How to Give Feedback … and Avoid Killing the Writer
by Mary Ellen Stepanich
Before I retired, I was a professor of Organizational Behavior. I always said to my students, “I’m very organized, but my behavior leaves a lot to be desired.”
Once upon a time, during my tenure at the university in the late ‘90s, I was called as a prospective juror. When I told the judge I was a professor of Organizational Behavior, he asked me, “What is Organizational Behavior, anyway?”
I replied, “It’s the study of human behavior in organizations of work with a view to improving the performance of individuals and groups so as to increase the performance outcome for the organization and satisfaction for the members.”
The judge said, “I don’t want you organizing my jury. You’re excused.”
One of the topics we discussed in my classes was the tricky issue of giving feedback to employees to improve their performance without destroying their desire to perform. I think the same principles apply when we’re giving feedback to the writers in our critique groups.
Just about everyone I know hates to receive criticism, even constructive criticism. We perceive it to be an attack on our right to be alive on this planet and breathe the same air as our critics. We tend to overlook the fact that the criticism just might contain a grain of truth, and may help us to become better employees/writers/singers/actors/children/parents/neighbors. (A word of caution here –I recommend you avoid giving criticism, even constructive criticism, to neighbors, parents, and in-laws.)
There are essentially two types of criticism in writers critique groups: line editing and content editing. Line editing typically involves correcting punctuation and grammar, whereas content editing refers to the manner in which the writer expresses him/herself and the completion of logical thought flow. When one critiques content, it often comes across as denigrating an author’s unique “style.” Let’s face it – the laws of grammar, punctuation, and “rules of writing” have evolved over the years, and what was once considered wrong is often now simply a matter of opinion.
Take the Oxford Comma, for example. I saw a posting on Facebook today that said, “You can take my Oxford Comma only when you pry it from my cold, dead, and lifeless hands.” When I took high school English, we were taught that in a series of three or more nouns, you did NOT put a comma in front of the final conjunction, “and.” That’s what the “and” was for. Example: “He brought an apple, an orange and a lemon.” However, the Oxford Comma is used in addition to the conjunction. Example: “He also brought a sandwich, some chips, and a Coke.” (Sorry, I guess I’m hungry.)
Offering comma criticism can create a bit of animosity among writers-group members. It’s true that comma usage can cause confusion in the reader, as illustrated by that wonderful book, Eats Shoots and Leaves. Put a comma after “Eats” only, and you’re writing about a hungry hit man who’s in a hurry to get away. No commas? You’re writing about a panda.
But if you’ve read any news items lately, you’ll notice very few commas, even where most of us think there should be one or two. I tend to use my experience as a singer to guide me in comma usage. If I need a breath while reading a passage aloud, then I insert a comma.
When you recognize that any critique of another person’s writing is based largely on one’s own literary style, you might temper your criticism with these cautions about giving feedback. At least, these are a few of the principles that I recall from my years of teaching:
- Use “I” messages, rather than “you” messages. Example: “I’d like to see more in this section that foreshadows the trauma that will result from his actions.” Avoid saying, “You should say more here about … etc.”
- Give people an escape clause, by offering alternatives. Example: “There are several possibilities that might work here, such as … etc.”
- Temper any criticism with some positive feedback. Example: “I really like how you have described the heroine’s looks, but the reader needs to know more about her emotions at this point.”
I’m sure there are many more helpful ways to offer critiques to fellow writers. So please, offer your own suggestions in comments below, and then maybe we can provide feedback to our fellow writers in such a way that we avoid the pencil stab in the back as we leave the meeting room.
Dr. Mary Ellen Stepanich is a retired professor of organizational behavior who always told her students at Purdue, “I’m very organized, but my behavior is a bit wonky.” She has published articles in academic journals (boring), show scripts for barbershop choruses and quartets (funny), and an award-winning radio play, “Voices from the Front,” for Sun Sounds of Arizona (heartrending). Mary Ellen lives in Peoria, Arizona, with her cat, Cookie, and blogs on her website, MaryEllenStepanich.com.