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"Feedback can be a tricky thing. It’s like bacteria: the right type is good for you ...but the wrong type ...has you running to the toilet!" 

We're delighted to have Patricia Zaballos, author of WORKSHOPS WORK as our guest creativity blogger this week. She offers practical and helpful tips on how to give (and receive) feedback in this fantastic blog post. We love her tips and ideas! Three lucky people will also win ebook/PDF copies of her new book! Be sure to leave a comment below for a chance to win this terrific and useful book. --Anne and Ellen



 If you are the sort of writer who writes for an audience—meaning you’re not simply writing in a journal, or writing stories about your cat for just you and your cat—you might appreciate getting feedback on your writing from others. Feedback can be useful and encouraging and validating. It’s often just the thing a writer needs to move from one level of writing to another. It can offer the difference between feeling like you’re reading your work into a deep canyon and hearing nothing but the echoes of your own voice in reply, and feeling like you’re reading your work at a campfire beside that canyon, with a circle of captivated listeners, who roast marshmallows and urge you on.

There are many ways to get feedback on your work. You might gather a group of fellow writers—or even one writing friend—and take turns sharing your writing and offering one another feedback. Such a format is sometimes referred to as a writer’s workshop, or a writing club, as it is here on Spilling Ink. There are ideas for starting your own club here on the Spilling Ink website. If gathering with other writers proves difficult, you can try sharing your work with one or more readers via email, and asking for written feedback. I received some incredibly useful written feedback on drafts of my new book from friends I’ve gotten to know online—people whom I’ve never met in person. Or you might share your work with others in writing and then “meet” to discuss it using a platform like Skype. When one of the women in my own writing group moved away, we began having her join our meetings via Skype, and it’s worked surprisingly well.

 Feedback can be a tricky thing. It’s like bacteria: the right type is good for you, like the microscopic organisms in yogurt, but the wrong type proliferates in your gut and has you running to the toilet! The right kind of feedback encourages a writer, and inspires you to keep writing. Too much misguided, critical feedback, on the other hand, can discourage a writer, and make you wish you’d never shared your work in the first place.

After years of participating in writing groups myself, and facilitating writer’s workshops for kids, I’ve gathered some tips for offering the useful, encouraging kind of feedback to a writer. If you’re in a position to respond to the work of other writers, you might keep these tips in mind. And if you share your work with others, you could offer a copy of this list to make sure you receive the sort of feedback you need.


5 Tips for Offering Feedback to a Writer:


1. Focus on the positive. When it comes to giving feedback, people often treat positive remarks like a quick introductory handshake. They’re the polite gesture that precedes the “real” feedback: the honest, constructive, critical stuff. Hold it right there! Positive feedback may be more powerful than you realize. It’s important for writers to hear what we’re doing well—because we don’t always realize what we’re doing well. It’s difficult to have perspective on our writing from where we sit behind the pen or the keyboard. Positive feedback gives us that perspective; it helps us see our strengths as writers. And when we understand what we’re doing well, we can keep doing it. That’s what it takes to improve as a writer.

When offering feedback, tell writers which parts of their work capture your attention. Point out words and lines that seem original and special. When you say that you like something in a piece of writing, try to explain why you like it.

Your positive feedback can help a writer see how much he or she already knows about writing. It can inspire a writer to keep writing.

Don’t underestimate positive feedback’s power.


2. Don't try to rewrite another writer's work. When given the chance to offer feedback, people often resort to telling how they would write someone else’s piece. It’s simply easier, I think, to recognize “flaws” in the work of others than it is to see what ought to be fixed in our own work. As Tip #1 states, it’s challenging to have perspective on our own writing. We can’t always recognize what isn’t working. Because it can be such a challenge to revise our own work, shaping someone else’s writing can seem easier! More satisfying!

Rewriting another writer’s work is not your job as a responder, however. In a feedback session we should not be telling other writers how to change their work. It would be more useful to point out what the writer is doing effectively—and to offer constructive feedback carefully and sparingly. Which leads to my next tip.


3. Keep constructive feedback concentrated on a few specifics. Too much constructive feedback can overwhelm a writer. When readers suggest how to write a piece differently, it can muddy a writer’s own vision of the work. Instead, consider responding to two simple questions: What confuses you in the piece? What would you like to know more about? Focusing on these two questions concentrates your feedback on the writer’s words, rather what you would do with those words. Responses to these questions are likely to be useful, without seeming like you are attacking the writer’s work.


4. Let the writer's questions guide the feedback session.  The best way to insure that writers receive the feedback they need is to let writers ask for what they need. Before sharing work with others, a writer might consider what he or she wants help with, and assemble a list of questions. Did I give enough evidence to convince you that Marvel is superior to DC? What did you think about the zombie at the gas station? Did you believe in the friendship between the exiled princess and the ferret pilot, or do I need to add another scene or two? Questions should be complex enough to require readers to think, and to force them to respond with more than a simple yes or no. And if a writer really wants to know how readers might rewrite the work, or part of the work, he or she can ask.


5. If you're giving feedback in a group, consider using the Cone of Silence. This tip applies whether your group is meeting in person or via video. I learned about the Cone of Silence in one of my adult writing courses. Basically, you begin a feedback session by having the writer read a favorite paragraph of the work aloud. (Or the writer may read the entire piece—if readers haven’t seen the writing already—as we do in my kids’ writer’s workshops.) Then an invisible cone drops over the writer, and he or she can’t speak until the end of the feedback session.

This method is helpful for a few reasons. First, feedback sessions are likely to linger on and get bogged down if writers continually explain and defend what they’ve attempted to do in a piece. Even more important: if listeners are confused by any part of the work, the writer’s silence forces them to work together to tease out what confused them. The writer can hear how different readers interpreted the writing, which can be very instructive.

Towards the end of the feedback session, the cone should be raised so the writer can ask those essential questions posed in Tip #4.


A few final words from Patricia

One of the most important things to remember about feedback is that you can learn as much by giving it as you do when you receive it. Offering feedback to another writer helps you pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work in writing. It helps refine your ideas about what kind of writer you want to be.

If you’re serious about writing, consider finding another writer—or two, or five—and sharing your work with one another. It’s likely to be more encouraging than reading your work to your cat, or into an empty canyon. And whether or not s’mores or campfires are involved, the feedback you give and receive is likely to fire up your writing in ways you hadn’t imagined. -- Patricia Zaballos


Patricia Zaballos is a writer, a longtime homeschooling parent, and a former elementary school teacher. She has facilitated kids' writer's workshops for over a dozen years. Little thrills her more than getting kids worked up about the written word! Patricia lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is an avid knitter, beekeeper and chef of all things faceless. She writes about writing, homeschooling and passion-driven learning on her blog, Wonder Farm. You can also follow her on Twitter  and Facebook.


Be sure to post a comment by December 4, 2012 for a chance to win one of three ebooks of Patricia's wonderful new WORKSHOPS WORK!


Reader Comments (31)

this is a FANTABULOUS blog post! answered just about every question i had about giving/getting advice!!!
oh, and by the way, i'm also homeschooled (cyber-five)
PS okay, maybe i DO have one more question hahaha :) well, i have this one writer friend that will not give me any negative feedback whatsoever. she just says, 'oh, no, no, it's awesome! i love it! don't change a thing!' there is no such thing as a flawless writer, so i know this isn't true, but how do i get criticisim from a too-soft friend?

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterscribbles

Scribbles, some people simply feel uncomfortable giving constructive feedback. It can be helpful to ask those readers the specific questions I mentioned in tip #3. You might ask if there are any parts that are confusing, or places where they would have liked to hear more. That sort of feedback doesn't necessarily feel like "negative" feedback, and someone who is reluctant to give constructive feedback might feel more comfortable with it.

You can also ask more specific questions, as mentioned in tip #4. It's often easier for a reader to answer your questions than it is to answer a question such as, "What should I fix?"

Then again, there will always be those readers who only want to give positive feedback. As I mentioned in tip #1, that's not a bad thing! Just push those people to make their positive feedback specific and concrete--you might ask them to underline words and lines that they like, for example--and to tell you why they like them! You can learn from that sort of feedback.

If you still seek more constructive feedback, search out other writers. Sometimes it takes time to find the readers who really *get* your work and give you the sort of feedback you need.

Keep writing!

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpatricia

The questions in # 3 will be very helpful when my son asks me to read his work, thank you!

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteramd

This is a great post! Very helpful!

Totally random.. BUT I HAVE A BOOK REVIEW BLOG!!!!!!! http://immersedinthepages.blogspot.com/
Just started... not a lot BUT HEY

-Love peace and dragons

November 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

This is great! My daughter writes a lot and exchanges her stories via email with a friend. This will be useful.

November 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commentershannon c

This was very timely, as I have agreed to comment on a writer's work whom I hardly. Although I make it a rule to always start (and end!) with positive comments, I found myself quickly going into fix-it mode. This was a great reminder of how to proceed in a spirit of generosity and collaboration. Thank you!!

November 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Gettel-Gilmartin

These are great tips, and I can see how they would be useful for any age group. My oldest is only 6 so not a huge storyteller yet, but I know they'll come in handy down the road. I also get asked quite frequently by friends to critique/edit pieces, so this definitely comes in handy for that as well! Thank you. :)

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChessa

I love the way Patricia writes. And her workshops were very inspiring to all those she touched. My son was not much of a writer during his "schooling years". However, he learned so much from Patricia's workshops that when he writes now I can really hear his voice. Thank you Patricia!

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina

my daughter (9) is a big fan of the spilling ink book. she says,"i like that it lets me think in my own way and offers suggestions instead of telling me what to do. and i like stories that tell a little bit about the author in the story, which this book does. this isn't a book that tries to encourage people to write if they don't like to write. it tells people what to expect and shows all sides of writing."

i am a big fan of patricia's blog! it offers perspectives and suggestions that really resonate with me as a homeschooling parent. patricia's ideas have helped me develop a curiosity and a desire to write after years and years of being unhappy with my writing experiences. i have been looking forward to the release of her book so i can add it to my own reference shelf at home.

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdawn

I'm a homeschooling mama of 4. the oldest who is 9 is a great writer but it can be hard to get him to actually write. This book look like a great way to encourage him to write more often and help him along the way!

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchristina

Great tips! I have a horrible time trying to figure out how to give useful feedback or start a beneficial dialogue when talking with my homeschooled daughter about her stories.

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Rayn

Patricia has fantastic tips in this piece.
I will be using them; never thought to *actually* offer feedback to a writer!
And yet I have many times thought about sharing my thoughts with a writer; this has definitely paved the way. I like the succinct tips. Thanks Patricia and Spilling Ink for sharing!

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary

I think these are good tips, points well made...for feedback to writers or giving feedback about almost anything else. Thanks. DS

November 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

I'd really love to encourage writing in my son and daughter as we homeschool together, and this book sounds like an excellent way to do so. Thanks for sharing!

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

I would love a copy of her book! I think this would be a great way to encourage my son to write more often & actually enjoy it!

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

This was so helpful! I will definitely be using this in my writing club! Thanks :)

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOBC

I loved reading this post and will be exploring your blog more tonight. Thanks for offering this giveaway.

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCathyT

I would love a copy of her book and I'm excited to have discovered your website. Thanks for the giveaway!

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNanette

Oh, I want this book! Love your website, too. Thanks for the giveaway opportunity!

December 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoxy

Although the giveaway is over, I hope that young Spilling Ink readers will continue chatting about offering feedback here in the comments! There's so much to talk about. I'm glad that Scribbles asked a question, and it would be fun to hear more!

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpatricia

The Cone of Silence is fantastic for workshops - in one of my classes, we did this each week, and it really affected the writing in the following weeks.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen

I just wrote an ebook and one of the most valuable and interesting parts of the process was asking for and receiving feedback from other writers. The best feedback I received followed these guidelines exactly - highlighting the stuff that worked and one or two things that were confusing/made the reader get bogged down. It was really helpful!

I'd love to win a copy of Workshops Work! I've got my fingers crossed...

hi ann and elen my storie is sixty words over the limmit how can i eddit it

December 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter.

To the person who asked the question about editing: read through your story and see if there are any words or sentences that aren't necessary. See if you can "tighten up" your story a bit. This should make it stronger! (Don't take out things that need to be there.) If you're a few words over, don't worry. Good luck! Anne

December 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterAnne & Ellen


December 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter.

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