Tips for Giving Feedback in Nonfiction Writing Groups
June 22, 2020 § 18 Comments
By Sue Hann
- Respect each other’s privacy. Although someone might be writing about very personal things, this does not mean that you have free rein to ask all about their lives.
‘So spill!’ Faye says to me, seconds after we are introduced. ‘What’s the dirt you’re writing about? I’m going to find it all out anyway, that’s what we’re here for right?’ She laughs at her own joke.
‘Oh, I’m writing about the body,’ I say vaguely, taking a step back, hoping that will suffice. Shouldn’t we at least start off with the weather and how bad the transport links are in this part of town?
- Engage with the text on its own terms, don’t try to suggest how you would have written the piece.
‘I would have written this as a poem,’ Faye says at the first feedback group, flicking through my manuscript of two thousand carefully chosen words, describing the ache of an early miscarriage. I look around the group, hoping someone else will chip in and break her flow. The others look down, unwilling to interrupt Faye. We are all playing at being polite.
‘Yeah, I definitely thought you could have turned that into a poem,’ she nods, agreeing with herself, ‘Cut that right down’.
- Don’t forget that your role is to encourage the writer to write their own story.
‘Hmm,’ she continues, ‘And I’m just not sure if this is universal. Not everyone wants to be a mother?’ Her voice rises in upward inflection. ‘Like, what does this say to men? Or to LGBTQI+?’
I try my best to remain neutral in my face, though my bones are murderous.
‘It’s meant to be a memoir,’ I don’t say. I remain silent. I am following the rules of How to Receive Feedback.
- Pay attention to what is written and what is not. Subtext is important.
‘And this stars thing’ she says, ‘Well, it’s just a bit of a cliche really, isn’t it? Looking at the stars and thinking about your loss?’
Kris is meant to be chairing today, but he says nothing. Slumped on his chair, his face is expressionless, and I have no idea if he is even in the room. Faye is enjoying holding the floor, now that she has her teeth sunk in deep, the taste of blood has invigorated her. The subtext is clear: Faye does not like me. Her feedback is the gun under the table, the knife in the back, the torpedo in the water.
- Remember to point out the parts you like, as well as the parts you think need more work.
‘Yeah, and on that note, I just didn’t think that the grief was portrayed that accurately’.
‘I mean, I thought the emotions weren’t really what you’d expect’.
Apparently, even my own feelings are failing her test. I scan the room, wondering, hoping that someone else might have a different or even constructive opinion.
‘I thought it was incredibly moving actually,’ said Mark. ‘And I’m a man,’ he adds, softening the parry with a smile, as he pushes his trendy glasses up his nose.
- The key to giving constructive feedback is empathy.
Bouyed up by Mark, and taking hold of the gap he created in Faye’s monologue, I try to wrestle the discussion back from Faye: ‘I’d really like to hear some specific feedback on the structure. Did it work for people?’
‘Mmm,’ says Kris, finally coming to life. ‘It’s got to have an arc. It’s got to have some movement’ he says, scrunching his nose, lips dragging downward. ‘We already know that you can’t have kids, from this early chapter, so that’s not much of an arc…’
Wait, did he really just say that? My mind is behind, still emerging from its protective coma brought on by Faye’s kicking.
Kris steeples his hands in front of his face, while looking at the ceiling.
‘Maybe the movement is whether you and your husband stay together?’ he says as if it’s the plot of the BBC soap opera EastEnders that he is talking about, and not my marriage.
The circle of heads turn to look at me. One of them glances at my ring finger.
- Try to end the feedback group on a positive note.
The session ends at last, a merciful release. Faye stands and stretches. ‘That was really fun! I enjoyed that! I can’t wait to submit next week,’ she says. I gather up my things, mumble my thanks to the group for their feedback, while simultaneously thinking that I can’t imagine ever writing another word again. Almost touching my shoulder, hand hovering mid-air, she stage-whispers into my ear ‘Just make it universal, yeah?’
Sue Hann’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in Popshot Quarterly, as well as online journals including Ellipsis Zine and Litro. She lives in London with her partner and a problematic number of books.
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The suggestions 1-7 are spot on.
Thanks for the suggestions. I’m glad you are still writing and are in the full, upright position!
Great piece! Thank you for writing it!!!
I was in a group once with a “Faye,” which disbanded because of her. I’m sorry you were subjected to the group’s insensitive remarks, and I hope you never went back. Your list is great, something that critique groups should use.
Guidelines, expectations and rules are essential in critique groups. I love my group, it is fabulous. We take risks, are clear about the kind of feedback we want on a particular piece.What makes it work is our facilitator, our leader, our teacher. She comments first after every read, set the tone and is the first voice after silence.
“She comments first after every read, set the tone and is the first voice after silence.” Delighted to know that works!
You know how we learn to persevere, to ignore the hailstones, to plow ahead? No. This kind of group is toxic. If she doesn’t leave, you leave. It’s not just a matter of her lack of politeness or kindness. She makes it impossible for you to benefit from the group so it’s just a waste of time and energy for you.
(Can you tell I was in such a group? It was completely undermined by one woman comparing her special-needs kid to my special-needs kid and wondering what I was complaining about. I left the group and never returned, and it was utterly liberating.) Getting back to you: listen to the voice in your head that says, “You deserve better.”
Well shown and specifically shown. Hope this narrator found a group that is genuinely helpful. I know just enough to be curious about this specific story, which is a tribute to your (the narrator’s) writing.
Thank you, Sue. If it’s all right with you and with Brevity, I’d love to share this article in an upcoming issue of Writer Advice, giving credit to both the author and the website. Can you let me know? Thanks!
As long as you credit us, we’re good with it.
Hi, Thanks for your comments on the piece. Yes, that is fine with me to share this, with credits.
Who is this Faye chick. I don’t like her.
Now your blog post and tips are excellent. I especially like number 1 and 4.
Privacy and respect is so important and often it is what isn’t said.
That Faye better not be me!
(Ps: just a thought. If Faye is a real person exercise caution. People who are bulldozers often have the armour on for a reason and are easily offended/hurt. Name changes are always ok unless…)
Ugh. Yes, either you leave or she leaves. Do not try to be creative with a dull bull like that in the room. Take care of yourself and your precious words
Thank you choosing to write about this, Sue. It is a powerful reminder of the importance of basic etiquette in workshop/critique and the inestimable value of a wise leader. It’s also a reminder that kindness is everything. I’m sorry you had to go through this but grateful you were able to step back, or maybe lean in, and write it down. Well done. Keep on writing and I hope you find a group with a strong leader. I was lucky to have found such a group and leader in Indiana. https://lafayettewritersstudioDOTcom
Melissa Fraterrigo is the director and I am just beginning my 6th semester this fall. She is the real thing: talented, a wonderfully generous educator, sharp, funny, and a fine human being. And now the Studio is all online through Zoom, so anyone, anywhere, can sign up for a workshop! Best of luck to you and stay with your story.
I have lived this. Thank you for being willing to make it seen!
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Wow I’m a year late, but this is an amazing post by Sue. I loved the voice and even the pacing of the piece, even though it was meant to be more educational in nature. Thanks for sharing!