Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2: The Writer’s Role

“We all end up needing thick skin, to an extent, but also need to be able to trade work with peers whose advice we know will push us, in an environment of trust!” —from Elissa Field: comment on Read It and Weep (Not)June 21, 2012

“If you’re like most writers, no single thing will help your writing more than learning to use feedback well.” —Jack Rawlins, The Writer’s Way (emphasis mine)

Today’s post is a follow-up to yesterday’s Read It and Weep (Not) which addressed the role of the reader in sharing writing. We older or more experienced birds who have participated in workshops or swapped our work for a while may have the thicker skin Elissa Field refers to above. I say may have, because I still feel vulnerable when I put my work “out there.”

Journal with mark-up

Let’s assume, though, that the readers of our stories have given their all, and now we, the writers—isn’t it fun to say that?—get to receive comments. Sometimes we receive them in a writers’ workshop where not only do we hear comments, but we may also hear a discussion of the work as though we’re invisible (because in many workshops, that’s our job as writers during the discussion of our work: to be all eyes and ears but remain silent). Most workshop leaders set the tone and establish guidelines for feedback, so generally, it’s a pretty safe place to be, or at least I’ve found it so. Not everyone is so lucky; see my story in the earlier Read It and Weep (Not) post about the poet who left the building.

Squirming in the Spotlight

These days, writers also participate in writing partnerships or groups online where it’s possible to gather in chat rooms, forums, or “Skype” and experience some of the same connections a “live” group has. Whether you’re in a real group or a virtual one, the first order of business for the writer receiving feedback is to be as focused as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Listen. Jot down key words or phrases, just enough to remind you later what was said. Why? Because if you’re absorbed in writing down every word, you’ll miss something important. A comment stings? Note it, move on. Don’t let it distract you. Your purpose is to learn as much as you can about what your trusted readers believe is working, what isn’t, and why.
  • Bite your tongue! Many workshop leaders will ask writers to be silent until the comments end. Then you can ask questions or re-visit comments if you need clarification. The writer’s instinct is to jump in: “But wait! That’s not what I meant!” Or “You’re completely missing the point. Didn’t you read . . .?” Bite your tongue!

Trendy, Timely Reads

Others exchange work by email, which takes away the face-to-face element but can still be productive. I swap work with a couple of writer-friends I met at workshops whose writing and work ethic I respect.

Let’s say I get a story back, marked up using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature (which I personally like; it allows the reader to mark passages and insert comments) and/or with a summary comment of her impressions of the story. I read through it and skim the comments. I try not to “talk back”! I read it again, making my own notes. If I have more than one reader (and I advise you to, if at all possible; it’s helpful), I look for trends. If different readers point out the same issues, then I’d better have a closer look.

Whether you’re working “live” or by email, avoid the pitfalls Jack Rawlins describes in his book, The Writer’s Way. 

Don’t be defensive about your work. Deep down, don’t we want to be told the story’s wonderful, don’t change a thing? We need to ask ourselves what we want: to get the pat on the back that’s almost a dismissal, or to make our work the best it can be. We have to be open to honest feedback, or we won’t learn a thing. If additional explanation seems necessary, the story may not be clear. Often, stories are much clearer in our heads than they are on the page. There may be holes we aren’t even aware of.

Come to the writing partnership with questions. What are your issues with the work? Where are you stuck? Where do you have a gut feeling something’s not working?  Each writer will have her own issues, and those issues will change from one project to another. Get them out front.

It isn’t the reader’s job to tell you what to do (although with specific problems, she might offer suggestions); the reader’s job is to ask questions of the text and to respond to it with honest insight and knowledge of craft.

Don’t be submissiveThe submissive writer wants her readers to “fix it,” or she thinks she has to take advice that goes against her better instincts. Before deciding to follow someone’s advice, put the story away for a while. Then pull it out and ask yourself, “Do I want to do this? Would the story be better for it?” Drop your defenses, but don’t roll over and play dead. Ultimately, the work belongs to you. After careful consideration, decide for yourself which advice to heed and which to ignore.

And finally, a note about your manuscript: make it as clean and error-free as possible. You want your readers to concentrate on substance. It’s not their job to do your proofreading, and a messy manuscript distracts from the main purpose.

Reading and sharing each other’s work is indeed a partnership. At its best, it’s a collaborative effort that makes the work stronger. So be brave. Be open to the possibility for change. Put your work out there!

What are your feelings about receiving feedback? What have you learned that you’d like to pass on to writers who may not have had as much experience as you? Please add your “feedback” in the comments. Let’s continue the conversation!

6 thoughts on “Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2: The Writer’s Role

  1. Great advice! I especially love the advice about not being submissive. I chatted with an author at a conference I attended recently, and she said, “Only you know the story you want to tell.” I thought this was great advice. I like to go back and look at the comments, after I’ve had time to think about them, and ask whether the comments will help me tell the story I want to tell in a better way. 🙂

    1. That author gave good advice. I had a similar experience when someone told me a couple of years ago that I needed to gain confidence in my work! I think we have to seriously consider the feedback we get, especially if more than one reader points out an issue. I think I’ve already said this, but I’ll say it again: often, a reader’s feedback starts me thinking about the work in a different way. I may not take the specific advice, but it leads to finding my own solution. That’s an important part of using feedback to be productive, don’t you think? Thanks, E.B., for the wise comment!

  2. Valuable information and comments, Gerry and Sarah. “…egos be parked at the door” is so important and reminds the writer that the focus is on the piece not the person.

    In our writing group our group leader sets the timer to 3 minutes for each of us to critique a piece and writer can’t respond until everyone is done. This guideline has developed our listening skills and highlights the areas that need work and those that areas that delighted the reader.

    1. I love the “active listening” skill; it’s one I tried hard to teach my high school students, who are so bombarded by “noise” and distractions. (Aren’t we all?) I like the 3-minute rule. It keeps the comments concise and helps the writer pay attention. Great idea. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Gerry, I have to agree that defensiveness on the part of the writer can make the entire process fall apart. I like to suggest that egos be parked at the door. The writer needs to LISTEN, not rebut or refute or explain. Those just waste time and dilute the flow of comments [and, the more extra explanation required, the clearer it is that the writing has fallen short of its mark, It needs to be able to stand on its own!!!] Just relax into the exchange and listen. Listen deeply and openly. Presume goodwill. Know that everyone’s experience is different; accept every comment as given from the heart with good intention. Later the writer can evaluate the comments, choose which to keep and which to discard. After all is said and done – the writing belongs to the writer!! Thanks for continuing this conversation – wish we could have it in person 🙂

    1. “…the more extra explanation required, the clearer it is that the writing has fallen short of its mark, It needs to be able to stand on its own!” Absolutely, in all caps! Although I have seen some unfortunate critiques in workshops, I believe most people come to a workshop (or the swapping of work) with the best intentions. It does help to have guidelines, though. Thank you so much, Sarah, for your comment here and on the previous post! And yes, wouldn’t I love to have this conversation with you in person. Maybe someday . . .

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