant. We can improve our delivery of feedback when we look for what in the work has been effective and how it can be better. No creative work is a “disaster” that must be torn up and burnt, just as no person is so unworthy that they’re not worth the effort of redemption. However, if the work denigrates another, the writer needs feedback to proceed with caution or risk losing that member to the group, or even litigation down the track.
3. Feedback sandwich—following on from above, the positive—improvement—positive comment approach is an effective way to keep the recipient happy about improvements that they might need to do to their work.
4. Specific—name and highlight specific, good points or improvement needs. “Good,” “excellent” and “I enjoyed it” mean nothing. Requires giving those presenting their work your undivided attention, listening, also having valued the recipient to give a thoughtful response.
5. Humour—if done with respect, can help the recipient manage difficult to manage feedback. e.g., ‘You can’t speak with sparkling eyes’ or ‘Words are your friends.’
6. Role-modelling—showing how an effective piece of work looks/sounds/reads.
7. General address—teaching on a common foible that has arisen in a number of works. e.g., ‘Today we are going to have a look at showing rather than telling,’ the mentor said.
8. An example—like role-modelling where an editor or a more experienced writer may rewrite a first chapter to show how to improve a work. (With the recipient’s consent, of course.)
9. Showing rather than telling — ‘Shall I stop there?’ asks Heinz. ‘No, no, keep going,’ we all say.
10. Genuine Interest — asking how the work is progressing and listening to the writer’s plots, plans and characters, and the like, shows that you value them as a person and their work.
11. Right place — a quiet, safe place with minimal distractions. e.g., Writers’ group.
12. Good timing — no use giving feedback when there are distractions for the recipient.
13. Right voice — keep your tone even, audible, and confident.
Conclusion: When we give feedback with respect valuing the person and their creative endeavour, we help them grow and their work to flourish. What’s more, when we cooperate with each other giving helpful feedback, not only do we have an excellent group that people want to join, but the quality of our product far surpasses what we would’ve had if we keep our writings to ourselves and never seek feedback. At the end of the day, would we want to publish a work that would embarrass us?
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2018; updated 2022
Feature Photo: Nit-Picking Wallabies © L.M. Kling 2017