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Racontesse Musings… Feedback on Feedback

There are rules people; just keep to the rules and nobody gets hurt.

In every class there is someone who hasn't got a clue what's going on.

A fellow student might have read out a scene of violence, akin only to Scarface and 'the someone' says … "That would make a great children's book." What the f@#k!? Everyone's checking each other out, wondering if they've all just heard the same story and how on earth this individual formulated their completely bizarre interpretation. The lecturer then has to manage the feelings of 'the someone' sharing their 'original take'.

Feedback from your peers is invaluable – how else do you know if you're making good creative decisions? Especially when you're new to it. It's a very delicate issue, which involves trust and simpatico, the person reading your story has to understand what you're trying to achieve, otherwise what's the point. This underpins the entire process. Your reader or class have to know where you're headed. They have to listen without interruption and only then do they get to clarify points and reflect back at the writer what works and what doesn’t. Not offer up crazy suggestions, which are the death of progress – the only thing a writer can then think of is the crazy suggestion.

When I first started going to creative writing classes it was excruciating. I was embarrassed about everything; my level of spelling and grammar, my feelings of inadequacy and lack of cultural capital and my inability to read confidently out aloud. Every session was stressful, but necessary if I wanted to improve my writing. There was a stage when I felt constantly under threat and cringing, wanted to retaliate or explain: "No, no, you don't understand it's not like that, not at all." It's horrible to feel misunderstood in that way, but I learned to take it on the chin and not make it personal. I really listened to what my classmates were saying. Sometimes it wasn't immediately obvious and I had to read between the lines – there's something that isn't working and the writer is the only person that can make sense of it, but to have it identified is crucial.

Even now I'm fairly experienced, I never respond immediately to feedback. Everything feels like a criticism the first time you read it, but I urge restraint. Set it aside for a few days and come back to it and I guarantee that it won't seem harsh. It's true that there are some editors or fellow writers who just don't know how to give constructive criticism without being unkind or controlling. These people need to be weeded out of your trusted trio of commentators. It is the quality of writing that's important and everyone should be working towards making it the best it can be and not scoring points. Don't work with people that make you feel bad about your work. This is usually a family member – don't do it!

Judging feedback is never going to be an easy task and the more you write the more you can rely on your own choices. A writer has to work out what suits their process. Taking my time I absorb comments and work with at least three readers; if three people aren't clear about the same thing, then I know it's not working in the way I intended and I have to do something about it. Without resistance or resentment.

Good feedback is as complicated to unwrap, as is good writing and all parties involved should approach it with clarity, generosity and honesty. Without it, it's the writing that suffers the most.

Sarah Gray

13 July 2020

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