The writer's guide to giving unhelpful feedback

Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

For years I’ve been participating in, and facilitating, writing workshops. I’ve been doing this as a member of writers’ groups, a student and a teacher of writing. These experiences serve as the basis for this guide, which I hope will help you improve your ability to give unhelpful feedback. Mastering this skill is very useful in promoting your own career by impeding those of your fellow writers.

In this guide, I offer a variety of strategies illustrated with examples borrowed from experts in the field. Note that you’re likely to encounter here several types of feedback you’re already well familiar with. Do not doubt their usefulness though. Remember, clichés become clichés for a good reason.

Strategy # 1- Be as nice as possible. Protect the fragile ego of the workshopping writer by praising her work unconditionally. In this way, not only will you not help your colleague to improve, but you’ll also avoid the unpleasantness of saying something uncomfortable. This is what I call a win-win situation.

Strategy # 2- Even if you absolutely cannot see anything wrong with the work, you should still identify weaknesses in it. This strategy works in exactly the opposite way to the previous one, but is no less effective. This tactic may not only prevent a better work than yours from getting published, but can also earn you a reputation as an insightful critic who notices problems that everyone else overlooks. Just be mindful not to employ this tactic in the same setting as the first one. In short, be generous but strategic about how you distribute your unhelpful feedback.

Strategy # 3- Give feedback that is as definitive and opaque as you can master about things that in your opinion are not good, so that with any luck the workshopper will give up on writing to pursue a gardening passion: “The ending doesn’t work”. Or even better: “Your story doesn’t flow”. Never support your claims with evidence from the work or with suggestions on how to improve it. Yet – to preserve your image as an insightful critic – justify your observations by referring to feelings: “It just doesn’t feel right”. Such references will only enhance your reputation as a sensitive writer, all of which, of course, count towards your own brilliant literary career.

Strategy # 4- Ensure that you assess works of other writers through the prism of your own interests. An example: “Cats are fascinating animals with lots of behavioural quirks. Did you know, for example, that if your cat is near you and its tail is quivering that this is its way to say ‘I love you’? So, I wonder, why in your story does the cat appear in only one sentence? Can you elaborate more on the cat character?”

Strategy # 5- A detailed discussion of punctuation errors that will take up most of the workshopping session’s time can be very effective. To prolong this as much as possible, I suggest citing at-length examples from the work, while also consulting your peers on their own comma-related opinions.

Strategy # 6 - Bring the political into the personal. Make sure you vigilantly defend any minority’s rights. For example, if someone mentions that their character is Jewish, accuse them of being racist for defining people according to their ethnic background. Do not let writers get away with swear words either. Also object whenever your male colleagues express any complicated feelings about the other sex, unless their views are what you consider to be “correct”. Attack any works you deem to be “sexist”. On this last note, I think it is a shame that Milan Kundera and Henry Miller never attended writers’ groups. We could have set them straight, ensuring that such books as 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and 'Tropic of Cancer' never happened.

Strategy # 7 -Lose no time in curtailing any work that is complex and challenging. Say it is “too confusing”, there are “too many jumps in time” and everything needs to be “unpacked”. If the writer in question submits a short story, you can say: “This story is so rich. It really needs to be a novel”. This strategy has a secondary benefit. It not only prevents your peers from producing something worthwhile, and possibly truly original, but also means that if your advice is taken on board, the next workshopping instalment will take much less mental effort to read.

Strategy # 8 - Make it clear that some writing genres are more worthy than others, depending on your own preferences. For example, you can say: “Nobody should be writing crime fiction. But if you set your novel during mediaeval times on Venus and turn the killer into a Martian vampire, this may work”.

Strategy # 9 - Strongly discourage writers from writing anything based on their personal experiences, particularly if these experiences are something you do not approve of: “Did you really need to get depressed and ruin your marriage? Why waste time on such a navel-gazing story when instead you can produce a book about the struggle of Congolese people?”

Strategy # 10 - Wave around the well-worn flag of “show don’t tell”, allowing no exceptions. In this way, you’ll eliminate any budding Gustave Flauberts, Alice Munros or Joan Didions well before they bloom their showing-and-telling blossoms.

Strategy # 11 - Do not hesitate to use the workshopped works as springboards for memories dear to your heart: “This ship journey to England you described is so evocative. It reminds me of the time when my parents took us to…”, or for airing opinions you enjoy sharing: “I can definitely appreciate your character’s struggle with unemployment. In my view, our government needs to develop a much better policy on…”.

Strategy # 12 - Whether you workshop fiction or non-fiction, do not let writers get away with putting in any ‘difficult’ characters, the kind you personally would not want to invite to a dinner party. In your feedback, assess these characters as you would prospective friends: “The main character really annoyed me. Why did she have to be so mean to everyone?” I wonder how Nabokov got away with Humbert Humbert…

A closely related strategy is to generally persuade writers to “lighten” their works. After all, the last thing you’re interested in is to nurture a future Shakespeare in your writing group. An effective way to prevent such a problem is to say in your feedback: “Your writing is too dark and depressing. You’d do better to write something uplifting next time”.

A concluding remark: If you identify other experts giving unhelpful feedback in your workshopping group, run for your (writing) life.

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is the Israeli-Australian author of three fiction books (in Hebrew). Her short fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in English has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Best Australian Essays, Griffith Review, Creative Nonfiction (US), Brand (UK) and Malahat Review (Canada) among many others. She is the recipient of an Australian Council grant, a Varuna Flagship Fellowship, several other writing residencies and an ASA mentorship. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Lee has been teaching and mentoring writers for the last ten years in a variety of places, including Writers Victoria.