Sunday, April 19, 2015

Two Tips for Giving Peer Feedback

Maybe you're part of a writing group, a student in a creative writing workshop, or just peer-editing a friend's paper. No matter your situation, we at the Writing Center know how complicated it can be to give honest, helpful feedback.

These two tips should help you to be help others--without making enemies.

1. Set Feedback Rules

For beginning writers especially, good taste in writing comes easier than actually being able to create good writing. It means you probably won't like each other's work the way you like other things you've read. Discussing problems with a story may become easier than discussing strengths.

But as long as you know each other's boundaries, you can navigate this terrain. Ask each member if they want both positive and negative feedback. If they are ready for negative feedback, ask them if they prefer observations or advice. Trying to prescribe solutions may take away the fun and independence of writing from the writer.

I, for example, have never once used the solution that someone else came up with. Now, I don't know if that's because of pride or because others simply can't rewrite your story the way that you can, but it doesn't matter. Advice works better when it's invited.

Also, be sure to consider how your discussions begin and end. Would you rather dig into the opportunities for improvement first or after a little buffer of praise? The sandwich method (praise, problems, praise) may sound good, but it can be hard to pay attention to encouragement after your peers have pointed out a weak spot in the writing. That said, who wants to end on a bad note?

2. Believe in Your Peers

In writing groups, what I worry about is not taking a risk and failing. After about six workshops, I've come to accept that a lot of my risks will fail. What I worry about is the way people in workshops take the group setting as permission to turn off their trusting side.

When we read published writers, we often accept that our confusion may be our own fault. Now, you may not be in a group of published writers, but that shouldn't stop you from reading with belief in every writer's abilities.

I know it's easier to read a peer's work with probably too much awareness that the author is in a group designed for writers who want to improve. Yes, pointing out issues can help the writer, but confusing sections may smooth themselves out, given enough time.

It's a good reading practice to suspend your disbelief the first time you read a piece. Be a believer. Trust the writer. Then reread the document with a more critical eye.

In my first workshop, I fell victim to that kind of doubt in myself and everyone else. "It's not like any of us are one of the greats," I thought. So why should any of us get a free pass?

But who needs that attitude?

Tell yourself that the writer did everything for a reason. Respect the writer's authority, just as you would want them to respect yours. For the first reading at least, treat them like a prophet with a direct line to Truth. Treat 'em like one of the greats.

Ever since I started reading this way, I write better feedback. My peers seem happier. And best of all, every time I go to a workshop, I get to surround myself with prophets, with the greats.


  1. Really useful tips for how to approach other writers' work. If only Hannah Horvath had read something like this before turning everyone at Iowa against her in season four of Girls.

    But I wonder, do you think the same advice holds when we're giving feedback on academic writing. Should we approach what we read during a peer-review session in a History or Sociology class as believers?

  2. I would say yes for the first reading, if only to see more clearly what the writer is attempting. Of course, it may not be possible to ever fully withhold judgment until the second reading.

  3. Your experience on both sides of the reader-responder experience sets up a helpfully nuanced set of tips and reminders.