Feeling stuck? Not sure where to turn? You’re not the only one. In this month’s Getting Unstuck, assistant editor Jen Dupree explores resources for getting feedback, including when and where to seek feedback, how to know what kind of feedback you need, and where to find writing groups!
Writing is a tender business. Most of us write alone, which is how I do my generative work and my early drafts. But at some point, especially before submission, all of us need at least one other set of eyes on our work because it’s too easy to miss obvious mistakes if you go it alone—inconsistencies with plot, character, or setting; weird sentences; even unintentional character name changes—and those things can be the difference between publication or rejection. But when is it the right time to seek feedback? And how do you seek feedback? And what do you do with the feedback you get?
First: When is the right time to seek feedback? For me, early drafts are too full of the kind of mistakes I can find myself and so for that reason, I usually write at least three drafts of something before I show it to anyone. But really, you can decide to show your work to anyone at any stage. The kind of feedback you’ll get will depend on where you are in the process, and it’s important that you know what you’re looking for before you seek critique. In this episode of Writer’s Digest Presents, host Michael Woodson says, “You should really be thoughtful about what you want at this particular time. Do you just want community? Do you want people to look at your writing and give you feedback?” If you just want to produce pages, that’s a very different thing than wanting feedback on a sentence level. Woodson and his co-hosts also suggest expressly telling the writing group what you’re there for; if you’re confident about a certain area and don’t want feedback on it, say so. This has become standard practice for my writing group. We exchange pages via email on a monthly basis and in the email setup for the pages, we say where the draft is and what we want others to focus on. Here’s a quote from one of my emails: These pages are loose. Like the wind. I just want to know if it has legs. (yes, I hear the mixed metaphor.) The point is that for me in that draft, feedback on a split infinitive would not have been helpful. I was only looking for big-picture feedback and because I was able to ask for it, that’s what I got.
What you want for feedback will change with each draft, but the people you write with might not. I’ve been writing with some form of the same group for almost a decade now. I found my writing group by finding one person in a graduate school workshop whose writing I admired, but, more importantly, who critiqued in ways that felt thoughtful and measured. It was a bonus that we ended up living near each other. We were a group of two for years until a third graduate-school friend asked if she could join and, after discussion, we said yes. The three of us wrote for years until my first friend mentioned a friend of hers who was a writer and could she join us. We are four people who care about and honor each other’s work. We have questions, even disagreements, about sentences or paragraphs, and that’s fine. That’s good, in fact, because disagreement highlights how subjective writing can be. But we don’t ever say mean or cutting things to one another. In this episode of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing host Bianca Marais echoes the need for trust: “Writing means making yourself vulnerable…and because of that vulnerability, you need to be surrounded by people who get you, who are invested in you…because getting critique from the wrong people is worse than not getting critique at all.” A writing group should not make you feel under attack. You should leave with your head full of thoughts, ideas, advice, but you should not leave feeling like you want to give up.
And what if you don’t agree with the feedback you get? Or, what if, like I mentioned happens in my writing group, you get mixed messages from the group? Personally, I find it helpful when that happens because it forces me to articulate what I’m trying to do in a particular piece of writing, not so much to defend my work (because defensiveness can get in the way of really hearing what’s being said), but to clarify, to really nail down what I’m trying to say. In this episode of #AmWriting, Joni Cole notes that “[it] is our job as writers to put [feedback] through our editorial mill.” A writer can’t—and shouldn’t—apply every piece of feedback. It’s important to hear all feedback given in the spirit of kindly moving a piece forward, but it’s equally important to hit pause, to think about the feedback, ideally for a few days or weeks, and then come back to the work with the critique somewhere hovering in mind. Cole says, “Feedback I don’t agree is as valuable as feedback I do [agree with] because it hones my own editorial instincts.” The job of the person receiving critique is to hear it, think about it, and then decide what, if anything, to do with it.
Finally, how do you find a writing group? Graduate school is an easy place to find your people, but you don’t have to go after a degree to meet other writers. Writing classes through Adult Education in your area are a great place to meet like-minded writers. Libraries often have writing groups, too. And most states have writing organizations. In my home state of Maine, for instance, has Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance which offers a variety of ways for writers to connect. Then there are national organizations like the Writers Guild of America and writing conferences like AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) which can foster relationships.
For a long time, I was shy about my writing and a little scarred from a bad workshop experience, and so I did go it alone. But being in a writing group with trusted writers has made me a better, more astute, more generous writer and I can’t really imagine going back to writing alone.
by Jen Dupree