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How to give feedback on creative writing
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I recently received bad feedback on one of my creative writing pieces. Not bad like, “Wow, you are such a bad writer,” But more like, “Uhm, so, can it be different?” bad.
Now, I am not a professor or coach, but as someone who has their writing commissioned and gets paid to be a storyteller, I have had my fair share of bad and good feedback. Moments like these force me to sit back, ground myself, and remember that bad or good, positive or negative, all feedback is a chance to do better - to be better. And most importantly, to separate myself from the words on the page. Separate myself from their feedback. I am doing the work. I am creating new stories. I am fine.
I have realized that, similarly to the art of creative writing, giving feedback is not everyone's specialty. So, here’s the crash course, Studio Wednesday style.
Before the story begins
Before allowing the writer to go back to their dark den and begin typing away, it’s first good to have a base for what you want. It’s easy and a little lazy to say, “You can have total creative freedom,” unless that is what you mean (and it’s usually not).
But, Caitie, you’re the creative. I definitely trust you! Thank you, kind, fake person in my head. Creative freedom is fantastic, but if you have a base or at least a subject you know you want to be written about, please share it. The more concrete your direction is, the easier it is for the writer to understand what you're looking for.
Not sure where to start or how to find your direction? Creative writing is all around you. Pick up your favorite book or turn on your last binged Netflix series. Think about if there’s anything that you would like to be brought over to the piece. What makes sense for your brand? Is there a feeling you want readers left with? Even specific words or story elements can be helpful to know. This is the starting point for the writer, the direction you point them in.
The first draft
It’s wild that I feel like I need to say this, but there is a person who is behind that piece of work that you are critiquing. Yes, you are paying for something. Yes, you should get what you want. But you hired them for a reason, and they poured themselves into this piece.
First, before attempting to provide feedback, you must read it a few times or at least give yourself a quiet space to digest it fully. This will allow you to understand the piece as a whole, and then you can start to break down the specifics about what doesn’t quite work for you and what does.
Yes, feedback about what is working is equally important as what isn’t. This allows the writer to understand what elements of the story you connect with. And not just “Ah, love!” There should be some reasoning behind it. This allows me, as the writer, to digest what lines make you happy and why, making it easier to continue to produce them.
My best feedback actually comes from other writers or people who have worked with writers in the past. They first will say, “Here is what I love…” and equally, “Here is what’s not working for me….” It’s good feedback if they can pinpoint specificities about what stands out to them (positive and negative).
Where to give feedback
As I see it, there are two categories of feedback: macro and micro, big picture and small details. The first thing you should hear is the macro feedback which should include both what worked and what didn’t work. For both parties, big-picture feedback works really well over the phone or in person. Ensuring things are understood and not lost over text. This could sound something like:
“I enjoyed reading this piece. It was easy for me to get lost in the details and really imagine being there with the characters. However, I felt a bit lost at the beginning. I wanted to see a bit more leading up to this. It wasn’t working for me that there was no back story here, maybe some opportunity to bring X and Y in.”
This already helps immensely. I clearly understand what elements to keep and what to edit. A small detail here, notice how the above feedback is in statements, not questions. I have found that sometimes people want to pose questions. I don't know why, to soften the blow, maybe? Though, your question is not a question, really. It’s a passive way of telling me that this didn’t work for you. And now, I have to dig to find out exactly what you mean.
The micro or small-detail feedback is the next step in co-creation(if the time and budget allow for it). For this step, I enjoy writing using software like google docs. I typically write the piece and then share it with those I am working with. However, they only get “edit” access, allowing me to see all their thoughts and suggestions - not just a clean document that leaves me searching for what edits they added. I can see where specific comments are left. There are highlights where specific phrases or sentences should be removed or tweaked. I am left with a clear image of their thoughts and (hopefully) reasoning behind them.
Begin before the story is written. Writing briefs can be challenging to work with sometimes, but they can be a wonderful way to ensure your writer understands what you want and don’t want.
Value the creator's time and energy. Sure, we’re getting paid for this in the end (I hope), but we still want to hear that you appreciate our work and how much time goes into creating and editing a piece.
Spend time thinking about what works and what doesn't. Find specifics, and explain the ‘why’ behind those specifics. There’s nothing worse than no Why.
If the whole thing is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on why, be honest about it. Work together with the writer to investigate why and find a new direction. I would rather write ten drafts than have a subpar story you’re unhappy with.
Take time to understand their choices. Doing so might help you understand their process and style, helping you learn how to brief them (or anyone) better next time.
In the end, it boils down to being kind, honest, and specific.
That’s all for now. Chat soon.
Caitie from Studio Wednesday