One of the meatier staples of university writing programs – at least, the ones that I attended – is the feedback loop. Feedback at the college I attended first was mostly an opportunity for the head writing professor to slag on you while you alternately cringed and scrambled to give him what he wanted – which had nothing to do with getting your work to convey what you were trying to say. At the university I never completed graduate work at, the system was possibly explained better and the feedback was usually presented well.
Feedback happens before a work is complete and after a work has been through at least two drafts. This comes best from other writers and extremely erudite readers who can elucidate clearly what message they perceive in your work.
Criticism happens after a piece is released to the public. It’s the final comment on the final product. You can produce new products or revise the product and release it, thus making it a new product once again.
Writers are as sensitive as other artists, and I suspect in terms of sheer hits to the ego we suffer more frequently just because writing can be rewritten much more easily than a canvas may be repainted or a photograph may be reshot. So sometimes feedback is hard to take, which is unfortunate, as sometimes the most enthusiastic feedback – the responses that come from someone who really truly likes you work – can sound like criticism, and what is meant as a suggestion to make something good really great is taken as a “you suck!” message.
I was accidentally on the giving end of this once, when a friend asked me to read some of her work. I really enjoyed her writing and I was excited to talk to her about the potential of the piece. Unfortunately, she saw the markings on the pages she’d given me and said “Oh God, you hacked it!” I did my best to reassure her that I really liked the piece, and a sign of my liking it was that I found places to make it stronger. I’m still not sure she ever believed me.
It can take awhile to distinguish quality feedback from drek feedback, and like writing, giving it is a skill.
Presumably when a piece is ready for feedback, the grammar and spelling errors are already polished away. ((This is usually the case, and as is usually the case, a few errors sneak through anyway.)) Each feedback person has their own process, and this is simply mine:
- Read the piece twice. Once, to see if I absorb the meaning and intention. Twice, to look for places where the meaning and attention might need extra support.
- Set aside opinions about content and focus only on opinions about the writing. If I’m reading a radical right-winger’s essay on why s/he is pro-life, I will point to places that an argument could use better support or where a metaphor might be tightened. I will not jot down in feedback “here’s how you’re wrong” even though that probably is what I personally think.
- Note metaphors and anecdotes; see how they fit.
- What images stay with me? What throw me off track?
- Do I understand cultural references within the piece? Is the reference so obscure that a quick Google search won’t clear it up?
- How are the transitions?
- How is the conclusion?
Feedback when done well has proved invaluable for my own writing, and I always try to get it from at least three practiced sources before passing it on to an editor. I recommend the practice, whether you form your own writing group or whether you loosely connect with other writers through private means.