Getting Feedback

Receiving feedback is always an exciting moment: months, maybe years of hard graft released from your hard drive, fired along the interweb, and then experienced by another human being. Waiting for it can be a twitcher: those ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ shooting through your mind; those doubts about some of those commas you changed to semicolons that you now think you should’ve left. Worse still: those doubts about the characters or story itself.

If you’re giving feedback to strangers (or even friends) the sandwich approach is a good way to go. The sandwich approach involves: noting positives in the first paragraph (top of the bun); something a little more ‘analytical’ in the next (meat and salad); finally, concluding with a positive general overview and a few suggestions on how to fix that dodgy filling (bottom of the bun). (Note to my present reader: as I’m well and truly onto the sandwich approach, just skip it. Failing that, make it a Big Mac.)

The sandwich approach works well because vague praise alluding to how great everything is without any supporting details is less than useless. Equally, nobody wants to read that their book should be left to rot, sinking deeper into their hard drive, never to sully human eyes again. Therefore, the sandwich approach is a good way to highlight what’s working and what is not.

Different drafts require different types of feedback. A first draft will likely fall apart under scrutiny, but that’s okay: it’s a first draft and the reader should be looking for story potential, emerging voice and developing characters. A few paragraphs from a reader should be enough to inform the writer about major points. By a late or final draft, the writer should have developed those things already, and the reader may well have changed focus to the sentence or even word level.

However, even in a final draft there still might be story problems. You hope not. God you hope not, but if three readers say: “this part drags”, chances are there’s a pace issue there and you need to reconsider. Even so, story is ultimately subjective and even though three readers agree on the same point, you as the writer have to make the final call on whether to leave it or revise it. Whether a writer’s being precious or stubborn is a question only that writer can answer. But consider this: why ask for feedback in the first place if all you do is dismiss anything negative?

Regarding grammar issues, if it’s a genuine mistake, you’ll be glad your reader’s stopped you looking foolish, as it will, no doubt, be repeated throughout, redirecting your project to the slush pile or resulting in low sales on CreateSpace. It’s worth saying, however, to challenge a reader’s grammatical input, double-checking that they’re correct. Investing in a good grammar book is the only way to go. If you’re breaking grammar rules as a literary effect (fragments for example) this only counts if you know the rules you’re breaking in the first place. However, if those rule breaks aren’t consistent throughout then it just looks like a typo.

Perhaps more on this topic as the feedback process unfolds. Right now, I’m off to make a sandwich.

Next week, Andrew Oberg takes a look at creative writing classes.

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4 Comments

  1. Andrew
    Posted January 15, 2011 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    Where’s the Ulysses reference?

    Good info. here; my brother once said he uses the sandwich approach with his high school students (but never mistake him for an English teacher!). Personally, I guess my brain goes more automatically to the sentence and word level when I do feedback, sometimes I have to take a step back (or be instructed to do so) to look at the broader picture. With personality issues like these I think it’s definitely worth getting a few people to read your later drafts if you can.

  2. Paul
    Posted January 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Been no Joyce for a while now. However if you’re missing him:

    “He can kiss my royal Irish arse, Myles Crawford cried loudly over his shoulder. Any time he likes, tell him.”

    Freezing here. Walking to the shops is an adventure for Bear Grylls

  3. Posted January 19, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Hi Paul. I used to have a boss who called it a ‘Sh*t Sandwich.’ I’m sure you alredy knew the term however and are just more of a gentleman than I.
    Meanwhile, I wonder if Bear Grylls and Ray Mears are best buddies or sworn enemies?

  4. Paul
    Posted January 19, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Mark, your ex-boss has a point.

    RE: Grylls and Mears — sworn enemies I believe. Mears once called him ‘the boy scout’. Amusingly, this became literal when Grylls was later appointed Chief Scout.

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