Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

April 13, 2021 § 5 Comments

Perhaps you’re in a writing group. Maybe you give each other live feedback, maybe you write it down, maybe both. And maybe, each time you look over your marked-up pages, you think:

Well…Bob certainly added a lot of commas…

Wow…Jane left like 30 comments. Now I feel bad I only gave her 4…

Cindy, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means…

“Enjoyed reading”? I made thoughtful comments on every one of your pages and I get back “Enjoyed reading”?!?!?

And yet, a writing group is still a great place for critique without spending a fortune on professional editing or getting an(other) MFA. How can you make your group effective for each writer?

Set clear ground rules.

Ask writers what they need.

Deliberately apply not only the feedback you got, but the feedback you gave.

Ground rules: Ever spent 22 minutes on one person’s pages and 7 on another’s? Ever needed big-picture feedback but got proofreading? Establish specifically what the group is going to do. If you have a defined leader, ask them for guidelines (they might feel weird about imposing rules unless you ask). If your group is egalitarian, bring it up yourself: “Hey, can we set a timer to give each person about the same amount?”

Set expectations for the amount and type of feedback. Frustrated with the number of comments you’re getting versus those you’re receiving? Ask! “Hey, am I overdoing it? I’m leaving 15-20 comments on y’all’s work, and I’m getting back 2-3. Is my feedback overwhelming or should I be asking you all for more?” Then you’ll know—do you need to ease off, are they slacking/unaware, or do you need a more rigorous group?

Ask what they need: For live feedback, you could choose the Liz Lerman critical response model, in which you ask, “Do you want to hear a thought on X?” The artist responds that yes, they do, or sorry, no, they aren’t working on that right now.

Control your own feedback by asking for what you need. Write at the top of your submitted pages, or say when it’s your turn, “Today I need to hear whether the sequence of events makes sense, and where I could add more tension. Please don’t bother to proofread or fix punctuation—I’m not at that stage.”

If you’re new to a group, try for at least one comment every other page, plus 3-5 sentences of your overall impressions at the end. Comment on what’s working as well as what isn’t. Be specific, and ask questions rather than dictating answers:

I’m getting that she’s a spy, from the radio she’s carrying, but then she says she’s just a mom—is that her cover?

Should we think he’s a jerk from stealing the bike? How much time will we spend with him in the rest of the book?

Then see what everyone else gives you and calibrate accordingly, or follow the example of the writer you think gives the most helpful feedback.

Particularly if you’re in a group of writers widely different in experience or skill, feedback often says more about the giver than the words. Pay attention to what each person says about everyone else’s work. If you think they’re off-base about another writer’s pages, take their advice with a grain of salt. If you find yourself agreeing with Janet that yeah, Sally’s pages lack a clear dramatic action, take Janet’s feedback more seriously on your own work.

Apply the feedback: Write down the verbal feedback and read your marked-up pages. If you agree and feel excited, get in there and revise. If you’re confused or unhappy, take a couple days, then go back and see what your critics agreed on. Chances are those places are worth your attention. But don’t just use the feedback you got—apply the feedback you gave, too!

Spotting problems in someone else’s writing is much easier than finding issues in our own work, or in published work from experienced authors whose books have been through serious editing. We’re not lost in the story. We don’t feel intimidated by polished prose. It’s like someone walking into the emergency room with a pickaxe in their skull. You don’t need to put them in the X-ray machine to spot the problem. By noticing “good grief, six adjectives in one sentence!” we can return to our pages and spot the one unneeded adjective in our own sentence.

Approach it like an assignment:

This seems like backstory—we know they’re hiking, when does something happen?

I count 13 adverbs and 15 adjectives in two paragraphs.

Telling us the brother is mean is repetitive, because we’re about to see him shove the narrator, so we don’t need both those things.

Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing. Are you also starting the story too late? Have you repeated information? Does a word or sentence pattern stick out?

Writing groups can be frustrating, maddening, time-consuming…and incredibly helpful. For free. So grab your writing buddies and use your words. You’ll all be better writers for it.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She loves her writing group. You could meet your future writing buddies at the Rebirth Your Writing: Craft & Publishing Intensive May 16-20, as well as improving your platform, learning to query, and polishing your writing skills. For essayists, memoirists and novelists!

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§ 5 Responses to Use Your Words (and Everyone Else’s)

  • Superb guidance for getting the most from – and giving the best to – your writing group. I’m going to share this gem on my author FB page. Thanks!

  • kperrymn says:

    Love this: “Pick one of the problems you critiqued and look for it in your own writing.” So simple, so intuitive. But yet, it’s something I hardly ever do. Thanks for this great advice–will be sharing your article with my various writing groups!

  • candacecahill says:

    Great advice, thank you!

  • I’ve never been a part of a group like that. The moment I actually started looking into that, the world got shut down. I think a group re-opened but it meets on a weekday during work hours, which makes me think it’s just a social circle for retired people… One day I will find my crowd. For now, I appreciate the feedback I got on my blog.

    You provided some great tips in regards to asking for specific feedback and asking others what type of feedback they want. I tend to say whatever comes to mind. Then, they can either tell me to stop or keep going.

    I paused and wondered why it is that sometimes I give more detailed feedback than other times. In the end, the overall quality is a big factor (if the writing is stellar, there might not be much to comment on), but mainly, it is how engaged I was in reading. If it was something that I did not enjoy, I will detach and not be able to give detailed feedback since I don’t want it to be all negative.

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