Two: The Writer and Reader Working Together
Too often students approach peer feedback with the idea that they are going to share what a writer is doing “wrong.” That’s why I always tell them:
“The writer is always right; the reader is always right.”
Then we talk about how the writer obviously wrote something in a particular way for a reason. The reader’s interpretation is just that—his interpretation. This does not absolve writers and readers from laziness or sloppiness. The writer should try as much as possible to have a clear purpose and to execute it clearly. Sometimes, however, the writer needs to ‘hear back’ what the reader is seeing in order to decide if she’s been successful. Similarly, the reader should give the writing full attention so he can give good feedback. In the end, the feedback is information for the writer. Readers have opinions based on a variety of experiences, knowledge, and prejudices. Great writers find readers who consistently give them reliable feedback. These readers might be a friend, spouse, partner, or editor. It makes sense that readers and writers who work together over a long period of time get the most of out of it. As we learn more about where each person is coming from, we are able to give and receive more constructive feedback. At the same time, just as we need to take a break and look at our writing with a new set of eyes, new readers can provide just the kind of insight we might need.
Writers and artists throughout history have flourished with the help of groups who gather together consistently and support, encourage, and critique each other. The magic of these groups is, of course, the shared interest and passion. This shared interest and passion can be much harder to attain in the classroom. However, having a shared purpose—producing good work—can be enough. It is remarkable and inspiring to see how much students start to care about their work when they start having other students read it. While there are always a few who are hesitant to share, the committed writers are eager to share and to hear what readers have to say, not to stroke their egos but because they really care about doing a good job.
In the previous post, I indicated some foundational exercises students or new writers can do when sharing work. The next step in sharing work is laying down some ground rules. Some groups like to insist the writer stays quiet; others don’t think this is necessary. Usually readers are encouraged to keep their comments confined to global questions and reflections, rather than close editing. It can often be helpful for the writer to simply talk about what she is working on, as was done in the “just listening” exercise. Having some time alone with the piece, reading it a couple time, jotting down comments can be really productive. Readers are most helpful when they:
*Tell writers what they think the piece is about (This may seem obvious, but it can often be pretty illuminating. )
*Take note of inconsistencies
*Encourage writers for more
*Describe the picture they see, feelings they experience, or thoughts they had on reading a passage.
Traditionally, the writer’s workshop has been modeled on putting the teacher at center stage, as the final arbiter of taste. For writers who want nothing else but to write, this kind of atmosphere may be useful in building up resilience in order to withstand rejection. For other students and writers, however, who really want to know how their work affects readers, a more conscious, constructive form of workshop is needed.
By employing and cultivating skills like active listening, mindful reading, question-asking, and a deep respect for the roles of both the writer and reader, we can encourage students to take ownership of their writing. We can hear feedback in a way that will encourage us to return to the desk and keep on working, until our work is the very best it can be.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Sheila Bender, Writing and Publishing Personal Essays
I love this book. Bender lays out a simple but very effective technique for responding to writing. This is great for anyone interested in writing nonfiction–or any kind of narrative.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
Sci-fi author Le Guin gives some no-nonsense advice on writing (for fiction writers), including an appendix with guidelines for writers’ groups.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Goldberg often talks about getting together with other writers to write and share work. Her exercises provide some great starting points for getting the pen flowing.