Sunday, January 22, 2017

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback.  Image © Lori Gravley
I’m in a couple of wonderful picture book critique groups, and I’ve been critiquing for nearly 25 years.  I have a set of rules in my head, and I follow them.

In one of my groups, a member was feeling as if she couldn’t critique.  She didn’t know what to do or how to begin.  Leslee Anne Hewson shared two amazing resources.  The first is an overview of Critique Groups on Kidlit 411 which compiles links to a variety of resources.  The second is a list of Twenty Questions to Ask a Picture Book from Rachel Hamby.

These are wonderful resources, full of suggestions and things to think about, but they don’t focus on attitudes and mental approaches that can be the foundation of successful critiques.  Here are a few attitudes that it’s helpful for me to remember before I sit down to critique.

1.  It's the writer’s story.  It’s important to keep your critique partners intention for the story in mind when you review. Let’s say that a writer writes a story in rhyme.  You know rhyme is hard to sell, but you also see plenty of rhyme in the books you read. 

A good partner won’t try to convince the writer to rewrite in prose. Instead, a good partner might identify places where the meter or rhyme seem strained.  After all, it’s clear that this writer intends the story to be in rhyme. In this instance, it’s also important to find the story and the character as well.  I may not write in rhyme very often, but I know stories, and I have a trained ear.  So, I wouldn’t ask the writer to rewrite the story in prose, but I would ask questions and make suggestion so that my writing partner can write the best rhyming story possible.  Not only by thinking about the rhyme but also by thinking about the story as a whole. 

One of the hardest but truest critiques of one of my rhyming stories was that my story didn’t seem to have the narrative power for a book.  If my partner had only been looking at my rhyme, she might have missed the fact that the story wasn’t living up to a book-length narrative promise.  Her comments, hard as they were to hear, honored my intent.  I had to go back into the story and reexamine the narrative and character arcs.  Those tough comments helped me see the weaknesses in my story that the fun rhyme were covering up.

2.  Look for what’s going well.  I have to start here. I graded papers for so long that sometimes the negatives can take over.  I become a walking red pen.  I have learned to find the good in the story first.  This good appears both in my overall comments on the story and on the line edits.  I note lines that make me laugh, lines that seem just right, and lines that inspire me.  I always begin my critique comments with justly deserved praise, both general praise and specific praise, since general praise can sometimes seem false and generic if not backed up by specifics. 

3.  Find the places of tension.  Most drafts have places that slip—the voice changes, the language gets too formal or too casual, the story moves away from what seemed to be its intent.  Identifying those places of tension can show the writer where she might go back into the story to make it better.

4.  Don’t feel like you need to solve the writer’s problems.  If you have a suggestion, share it, but if you see a problem but don’t know how to fix it, feel free to just identify it. 

5.  Be careful with line edits.  Line editing can be helpful if a story seems nearly there, but if a story needs more work or some big revisioning, then line edits aren’t really helpful.  You can point out grammatical habits and vocabulary that don’t seem to benefit the story.   You might focus on words that can be deleted, but for the most part, in my critique groups, we’re still working on the big questions:  audience; tone and voice; beginnings, middles, and ends; etc.  If the writer is working on revisions, line edits can just be a distraction.  In my groups, if I think a story is mostly ready and I only want line edits, then I’ll ask.  

6.  Know that the writer owns the feedback once you’ve given it.  It’s a gift.  If they don’t find it useful, that’s fine.  You did your best and your comments helped the writer see her story again.  You don’t have to worry that you’ll give bad advice.  You don’t have to worry that you haven’t been hard enough.  The whole point of critique is to help the writer see the work again.  What she does with that work once she’s read your critique are up to her. 

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