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The Power of One

20 January, 2011

Have you tried writing groups to get feedback, but found members give confusing or unhelpful comments? Perhaps you cannot find a writing group so have not had any feedback at all.

The latest Freefall Writing newsletter suggests the following:

This year, give yourself the gift of a wise, encouraging writing group—even if it’s just one other person!

What a great idea. Having one thoughtful and caring reader can be more satisfying than staying with a dysfunctional group or, if you are not in a group, not getting any comments about your work.

When trading work and feedback with another writer, it helps to establish some ground rules. The most important rule: Respond as a reader, not a critic. This means explaining what you think and feel as you read through the material.  Use the formula of  I + feeling: I thought, I liked, I was upset when, I was confused when . . . .

  • Tell what works for you
    Identify a story’s strong points  for you as reader. What got your attention, made you laugh, touched you? Be specific about where the strong points are and why they appeal.
    I found it so poignant when he left her that note because it brought out a new aspect of his character.
    When she went for a coffee instead of the job interview, I felt sorry that she didn’t understand she was going to lose everything.
    In the third paragraph, I couldn’t stop laughing at the image of the crocodile wandering into the camp.

  • Tell where the story starts to engage you
    Help your partner-writer sort out issues of content and pace by identifying where the story first grabs you, plus how and why.
    Right from the start I was sympathetic about the flood. You made it sound so menacing that I wanted to keep reading.
    It was when Dan started talking about his childhood that I became interested because I wondered what that would lead to. 

  • Tell where you want more or less
    Telling what you as reader would like more—or less—of in a story helps your partner-writer identify where to set the story’s emphasis or weight.  

    I really liked the surfer and wanted to read more about him.
    When Alicia turns against her boyfriend, I wanted to know more about why she thinks he’s such a problem.

    The section about the party was funny at first but then so many characters were introduced that I was confused.
    Ten pages about childbirth–I read two pages then skipped the rest.

  • Give specific  information, not general judgements
    Acting as an all-knowing critic and making general judgments about what is wrong or weak in your partner’s  story can be too confrontational. Restrict yourself as much as possible to identifying what you as reader do not understand or warm to—and be specific.

    CRITIC: This part of your story is underdeveloped.
    READER:  I was confused about why Monica decides to leave.

    CRITIC:  Your ending is too unrealistic.
    READER:  I felt let down at the end because everything George did up to that point was just the opposite of  his final act.

    CRITIC: You do too much telling and not enough showing.
    READER:  Dan says his teacher is a control freak but she doesn’t do anything controlling.

    CRITIC: Chop out that episode. It stinks.
    READER:  When Mary suddenly goes shopping, I started losing interest because I really wanted to know what she did with the body.

    CRITIC:  Make your character more likeable.
    READER:  I think I was supposed to like Nat but I found it hard because of the way he treated his dog.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. writernubbin permalink
    23 January, 2011 12:27 am

    This is a good encouraging post for me! Thank you 🙂


    • 24 January, 2011 8:23 am

      Hi, Took a look at your blog. I see we’re both mountain women, writing amidst various distractions. I enjoyed your post about the 3 things you’ve learned.


  2. 20 January, 2011 8:22 pm

    Great advice, Marsha.


    • 21 January, 2011 10:31 am

      Thanks, Robin. I was fortunate last year to have another writer with whom I traded stories. It was a positive experience and we’re going to continue.
      BTW, this week I’m having a residential at Varuna Writers’ House, with the brief to complete a short bio-data of the house’s original owners, famed Aussie writer Eleanor Dark and her husband Eric. Besides the writing I don’t know what I like best–looking out my 2nd story window at the garden or having great, conversational evenings with four other women while devouring a lovely, catered dinner.


  3. 20 January, 2011 7:12 pm

    Very helpful. I shall ensure my very small writing group (of three) reads and inwardly digests. It’s not easy criticising someone else’s work, but this is clear and straightforward, and to the point. Thank you.


    • 21 January, 2011 10:45 am

      Thanks Sophie. I think criticism is easier to take when it comes from the reader rather than critic perspective because it becomes a personal comment rather than a blanket pronouncement, if that makes sense. I enjoyed your poem on your website abot the Poet’s Tool Kit. I’m at a residential this week at Varuna Writers’ House, and this intense period of writing makes me think about a writer’s tools, what we take with us, what we need, and what we need to jettison.


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