In an issue of The Writer’s Chronicle from a few years ago, teacher Catherine Wallace wrote an interesting article on how to solicit feedback from editors, teachers, classmates, friends, family, whomever. I found it helpful. She discussed the dangers of fault-finding criticism while outlining what kind of feedback she believes is most helpful, arguing that caring for a manuscript is not unlike raising children: you must praise them for behaving. Otherwise, fault-finding reverses creative momentum, driving the writer back to what’s already written instead of onward toward the development of the essential vision and into more useful imaginative energy.
She urges the writer to be “clear and explicit with your readers about what you want from them.” Ask them to underline or circle whatever words, phrases, passages strike them as “memorable, evocative, effective or just plain fun.” Invite them to explain in the margin what they liked.
She also says ask readers to insert question marks in the margins at “any place where they get lost, or bored, or confused” along with a brief explanation on why. She walks a fine line here between traditional fault-finding and her new approach which includes interviewing the writer about the “blurry” areas. If a writer can speak about what they’re aiming for in a passage or paragraph, she says, the writer can get to an “a-ha” moment that will clarify what they need to do. In long-distance editing this isn’t always realistic and without a trained professional sometimes impossible. But her vision on “muddled passages” being akin to “growing edges” where a reader’s need to “fix” them will ultimately stymie the “new growth that might have happened” is a gentle, nurturing approach to strengthening weak areas of a manuscript. She sees troubles not as problems but as a doorway. Then again, she does mention Harry Potter.
Regardless, it’s a compassionate outlook on creating art that one might argue will sidestep the hard work of making a piece great rather than just good. But Wallace insists that these succinct requests work because they will glean specific feedback instead of generalizations. She also says it works because when readers point to the passages or words that “shimmer” on the page, there’s an energy connection there, a small success that the writer can use as a model to recreate elsewhere in the manuscript.
I liked Wallace’s approach if only because it gave me a guiding template to use when I share my work with others — more than just “tell me what you think.” It also gives me a bit more of a compassionate plan toward myself than I would otherwise as well. Getting feedback on a manuscript is a fragile business. You might be asking for a whole lot of hurt — a lot of which you might not even agree with. And the one thing I’ve learned from working as an editor is that a good editor will help an author shape the story he or she is trying to get at rather than rewrite the story as if the editor had written it him or herself. I think Wallace helps a writer get that kind of feedback. She says, “I offer you another set (of tools)… they are both demanding and gracious, which is to say they will help you grow both as a reader and as a writer. And maybe as a person too…”
She’s probably right.