Giving a view on someone’s writing is not the stuff of PhDs, yet poor quality feedback can devastate and destroy a person’s confidence in their creativity. Conversely, undeserved positive feedback does no one any good, either.
If people constantly tell you your work is good but it doesn’t sell, then it is lacking. If a publisher will not take your work, self-publishing may be the answer but the question to ask yourself is why a publisher is not interested, bearing in mind publishers, as commercial enterprises, have little time to give full feedback.
One of the massive benefits of writing groups is the chance for others to see your work in a safe environment and to comment upon it. In an established writing group, there is a sense of honest friendship that works really well in terms of critical appraisal of your words/manuscript. There are also some people who you know will be kind but honest about your work. Use them!
So, how can feedback be kind while also being productive?
Feedback should be supportive, but it should also be honest. Praise and superficial comments are the confidence-boosting stuff of family and friends, not of anyone seriously trying to help you to improve your writing. Honest does not mean dismissive, it means candid, in a good way. Writers understandably hate criticism, as they grow attached to their words, so be careful how you give it.
Constructive criticism is essential for anyone to learn. To criticise constructively, you need to be able to identify something specific in the text that doesn’t work for you and be able to explain why. It may be that the writer has not developed a character well enough for a comment to have meaning, for example, or they are assuming knowledge the reader does not have. Conversely, you need to be able to identify what works well, and why. To say something is ‘good’ without being able to identify why is merely damning with faint praise, the sort of thing parents try to avoid when talking about their children’s work.
I rather like TAG approach: tell, ask, give.
I recently tried painting again after a 20-month gap. The painting was completed in 40 minutes and I am well aware it is not good. However, my artist friend Karen looked at it and gave positive feedback but in a constructive way meant to encourage me to try again and harder. Let me show you what I mean.
Feedback: … gorgeous texture and well judged greens, not easy … Karen Thomas
Feedback: Soft edges on horizon & right-hand distant rock work excellent! Blending of darks great. Judgement of tonal recession on rocks great to make further away ones look distant. That patch of warmth on the left? Bring it further in the foreground and it’ll bring the foreground further forward, extra aid to recession. Cool colours move back, warmth brings stuff forward – Karen Thomas
Writing is not painting but the same principles apply. You want the recipient to feel inspired to improve, not to want to crawl under the duvet and cry. Comment on the good qualities in a specific way. Then pick out the negatives, but also using specific comments. Give advice (as Karen does about the use of colour, etc.), such as the use of linguistic devices, imagery and colourful wordplay.
The question about anyone’s work is: is this worth doing and if so how could it be improved/made even better?
The more you strive to improve, and the more you listen to constructive criticism, the better your work will be.