Saturday, July 21, 2012
Feedback - writer's nectar (warning: long post)
I get asked for advice a lot and I give advice a lot especially in my role as an English teacher. As I write this, my senior students are finishing off their writing internals (these are writing tasks assessed against a nationally assessed standard which, here in New Zealand, is called NCEA)
During the day, I watch my students beaver away at their writing and they come to me for feedback - most of the time I can't give them what the really really want to hear: what mark would you give this (without me officially submitting it for assessment)? what do I need to do to get an Excellence (the top mark one can get)? Is this enough to pass? Is it any good?
I can't answer most of those questions because the conditions of assessment restrict what I can say. I can usually answer the last one and I love it when I can say: I really liked/enjoyed what you wrote.
Mostly, I can comment generally about the structure of the piece ("Your start really grabbed me/I found the start confusing" or "It ends too suddenly/I didn't understand what happened at the end/I LOVED the way you tied it all up!") or about the ideas ("I think you need to clarify what it is exactly you want to say" or "I would like to know more about some of the things you say in the second paragraph") and/or the mechanics ("Watch tone/use of commas/apostrophes/spelling...").
Almost always, I can tell my feedback is unsatisfying.
Yesterday, I was able to hand back one class's writing internal marks. Many were pleased just to have passed; a number were philosophical about their marks - understanding that they could have gained a higher grade if they had taken more care with the mechanics. One student blushed when I told her the result:
"You got an Excellence," I said. "It was a very effective and convincing piece."
"I've never got an Excellence in English before," she said.
I then gave some more specific feedback about how much I like the strong sense of personal voice, the way she used imagery to describe the farm and the sensitive and reflective touches which really lifted the piece.
I swear she walked out of the classroom two feet off the ground.
During the evening and on weekends, like my students during the day, I beaver away on the re-writes for Birthright.
This morning I received a couple of emails from my agent. They were feedback from two sections I'd sent of my rewrite and I hope he doesn't mind me repeating them here on this blog:
I'm done with the first set of chaps and reading the second. I think it's awfully good. Couple of things, but I'll give you more info when I am done later today.
...I'm around 15 pages from the end. I think you've done an absolutely marvelous
job to this point, particularly the first section you sent to us. In the second, I think Flea and Blair spend a little too long getting to Philip's village...it feels a little meandering. Your short spicy chapters in the first bit were very effective, though.
I'll finish this afternoon if traffic out to New Jersey doesn't get me...and will email you tomorrow night. The upshot, though, is that I am generally very happy with
what you've done.
A few things I want to say about how valuable this feedback is:
Firstly, it made me feel FANTASTIC because it was confirmation that I wasn't wasting my time on the re-write.
Secondly,it confirmed my belief in my editor and that her brilliant suggestions were spot on and she was right and I was right to follow them.
Thirdly, the comment about 'spend[ing] a little too long' has made me take stock of the section I'm working on right now and is a reminder that this story is mostly an adventure/action story. I am very much inclined to spend time writing deep philosophy which is all very well but not so good for what I'm doing.
Getting feedback is like having a coach as you run a marathon; it's like someone handing you a cup of cool nectar; without it, I think I would shrivel up and not finish the race.