Giving helpful feedback on writing

The purpose is to help the writer improve her/his story by identifying what works well and what doesn’t.

In my writing group, each writer sends a list of queries to the group along with her story. These vary depending on the stage of development of the story, the particular challenges in the story, and the strengths or weaknesses of the writer.

This is how we do it:

1. Cone of silence.

The author is surrounded by a cone of silence and cannot comment on the feedback. The readers discuss the story as if the writer is not present.

2. Summary or What the story is really about.

One reader volunteers to summarize the story in 1-2 sentences. This helps clarify whether the narrative is clear or not. When the reader is done, we ask if everyone agrees. If not, an additional reader (or two) summarizes the story. If everyone is on the same page, this confirms for the writer what the story is about. If the author doesn’t agree with the summary, then this helps identify a disconnect between the author’s intent and the reader’s understanding.

3. What works.

Each reader, in turn, identifies the main items in the story that work. The narrative arc, the dialogue, characters’ three-dimensionality, the mood etc. We keep it on the page by providing examples or illustrations from the text.

4. What doesn’t work.

Each reader identifies the items with which she had difficulty (not believable, confusing, transitions etc.) and explain why. Again, we keep it on the page by providing examples or illustrations from the text.

“It just isn’t believable,” doesn’t cut it. Why isn’t it believable? Where isn’t it believable? Why and where is it believable? Again keep it on the page.

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