|Photo by Cara Lopez Lee|
I learned the hard way, the first time I judged a writing contest. I meant to be empathetic and constructive when I told a writer that her story about financial hardship was an opportunity to broaden readers’ minds. Unfortunately, I included this: “…take a moment to explain why you couldn’t get a better job.” She was outraged, believing I was judging her for not having a better job. Egads, that wasn’t what I meant at all! I was just suggesting she write more detail. I was a professional writer and I had failed to communicate.
I felt terrible.
I had many positive teaching experiences before that, so I chose to see this as an opportunity to improve. I sought more training and a new perspective on feedback. Creative writing is always deeply personal, fiction or non, and I’ve learned that’s why it’s important for feedback to be both compassionate and detached.
I’ve since developed a reputation among coaching clients, writing colleagues, and students for giving feedback that encourages and motivates. Here are a few tips that have helped me:
1) I take responsibility for my opinion by emphasizing “I” statements over “you” statements. This helps writers take feedback as opinion, rather than personal blame or praise, encouraging them to decide whether their writing needs to change or just needs another audience. For example:
- I’d like to know more about this character’s relationship with his father.
- I’m confused here. Is it possible to clarify?
- I find myself wondering how this character felt when she saw the body.
- The opening effectively introduces the character’s motivation: her father betrayed her, and she has never trusted men since.
- The dialogue in this section didn’t feel realistic to me. I had a hard time believing a three-year-old would talk that much about death.
- What do these people really want in this relationship?
- What’s at stake for the protagonist?
- I like that she notices his cologne. As a reader, I’d be interested to know exactly what he smells like to her and how that scent affects her.”
- From a female audience’s perspective, this kind of language might sound sexist, which might make it difficult to root for him.
- I don’t understand why he reacted that way. I’d like to know more.
- How does meeting someone else who has lived with this kind of secret affect him?
7) I try to spend as much time on strengths as challenges. It’s important for writers to recognize what’s working, so they can lean into that. What’s more, writers who regularly receive feedback want to know whether their changes are effective.
By giving feedback with compassionate detachment, I’ve discovered something unexpected. In the powerful movie Whiplash, the megalomaniacal music teacher declares: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” I disagree. When I emphasize what’s working and simply ask questions about the rest, my students improve faster – especially the geniuses.
|Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.|