COMMENTING ON THE WORK
OF FELLOW WRITERS
HWW best practice & Open University guidelines
2) HWW best practice
3) The starting points
4) Giving feedback
5) Receiving feedback
Offering feedback on work brought to the Workshop on Thursdays is the single most important function of the Harlow Writers’ Workshop.
The constraints are obvious:
there are just two hours of meeting time
Adrienne or her deputy aims to give everybody present a chance to present work and receive feedback
there are frequently 15 or more members around the table.
To help the group achieve best use of the time available this guide summarises the Workshop best practice we have set ourselves. In addition, we have borrowed some helpful guidelines from the Open University about commenting on the work of fellow writers.
2 HWW BEST PRACTICE
We start at 10. Please arrive a few minutes early.
16 copies of work are required for distribution at each meeting.
Reading time is restricted to a maximum of 2 sides of A4 (in standard style 12pt proof layout).
Longer works may be read in instalments, week by week.
Discussion and feedback is centered on work brought to the table for that meeting.
There is no obligation on Members to produce new work – or any work - at each meeting attended.
Sometimes a Member may choose to bring old work, perhaps revisited and revised in the light of a previous Workshop reading.
3 THE STARTING POINTS FOR FEEDBACK (BASED ON OU GUIDELINES)
We are a group who share a common love – writing.
We bring our work to the Workshop to test it on a live audience.
Family and friends tend to be vaguely appreciative and supportive.
We rely on Workshop colleagues to be sincere and constructive.
The work being discussed on a Thursday is often raw, and embryonic.
Members may sometimes explore controversial topics that trespass on the personal values or feelings of others.
Their work may produce a strong emotional reaction.
That may be precisely the response the writer is aiming for.
The workshop exists to evaluate the writing.
It is perfectly acceptable to tell a colleague that the content offends you personally, and then proceed to offer an objective evaluation of the piece.
You also have the right – and perhaps sometimes the obligation - to remain silent.
The OU makes the point that it is not safe to assume that writings are strictly autobiographical, even if they appear to be.
The writing craft involves writing convincingly about things which may or may not have happened, but may well be based on the author’s direct or indirect experience. Asking if a colleague’s husband or mother-in-law really is like that can be inhibiting.
There are some writers who make no secret of the fact that they are life-writing directly from personal experience. Obviously for them the rule does not apply – but our attention should still be focused on evaluating the writing, not the events portrayed.
4) GIVING FEEDBACK (GUIDELINES INDICATED BY THE OU)
It is exceptionally difficult to respond adequately to a previously unseen piece of writing at point-blank notice. Therefore it is necessary to be highly selective about your responses.
Try to go beyond ‘I like that’, ‘I don’t like that’.
Show evidence for the claims you make.
Focus on specific aspects of the writing:
- for a prose piece you might select plot, or characterisation and/or character development, opening and conclusion, or scene-setting and atmosphere.
- for a poem it might be structure, precise word choices, intensity, or clarity of meaning.
If you think an aspect of the writing doesn’t work well try to analyse why.
On the other hand if you think something does work well try to analyse and comment on that, too.
By all means question the appropriateness of specific words or the use of punctuation but remember that the work is likely to be an early draft. The writer will probably place greatest value on reaction to the overall piece.
5) RECEIVING FEEDBACK (WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO THE OU)
Receiving feedback from your fellow writers can be confusing.
Your initial impulse may be to explain and defend your writing.
The impulse is natural, but can sabotage the possibility of illuminating feedback.
Try to be calm and curious ‘I’m not sure why you have made that comment, please explain.’
Try to remember that so-called negative feedback can occasionally be a gift IF it mobilises your imagination or brings a fresh insight into your work.
But whatever the feedback it is important not to rush into redrafting.
Suggestions may be welcome, but evaluate them carefully before you use them.
(You know: ‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee’).
And finally …
… YOU are the writer. If you don’t agree with advice you have been given remember that it has been offered in good faith, thank the advisor(s) – but you don’t have to take the advice!
This document is based on and quotes from the Open University leaflet ‘Start Writing Fiction: commenting upon the work of fellow writers’.