Dispatch from AWP: Giving Dynamic Feedback

Giving feedback is about encouragement, tact, carefully-worded questions, and careful reading. Regular participants at BWW workshops know this already.

Today’s panel discussion on giving feedback at AWP, called “Beyond ‘Show, Don’t Tell’: How to Give (and Get) Truly Dynamic Feedback,” spelled out a few fascinating reasons why.

Writer and teacher of creative writing Neil Connelly told the crowd that his first concern when giving one of his own stories to someone else for feedback is to “learn what story [the reader’s] mind conjures.” The scenes he writes won’t appear exactly as he intended in the reader’s mind. Sometimes they’re very close, which is good; sometimes they’re not.

“The reader will never share the same sentiment as you do,” Connelly says. The goal, he said, is to get as close to that sentiment as possible. “There will always be distance.”

Another tip for giving feedback: Don’t disregard what’s working in the piece. Mention it when you’re writing your response. “I know that can seem token,” he said, “but I think it’s crucial to turn your attention to the good stuff.”

The last bit of Connelly’s wisdom I’ll share with you is about tracking your responses. “Isn’t that what we need most?” he asks. “Some record of raw emotion?” He asked his students to log their reactions on every page. Writers need to see how each moment resonated (or didn’t).

He was also careful to note that it’s wise to stick to your own reaction and avoid making grand pronouncements. Example: Let’s say you’re reading a story and a particular element strikes you as unbelievable. For whatever reason, it failed to convince you. To say, “This is impossible,” is a grant statement that may cause some irritation (plus it might not be true). Saying “I don’t believe this” speaks to your personal experience of the piece.

Kekla Magoon, who serves on faculty at VCFA, also weighed in on giving feedback in the context of a creative writing workshop. “Editors are in it to make the book in front of them stronger,” she said. “MFA teachers are in it to make the writer stronger.” It’s a sentiment that strikes me as one we should always carry with us to the BWW workshop table.

Magoon also noted the lack of value in tearing someone down “to inspire toughness in them.” When it comes to writing a response for her students, she said, “If all I can see is what is not working, then I am not doing my job.”

And also, this gem: “The thing you learn might not come from your piece. It might come from someone else’s piece.”

Shawn Stout, a graduate of VCFA, said it took her a long time to “become friends with feedback.” She says she didn’t particularly enjoy getting negative feedback, but learned that her writing wasn’t getting any better. Eventually, however, she says she learned to let go of fear and ego and find the wisdom the feedback had to offer.

She also quoted Winston Churchill, who said: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

We don’t really use the word “criticism” to describe what we do at the BWW, but we could just as easily replace that word with “feedback,” since it does call attention to the true nature of the piece.

Learn more about giving feedback.