What I’ve Learned from Giving Feedback on Writing

So much of being a writer, or any artist, is about receiving feedback from others. One must have the humility to learn what is working and not working with one’s art. Perhaps your sound is not “in the mask” as an opera singer when you are going to a particular passage, or you have a character who is underdeveloped as a writer, or your lines are not in the right planes as a ballet dancer. Other people have eyes that you don’t have for yourself; therefore, it is imperative to understand how other people are perceiving your work.

There is the flip side, which is what one can learn by giving feedback. In seeing the flaws of others, one can learn things that do or don’t work in a piece. It is hard to make general rules out of these things, because critiquing each piece or work of art or performing artist is so individual and specific. However, these are some things I have learned as a writer over the years of giving feedback to my colleagues and peers, and this is by no means an exhaustive or complete summary

-Detail. Detail must serve the thrust of the story or the piece of writing. Too many extraneous details are the darlings that one has to kill, as per the proverbial writing adage. Are they helping build character or plot, setting the scene so the reader understands the world that the writer is building? Some writers want to include every bit of minutiae, and the reader who is giving feedback is probably crossing out large sections with their pen. This is a very common problem one sees in manuscripts, and it is understandable. Any writer wants to tell the reader about everything that is in their head and create that same richness on the page.

-Backstory. This is such a tricky one. The reader needs enough backstory to feel grounded and understand the context of characters. Novels, by nature of their longer form, allow for more backstory, but this is not to say that short stories don’t require this as well. One of the trickiest questions with backstory is placement, for the writer is in danger of an “information dump” where they spill all the information about a character or something from the past when only parts of it are relevant to the present action. Also quite challenging is how much should be told and how much should be shown; will pieces of the backstory be revealed as the novel or story unfolds, or will it be up to the reader to deduce what has happened? Not enough backstory makes a piece of writing seem superficial and too much in real time; too much makes the piece static. Conventions of writing have changed over the past couple of centuries, and nowadays, there is a favoring of not explaining all the information from the past.

-How much does the reader know about a particular context or group of people or type of person? A 20-something may not appreciate a historical novel and want the writer to use more current conventions or imagery, not understand why a woman had to get married by the time she was 20. Whereas a senior citizen who is reading a story by a Brooklyn hipster may not understand the reason for using the present tense and trendy vocabulary. This becomes even more serious when looking at matters of race and culture: many African-American (and other non-white) writers have lamented the fact that white critiquers do not understand the literary conventions which the writer is coming from and are stuck in Eurocentric notions of “good” writing. Also, for writers who have a foot in the door in cultures overseas and are writing about non-American culture, there is always the challenge of knowing how much to explain or define particular terms. Generally speaking, immediate, overt descriptions come across as clumsy–i.e., “she ate a gulab jamun, an Indian dessert of fried milk and flour balls soaked in a sugar syrup flavored with rose.” The issue of culture/ethnicity is highly charged, and up for much debate. There is a fine line between a reader’s insensitivity or ignorance and a BIPOC writer’s weak craft that needs to be corrected, and it can be very difficult to know where that line is.

-The “architecture” of a piece. This relates to plot and structure and how events and character development are unfolding. Maybe a story should begin two pages in from where it currently begins, or maybe on page 9, there is a great sentence that really sums up the theme of the story and should be put at the beginning. Do the events feel organic? Is there clear causation, because it may not be evident to us readers? Sometimes things have to be shuffled around for the story or novel to flow better. 

            From my own experience recently, feedback I got from my Bread Loaf workshop led by Charles Baxter made me realize that I had to stop rotating various points of view so quickly and stay in one point of view for a longer period. This led me to re-sequence the first few chapters, and now it flows much more smoothly. And conversely, a story I read last week did not clearly lay out the premise at the beginning, and so I encouraged the writer to choose a paragraph or line from several pages in to put at the beginning to make the story’s intentions clearer.

-Point of view. There are times when a manuscript is suffering because of the wrong choice of point of view. Or perhaps the point of view keeps shifting. is this writer really saying what they want to say through the point of view they have chosen, or are they being limited by it? One story I read recently abruptly shifted to a minor character’s point of view, when omniscience would have been a better choice to encompass the lead character as well as the supporting characters.

-Is this the right form or length? Sometimes a story is aching to become a novel, because there is so much richness in it and such a large time span that it needs the space. Sometimes a story should be cut, because there is too much extraneous detail, and it can say what it wants in a short space. And then there is also the situation where a story can be a story in its current version, but have different versions: a longer one, a shorter one, or eventually developed into a novel or novella! This was the case recently in a writing workshop, where a story was quite interesting as it was, but it felt like it could be an episode in a Bildungsroman about the lead character.

These are only a few of the myriad of things I have learned from writers’ workshops for over the years. Hopefully these musings will be of interest to other writers because it is all too easy to look at the polished work of renowned writers and admire what they have done, but we have to be aware of the steps in the process.

What Makes for Good Writing (Part II)

As promised last time, the subject requires further consideration, so here is another post with more thoughts on elements of good or interesting writing.

-A story within a story. Sometimes these may be structured as a frame story, where the true heart of the novel or story lies inside an outer story that “frames” it. But sometimes this is not the case, and regardless of the structure, this stylistic device can be very fascinating. Most often, the inner story supports the larger narrative, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An interesting backstory about a particular character, for example, draws the reader in.

-Letters. This does not have to denote the novel as an epistolary novel. But a letter within a novel makes the reader feel privy to some sort of secret information, gives us a story within a story sometimes, and fills in some information we might not be able to get otherwise.

-Multiple angles from which to read it. This point will appeal more to the literary scholars and lit crit people, but great works of literature can be analyzed in many different ways. Dracula, for instance, could be read from Darwinian, Gothic novel, historical, Freudian, etc. etc. perspectives. Anna Karenina could be read as feminist, pre-Marxist, historical, Christian, and more. Same for Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. In other words, what this means is that there is a complexity and layering of ideas in these novels that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

-Pacing. A good novel or story will unfold its mysteries with timing that hooks the reader enough, without giving away all the information. It draws us in because we want to know what the next event is, the next revelation of information, how the character got to be the way they are, etc. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. In novels, there is more time, and the author can take her time getting to her point. In stories, however, the urgency must be felt upfront; things have to be resolved in a short span of time. But with both genres, the reader must be engaged from the beginning so that she can be emotionally invested in the narrative.

-Subtext. Charles Baxter is one of the leading experts on this craft issue, as one can read in The Art of Subtext. There is the level of what is being said, and the level of what is not being said. Are these at odds with each other? Do they support each other? Do we get enough of a sense of where the author is going with his/her message and themes? This is employed to greater or lesser degree by various authors, and some people might argue that some writers do not use this at all. Dialogue is one area in which subtext can really be evident.

And finally,

-Simply telling a good story. When I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, there was an elderly participant named Norton who was, literally, just a year short of 100. Hoping to benefit his wisdom, I asked him what his best advice was on writing. “Just tell a good story,” he waved my question away, saying that people get too caught up in technique and craft, etc. And I think this is really fabulous advice. One thing many literary agents will mention is that they want to keep reading past the first page. How often do we think of someone asking us to recommend A Good Book? A good book draws us in with a compelling story, makes us want to keep reading.