The fastest way to see our writing with fresh eyes is to look through the eyes of a reader. Established authors might profess that they don’t reveal their work to anyone until it’s done, or complain about writing workshops producing works created by consensus. But writers who are still learning the craft need exposure to the dirty inner workings of writing; they need to see others struggling with their same questions, and they need to learn from others’ mistakes and successes. It’s possible to receive nourishing, instructive feedback on a manuscript-in-progress.
Here are some thoughts on giving and receiving feedback that will benefit your work:
1. Be careful not to share your work prematurely. Have you allowed yourself plenty of time in that cloud of safety and unknowing? Only solicit feedback when you’re genuinely curious about developing your piece. If you’re looking for someone to endorse your creative process—to say “This work is valuable!”—don’t share it. No one has the power to validate creativity.
2. Choose your audience carefully. Writing is work; you need work colleagues, not cheerleaders. The best people to respond to creative work mid-draft are those who are seriously committed to the creative process themselves. Find peers at your level of experience and teachers you respect. Note that even excellent, successful authors can lack the skills needed to respond constructively to creative writing, and that the best teachers are not always successful authors.
Avoid sharing your work with family or friends. Attachment makes family members, especially parents, miserable critics. Mom wants to see us succeed too badly; Dad is too worried about what others will think; neither has any objectivity because love and pride and self-consciousness are in the way.
Another way to say this: Find readers who can respond to your writing as separate from yourself. My colleague Cheri Register, an excellent reader, says, “My business as a friendly critic is inherently respectful: A direct, cathartic cry of sorrow calls for consolation, but a poem offered for critique deserves to be read as a poem.” The best readers open up possibilities for your text and for personal growth. If you stop writing after receiving feedback, ask yourself, “Have I stopped because I’m avoiding growing as a person or writer? Or have I stopped because I’ve allowed this reader’s assessment to knock down my creative process?” If you answer yes to the latter, fire your reader.
3. Ask for stage-appropriate feedback. Readers of work-in-progress need to know where you are in the development of your work. Early on, ask readers the big questions. What is this piece about? What might it be about? What themes do you see rising up? What are you curious to have me pursue? Midway through, ask questions about cutting and expanding, thematic unity, organization, character development. Toward the end, ask for feedback on sentence structure, word choice, and other suggestions that will clean up the manuscript.
4. Remember that your writing has become a thing. Others’ responses are addressed to your work, not to you. When a classmate asks, “When did this scene take place?” she is asking the question of the text. Write the question down. Later, consider whether or not to address the question in your writing. The work, as an independent entity, must answer for itself.
5. Feedback matures with age. For this reason, take notes while others discuss your work. Initial emotional reactions to comments are not always trustworthy. Allow some time to pass; reread your manuscript; take notes in your journal. Then reevaluate the comment.
6. Develop your inner tuning fork. The best feedback resonates—it feels true. Always assess others’ comments against your own sense of the piece’s heartbeat. Your job isn’t to address every comment you’re given; it’s to use these comments to help you see your piece with fresh eyes.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew