Last week, we looked at the Tony-winning musical A Strange Loop and the lessons it offers about facing discouragement with your writing. We learned that a lot of our despair about our work comes from voices of the past that cause us to doubt our abilities.
Fortunately, though, writing isn’t just about you being alone with your voices. It’s also about joining with other writers to find community, encouragement, and help in time of need.
Community matters at Inkling Creative Strategies. Our name even comes from the Inklings, the creative fellowship C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien formed at Oxford. It’s why I work with writers to help them reach their full creative potential so they can impact and inspire readers.
But encouraging fellow writers isn’t just for professional writers and editors. You can provide the help your creative friends desperately need no matter who you are or what your background may be.
It doesn’t take years of experience or a creative writing degree to give encouragement and helpful critiques. Commenting on someone’s work with honesty, kindness, and selflessness can lead to powerful, supportive friendships with other writers.
Don’t Try to Remake the Story in Your Own Image
We each have our own writing style, including approaches to sentence structure, dialogue, and description. But just because something works for you doesn’t mean that it will be helpful your friend’s creative writing.
When I was in my grad program for creative writing, I had a classmate who wrote flash fiction. His stories were compressed into just one or two paragraphs and bordered on the bizarre, taking readers into surreal landscapes packed with imagery and emotion.
At the time, I was writing sprawling historical dramas, so this wasn’t exactly my thing. Most of the critique I offered had to do with my reactions to the stories and the ideas that I felt were significant.
I wanted to be helpful, but I wasn’t sure how much I could do that when I wasn’t sure what constituted a successful example of such stories.
By the end of the semester, though, I discovered that my approach was exactly what this writer needed. It turned out that he was receiving a lot of critiques from classmates who felt he was merely writing the same piece over and over again and that his work lacked depth.
He told me that my simple statements about how I responded to and interpreted each story helped him gauge how successful his stories.
It didn’t matter that his style “wasn’t my thing.” What mattered to him was that I cared enough to try to understand and help with something outside my comfort zone.
I could have easily given him feedback on how to make his stories more conventional. But that would have been selfish on my part, an attempt to make his work reflect my own vision of what makes a good story.
We should always choose to empathize and understand a fellow writer’s approach instead of dismissing it for not meeting our own standards.
Analyze Your Reactions
Similarly, your instinctual responses to a piece of creative writing can often be a guide to what feedback you should give. Many writers make the mistake of thinking that their critiques have to be filled with deep, academic readings of their friends’ stories.
However, simply focusing on your emotional responses and describing them can be a good indicator to writers of how successful they were in their creative intentions.
For example, if the writer intends for you to like the main character, but you find her insufferable and conceited instead, that might be an indicator that they need to reevaluate how that character is portrayed.
A critique that outlines your res
ponses to the story can be just as effective as one that digs into the specific technique of the work, perhaps even more so.
Believe it or not, this is the style that I use when I critique manuscripts of Inkling clients. I discussed this formula in depth in a post awhile back, but the basis of it is to answer two questions about a piece you read:
What parts of it did you like?
What worked for you? What was your favorite part? Outline all the things you found glorious and inspirational about the piece.
At what points did you feel confused? This confusion could relate to the events of the plot, the character’s backstory, or dialogue that doesn’t seem consistent with the way you think they would talk.
They’re simple questions, but they can reveal a lot to the author about what is working and what needs to be explored further.
Offer Solutions, Not Just Criticism
Another mistake in giving feedback is simply making a list of problems you see in the piece without providing any specific ways to solve them.
A critique that includes tons of notes about what needs to be fixed will overwhelm the author and inflict even more of that discouragement we’ve been talking about. And in case you haven’t gotten the point yet, this is not the effect you want your feedback to have.
What follows is kind of a trite strategy given that I used it when I taught freshman composition, but it nonetheless works. It’s called the Feedback Sandwich.
First, you give a positive comment. Then, you give a critical statement about the work. Last, you flip the script by offering a solution to the problem.
Example: I think your main character is really interesting. You do a good job of giving us a lot of information about her background. I got confused in some parts, though, because she sometimes acts very high-minded, which not only wore on me as a reader, but seems inconsistent with what we know about her past. I am interested in knowing more about what causes that behavior and how it fits in with her backstory—it would help me a lot to have an explanation for that disconnect.
This is a successful critique because it shows how what’s working about the story is connected with places where the author could make it even more effective.
Be Kind and Helpful
As we saw in last week’s post, there are a million voices in our heads trying to make us think our work as writers doesn’t matter. We are easily distracted, discouraged, and derailed from our creative purposes.
Whenever you comment on someone’s writing, your feedback has the potential to either build that person up or tear them down, to give them the burst of excitement they need to keep going or drain their energy and stop their momentum.
Ask yourself . . . is the feedback I’m providing on my friend’s creative offering kind?
Is it helpful? Will it spur them on to create more, or cause them to feel hopeless?
We should always choose to be generous with our feedback, having the best interests of our creative friends at heart as well as the work itself.
Do you need some feedback on your writing? I’ve got a couple ideas . . .
First, grab a copy of my free Revision Scorecard. It helps you pinpoints the most common structural weakness of early drafts and lets you score yourself to learn which areas you need to focus on the most.
You can use it for your own work, as well as a guide for giving feedback to friends.
Also…if you’ve got questions about revision, feedback, or have specific concerns to talk about, grab some time on my calendar for a complimentary 30-minute Virtual Meetup on Zoom. I love connecting with writers and would be glad to talk about whatever’s on your mind.
Click here to learn more about these meetings and set one up.