How to give feedback that encourages learning without crushing creativity.

When I first started writing fiction, I had no idea what I was doing. I just started typing. Over time, I have learned a lot but every time I improve in one aspect of my writing, I find a new skill that I need to try to master. I still have a lot of learning to do and the best way for me to improve my writing is to receive constructive feedback.

I have received feedback from writing courses, conferences, contests, editors, agents, authors, family, and friends. Some feedback was positive and some was negative. Some feedback was good and some was bad. I make this distinction because positive does not necessarily mean good and negative does not necessarily mean bad.

Constructive criticism is good regardless of whether the evaluation of the writing and story were positive or not. My very best feedback has come from people who were honest and specific about what they didn’t like and what wasn’t working. Below is my advice for giving feedback that encourages learning without crushing creativity or spirits. First, please read an abridged version of a poem that I used to have hanging in my office when I was a social worker in the school system. It explains the importance of teaching without discouraging.

The Little Boy – Helen E. Buckley

Once a little boy went to school.
He was quite a little boy
And it was quite a big school.
But when the little boy
Found that he could go to his room
By walking right in from the door outside
He was happy;
And the school did not seem
Quite so big anymore.

One morning
When the little boy had been in school awhile,
The teacher said:
“Today we are going to make a picture.”
“Good!” thought the little boy.
He liked to make all kinds;
Lions and tigers,
Chickens and cows,
Trains and boats;
And he took out his box of crayons
And began to draw.

But the teacher said, “Wait!”
“It is not time to begin!”
And she waited until everyone looked ready.
“Now,” said the teacher,
“We are going to make flowers.”
“Good!” thought the little boy,
He liked to make beautiful ones
With his pink and orange and blue crayons.
But the teacher said “Wait!”
“And I will show you how.”
And it was red, with a green stem.
“There,” said the teacher,
“Now you may begin.”

The little boy looked at his teacher’s flower
Then he looked at his own flower.
He liked his flower better than the teacher’s
But he did not say this.
He just turned his paper over,
And made a flower like the teacher’s.
It was red, with a green stem.

And pretty soon
The little boy learned to wait,
And to watch
And to make things just like the teacher.
And pretty soon
He didn’t make things of his own anymore.

Then it happened
That the little boy and his family
Moved to another house,
In another city,
And the little boy
Had to go to another school…

And the very first day
He was there,
The teacher said:
“Today we are going to make a picture.”
“Good!” thought the little boy.
And he waited for the teacher
To tell what to do.
But the teacher didn’t say anything.
She just walked around the room.

When she came to the little boy
She asked, “Don’t you want to make a picture?”
“Yes,” said the little boy.
“What are we going to make?”
“I don’t know until you make it,” said the teacher.
“How shall I make it?” asked the little boy.
“Why, anyway you like,” said the teacher.
“And any color?” asked the little boy.
“Any color,” said the teacher.
“If everyone made the same picture,
And used the same colors,
How would I know who made what,
And which was which?”
“I don’t know,” said the little boy.
And he began to make a red flower with a green stem.

Let’s say that writing a story is akin to the little boy drawing a flower. We need to be taught, but we don’t want to be forced to regurgitate the teacher’s idea of what our creation should be. Instead, we would like critics to help us realize our idea with better skill.

So, how should we give constructive criticism to writers without discouraging them into quitting or inadvertently turning them into robots who produce carbon copied stories ?

Not as Helpful

Your story is good

Your story is bad

Your story should be different

You forgot a question mark on page 47 (although, this is also appreciated)

 

Helpful

  • The scenes a) b) and c) drew me in because there was a lot of action and you were showing me what was happening rather than just telling me after the fact. During scenes d) and e) there was less tension and I felt less engaged because it wasn’t clear why that goal was important to the main character at that time.
  • It was difficult to care about what happened to the character in the beginning scene because not enough time was spent getting to know him.
  • At times the character’s voice seemed to fluctuate between being young and naïve and being mature and wise beyond his years. Example…
  • It didn’t feel like a true love triangle because it was obvious throughout the story who her choice was going to be. Development of her relationship with the other character is necessary to feel that she is really torn in her decision.
  • It was unclear why scene f) happened when it did. If it happened later, it would help to build suspense.
  • Your writing is clear, but there are times when the pace slows down as in scene d) J) m)
  • The interaction between character a) and g) in the diner feels a little over written. Try to leave out details a) b) and c) to let the reader come to their own conclusions.
  • I found myself skimming through the journal entries because they were long and relied on telling what happened rather than pulling the reader into the action.
  • When the main character did (such and such) it felt inconsistent with how he acted in other situations and it wasn’t clear why he made that change. Make something happen to him to explain why he altered his beliefs and behaviour.
  • I was hoping that (such and such) would happen, but the story went in a different direction and it was never revisited.
  • There were too many characters in scene c) and so much time was spent on an interaction with character d) I thought he would play an important role, but he was never mentioned again.
  • There are places where your paragraphs use the same sentence structure ie) repetitive use of “but”, repetitive use of “that”, repetitive use of “and then” etc.

There are obviously many additional helpful comments that could give an author something specific and concrete to work on without making them feel like they can’t write at all. We can’t all write like Shakespeare or Steven King, but that’s okay because there are a lot of readers who don’t like to read Shakespeare or Steven King.

Every writer has to start somewhere and if they are willing to learn, you might as well share what you know to help them improve on the vision they set out to create. Don’t expect them to write the story you envisioned and don’t discourage them from creating, but still say something. If you don’t say anything, they can’t learn.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read, evaluate, and honestly critique my work. Every opinion helps in one way or another and without people who are willing to invest the time, I would not be able to improve.

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One thought on “How to give feedback that encourages learning without crushing creativity.

  1. I really appreciate this post, because I am in the process of writing my final project for my Master’s degree. I felt really fortunate when several people offered to be on my reading team, only to be so disappointed by a couple people’s feedback! Whether it is positive or negative, specificity is how we learn. It is a gift of the reviewer’s time & it is a gift to the creative process. Thanks for your post; I may use some of your suggestions as examples of helpful critique!

    Like

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