During The Writer’s Studio, I met with a small group of writers to give each other in-depth feedback on our fiction. We got together every two weeks for a year. I found the discussions on what a helpful critique might include almost as fascinating as the discussions about our work. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was whether it’s better to get the perspective of a reader or a writer. To me, both are invaluable.
From the reader’s perspective
At the most basic level, it’s helpful to know what each person in the group thought the story was about. It might sound obvious, but believe me it’s not. What we intend as the writer may be shockingly different from what the reader gets out of the story. If there’s a pattern of misinterpretation, that’s worth knowing. You can use that information to focus your revisions and may even want to send the manuscript out for feedback a second time to see what’s shifted.
Other feedback from the reader’s perspective helps you gauge level of interest. The world is filled with words. Yours need to be engaging or they won’t be read. While finding out whether people liked your story can feel uncomfortable, it’s information you need to know. Did they find the characters vivid? Was the plot engaging? Did they want to keep reading? Although you could send your work to family and friends, they’re less likely to give you this kind of feedback. But writers who have chosen to be part of the mutually supportive environment of a workshop will.
To me, the pinnacle of reader feedback is to ask if the story broadened their perspective. The stories I hold most closely are those that opened my mind to new ideas, experiences and places. It’s a brave question to ask with an answer we all yearn for. Why not find out what your workshop group has to say? It’s a rare opportunity.
The members of your workshop are some of the best readers you’ll ever have. They are attentive and motivated. Plus, they have something to give you that is hard to find elsewhere—an honest opinion gently shared. If you’re fortunate enough to be amongst fellow writers with an equal commitment to helping each other, this type of feedback can be what you need to take your writing to the next level. But it can be a distressing place to stop. Let me explain why.
From the writer’s perspective
Feedback shifts to a writer’s perspective when it includes matters of craft. It’s easier to hear that one of your characters seemed flat if that feedback is given with ideas for improvement. This type of feedback helps you move from disappointment to action, which is the whole point of workshopping. The end goal of every critique is to leave the writer keen to continue.
And thinking about matters of craft is good for the person giving the feedback too. We learn to revise our own work by helping others revise theirs. It’s often true that we more readily see shortcomings and opportunities in other people’s work than our own. Learning how to look for these things is a skill and it develops with use.
It’s important to not only find elements that might be improved, but to take a considered look at what’s working well. Everyone in the group benefits from exploring things that are working well. A key question is always how. If we understand how the story worked well, we can try those strategies in our own work.
I think of it as learning to use a wide range of tools. As we continue writing, each story demands its own method and approach. Having a well stocked box of tools that you know how to use makes story building more doable.
There’s room for us all
My greatest takeaway from the workshops so far is the overwhelming assurance that there are many ways to tell a story. The sandbox is enormous with plenty of room for all of us. After all, creativity is just fancy talk for play, which is an important part of the workshop environment. So go ahead and have fun.
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