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The Power Behind a Critique: Feedback is a gift!

Let me be the first to say that my mom is the first person who reads any completed draft. I like being told that I am smart and talented, and if there was a magnet strong enough, I’m sure each one would be on the fridge.

But those first drafts are not good. The second person that reads them is often my sister, who will then call with notes, and read them to me over a two hour phone call.

Both of these are important.

However, to progress as a writer we need to let out work be seen by people who have not known us since we were born. We need fresh eyes, and suggestions.

You should have a critique group!

I met my first critique group online, and we met up in a local bookstore that had a small cafe attached. I, a very introverted person, was nervous to share my writing with four other ladies that I did not know. I was the youngest of them, the only one without children, but I am grateful for them.

We would send each other a few chapters at a time, write notes, and then discuss our thoughts in person. It was not always smooth, and there was more than once, where I felt like an imposter sitting there in that little cafe. But I also learned so much from them. So much from reading their writing and giving feedback. So much from thinking about character, plot, and structure. I also learned a lot about my work.

I learned how other people interpreted my characters without the vast background knowledge I had created in my head. I learned where there were gaps, or things felt rushed or repetitive. I learned things I had missed on my own readings.

And when that group could no longer meet due to time constraints and life, I mourned the loss of getting feedback on my work. I continued doing chapter/whole manuscript swaps with people online, but they did not have the same depth of feedback that getting together and talking about the books and our notes allowed.

It didn’t allow for more than one opinion to discuss the books out loud.

When I was in college, I was lucky enough to go to a school with small class sizes, my creative writing professor would spend many of our classes on workshops. At first it seemed silly, why I am spending money working on other people’s papers. But I learned more from those classes, because I was able to hear the thoughts of a class of people on one work.

Feedback is a gift.

Positive feedback tells us what to keep doing. Negative Feedback tells us where there is growth to be made.

Feedback is how we can grow. It is a gift for our minds. Really.

Just like a muscle getting stronger from working out, our minds also need repeated practice and feedback to get better. A weight lifter has a coach that gives them feedback on training, practice, style, format, technique. Your writing needs the same thing.

The more we practice the stronger and more powerful the connections between our brain cells become. We create super highways of information, where once there were dirt roads. So not only will the individual piece get better because of revision, but you are a writer will strengthen as a whole.

I will be creating a post dedicated to how I teach my students to give feedback, but it would also be incredibly useful for any new critique group starting out.

It will go into much more depth but here are the basics.

  1. Establish what the expectations are

    1. How much you will read?

    2. When will you be done?

    3. Are you providing in page notes, basic thoughts, verbal thoughts only, etc.

    4. What do you want feedback on?

  2. Come up with a strategy for how to divide up the time

    1. Who is talking when?

    2. Who asks questions when?

    3. How much time does each piece get?

  3. Remember to use helpful, supportive, objective language.

    1. It is not helpful to say everything in great, when there is growth to be made. Helpful is when you allow someone the information needed to grow .

    2. Supportive means you word things in a way that will not tear some one (or their art) down.

      1. I find asking things as opinion + questions can help keep opinions neutral. EXAMPLE: I found the description of Fantasy Realm X confusing. What would it look like if you used less in world jargon when we first entered the portal?

    3. Objective means giving everyone the same kind/amount of feedback regardless of your relationship to them, your feelings about the topic, their reaction to your work, etc.

      1. Personally, when my students write horror stories (the early 2010s were all about the zombie apocalypse) I don’t love them, but the types of things I give feedback on, structure, pacing, characterization, detail, etc. does not change.

      2. However, if there is something that is triggering for you, please make sure to let group members know so that you can bow out of reading it. If you are unable to give objective feedback, you won’t be helping them anyway.

      3. While it may not be a part of this first reading series, I would also like to put a plug here for sensitivity readers as part of any critique of a book.

With the normalization of zoom, online critique groups can be a great option. Especially since I will never be someone who suggests meeting strangers from the internet in real life. (My mother taught me stranger danger) This also allows for time differences, location differences, child/pet care, and any other reason that meeting people may be difficult.

However you meet, it is always important to remember why you are there: to have the best work you are capable of making. Everyone has room to grow, no draft is perfect, and if you want I’m sure my mother will hang your work on the fridge as well.

Let me know if you want more about any of the following things:

  1. Brain science + writing

  2. Critique Group/ Writer’s Workshop protocols

  3. How to find a critique group

  4. What kind of feedback to ask for/get

  5. Anything else

Come find me on instagram @emily.k.bray

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