So it’s time to share your work. I know, I know. It’s not ready. (It will never, ever be ready.) But your eyes have been over it a thousand times and you need new perspective to help point you in the right direction. Maybe you know it needs something but you’re not quite sure exactly what?
If you’re lucky enough, you have one, two, or a small group of people willing to read and comment on your work. Maybe it’s a college class, a weekend workshop, a group of friends. You’re probably all writers, and you probably all have something you’ve written that you want others to read. You don’t need your mom to tell you again how you’re “The best writer ever!” or your best friend to tell you “Everything you write is amazing, you should be famous.” Although, those are really nice to hear.
You don’t want someone who reads 20 pages and says, “I loved it!” or “It was great!” and that’s all they’ve got. That should be just the beginning. “This sentence was so evocative!” or “I got confused in the second paragraph” or “I loved your verb use here” or “The dialogue on page four is really convincing!” Those are the kinds of comments that can start to be really helpful.
The way workshops are run in the writing programs I’ve attended, the author stays silent until the very end. You’re not there to defend the work — it needs to stand on its own, requiring no outside explanation. While others make comments, you’re writing notes and soaking it all in so you can percolate on the feedback you’re receiving. Sometimes if the work is shorter, the author will start by reading the work aloud, and then be silent until the end.
Your time to talk at the end should not be used to explain all the ways your peers were wrong. It should be used for asking questions like, “In the second paragraph, can you explain what specifically was confusing?” So you know how to apply the new information. Everyone passes back their printed copies of your manuscript with their notes and you take them home. Go ahead and stew over the good and the bad, maybe vent to your mom or your best friend to be reminded how great you are. Then take the new information and get back to work.
I like to work through one copy at a time from beginning to end. You’re the only one, ultimately, who decides which suggestions for change to keep or toss. The work belongs to you. But if you let them, others may be able to help you make the work even better. If one person makes a suggestion, take it or leave it. If 20 people make the same suggestion, take it seriously.
Okay, so your piece is done, now it’s your turn to help provide feedback. What do you do and how do you do it? Read the piece at least once, preferably twice. Make line edits and overall comments.
When in class or meeting with the group, try to shape your comments into what my friends and I refer to as a “shit sandwich.” Start with something nice (what they did well) and end with something nice (overall, what was strong about it). Put the harsher stuff, the critique, in the middle, framed by nicer stuff on either side, so nobody gets too butt-hurt over anything. You can also use the rule of 3 and 3: three nice things and 3 things that could be improved.
Of course, please, be respectful. Don’t just tell someone how you would have done it differently. Approach the piece as it is and try to help it reach its best state. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you didn’t like it or it wasn’t your taste or style. We’re just trying to help each other become better writers.