WORKING SMARTER: Understanding What Kind of Feedback You Need and When You Need It


One of the difficulties with standard critique group models is that they can present a kind of "one stop shopping," with the same kinds of feedback being given to writers who are in the rough draft phase as in later drafts. They can also be, I fear, a bit too prescriptive, with writers chiming in to not just make suggestions but DEMANDS. Or they can focus on minutiae of phrasing and punctuation when there are much bigger and more compelling fish to fry.

A danger of this model is that it can create a kind of passivity on the part of the writer being critiqued, or even a REACTIVITY, where the writer is being asked to jump through very specific hoops, based on the feedback given to them by a group of trusted advisors.

So, I've devised a format that allows the writer to bring a bit more to the table, one that relies--especially when a writer is in the beginning phases of a project--more on discussion, on taking the group's temperature, getting feedback on the group's IMPRESSONS rather than direct and concrete suggestions when a work is not quite ready for such things.

Give it a try with your group and let me know what you think!

PHASE ONE (Rough or Early Draft)

In this stage, the focus might be on a simple dialogue/discussion about the work. Suggestions for improvement may come later. This is just about general impressions.

Some questions/topics:

  1. What’s happening in this scene? (Literally. What’s unfolding?)

  2. What is the viewpoint character attempting to accomplish in this scene?

  3. What is your impression of the protagonist (antagonist) in this scene? How do his/her actions reveal his/her character?

  4. How would you characterize the voice/tone of the scene?

  5. How would you characterize the feeling of intimacy/narrative distance in this scene?

  6. What emotions are conjured for you as you read this scene?

  7. To what other book might you compare this one?

PHASE TWO (Middle Drafts)

  1. Does the opposition seem clear and significant enough to pose a compelling obstacle in this scene?

  2. Do you sympathize/empathize with the viewpoint character here?

  3. Do you want the viewpoint character to get what he or she wants?

  4. How am I handling the balance between exposition and concrete, observable action?

  5. How am I handling the pacing of this scene? Does it seem just right or does it flow too quickly or take too long to unfold?

  6. Do you understand what motivates the protagonist/antagonist/viewpoint character in this scene?

  7. (For later scenes) Do you have a sense of escalation in this story? Are the goals becoming more critical, the tension higher, the protagonist’s involvement more inextricable?

PHASE THREE (Last Drafts)

NOW is a great time for more concrete suggestions from your reader.

  1. In your view, is this scene successful?

  2. What elements are still eluding me?

  3. Are there issues of language/voice that need attention? If so, what are they?

  4. Does anything seem lacking in credibility here? How might I improve that?

  5. As a reader, what pleased you here and what left you feeling unsatisfied?

  6. Any last nagging issues of grammar, formatting, etc., that need my attention?

MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, don't be shy in directing your critique group to help you in the specific way YOU want to be helped. If you're not ready for feedback on grammar, let the group know. If you have a specific concern, ask the group to please focus their comments there. Remember, that it's YOUR group; it should serve you. But remember to be open, and to listen, always. Ask for what you need and then give people the space to offer it. The results may help you go from good to GREAT.