Part One: Setting The Stage for Effective Feedback
For students, sharing their work is frequently the most anxiety-inducing—yet also the most satisfying—element of a writing workshop. To have someone read or listen to your work and give thoughtful feedback is a gift for a writer. While it’s certainly nice when someone says they like what you’ve written, to have someone give you specific details of how they experienced your work can be very enlightening, if done with skill and thoughtfulness on both sides.
When preparing students for the act of sharing and talking about their work, I do so in a specific sequence of activities in order to develop skills in workshopping.
The first activity I do is “just listening.” We so rarely simply listen to each other in our lives, and having someone to bounce ideas off, who is not going to judge or try to sway you in different directions can be invaluable. This is especially effective in the draft or early-ideas stage. Writers need to figure out their ideas, develop them, build on them—not have them shut down. With “just listening,” writers share ideas and perhaps an initial draft of their work. The “reader” simply listens, giving the writer full attention. (This is not as easy as it sounds, and I tell students that their minds are likely to wander off—just try to watch out for that!) Hold back from jumping in and offering any thoughts. It might be helpful to set a timer—somewhere between 2 and 5 minutes is good for a starting point. After we do this, I suggest to my students that they try this with friends or partners—that this in itself can make a difference in a relationship.
The next stage is to ask questions. The idea is to help the writer develop and draw out their ideas. Open-ended questions, or questions designed to go deeper and give more details, work the best here. Questions that start with how, what, where, who and why are optimum. It is important that the reader/listener keep from providing critique or evaluation. The idea here is to simply have a dialogue.
These first two activities set the stage for feedback that is just that—feedback. I am careful not to use words like “editing” or “evaluation.” I want to make it clear that the purpose of this is not for students to “correct” each other or to point out mistakes, but to dialogue and to help each other develop their ideas. You can use this approach by asking your readers to simply listen, and/or to ask you questions about your work. Make sure that your readers know this is an early draft and that you are not at the point yet where you are looking for comments on specific areas like word choice, syntax, or other specifics. This is a gray area, of course—sometimes looking at specifics gives rise to a bigger issue—but for the most part, both you and your reader should understand the purpose in the early stages is to grow and develop conceptually, not to hammer out specific choices. For readers who are not used to giving this kind of feedback, giving them a list of questions can be helpful; another option is to simply ask the reader to listen. Make sure also that you are getting—and that, as a reader, you are giving—encouragement and support. Like the first steps or first words of a child, a writer in an early draft often needs this. For this reason, when reading early drafts from students and fellow writers, I focus on asking questions, pointing out areas I’m interested in, and asking for more. Students are then encouraged to further develop their ideas. In the end though, you as a writer need to think about what you most need at the stage you are at. Don’t be afraid to ask for it! The more guidance you can give the reader, the more helpful the feedback will be.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the next stage in the writer-reader feedback process and explain my title: “The Writer is Always Right; The Reader is Always Right.”
Photo of “La Conversacion” in Havana, Cuba– copyright Eve Andersson